Queenie McKenzie by Hannah Presley

Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).

Queenie McKenzie was a strong Gija woman from the East Kimberley. Her unyielding connection to her Country and culture was celebrated in the bold ochre paintings she created, depicting the mountains and rivers of her homelands. McKenzie began her artistic explorations drawing designs emulating the ceremonial body painting used in women’s business and later by embracing illustration as a way of teaching the children in her community. McKenzie spent her life living and working in the Texas Downs area, at Texas Downs Station in her early days and then Warmun (Turkey Creek).

A staunch member of her community, she negotiated protections for sacred women’s sites at the Argyle diamond mine and ensured women’s business continued. Throughout her life, her main focus was ensuring future generations were engaged in their culture and language.

Picking up a paintbrush in her later years, McKenzie was a prolific painter, confidently sharing her admiration for the geographical features that make up the East Kimberley landscape, including the tremendous Ord River and Purnululu (the Bungle Bungles). For as many years as she was able, McKenzie gathered her own ochres, which she would then mix into a variety of colours, creating her favourite palette of pinks and browns.

McKenzie was a close friend to artist Rover Thomas. Much like Thomas, McKenzie’s work focused on depictions of her Country, though in some works she shared insight into the social issues her community were grappling with, including alcoholism and the recent history of massacres.

Texas Hills 1994 is one of the largest works McKenzie painted, rendered in her vibrant, ochre shapes to build a vision of her Country that was as energetic and as lively as she was. Bold diamond shapes fill the canvas, delicately delineated by a single line of contrasting dots. The hills of her homelands are rendered in profile while the rivers and roads are often depicted from an aerial view, a recognisable element of McKenzie’s work. Her paintings are assembled from a mixture of viewpoints that come together to create a landscape built from memory and cultural knowing. ‘Every rock, every hill, every water, I know that place backwards and forwards, up and down, inside out. It’s my Country and I got names for every place.’(1)

Queenie McKenzie was an important cultural leader and artist who was compelled to share her culture. Her intimate connection and respect for her Country was generously celebrated in each of her works.

(1) Queenie McKenzie quoted in Patricia Vinnicombe, ‘Queenie McKenzie’, March 2000, at artlink.com.au/articles/1389/queenie-mckenzie/, accessed 6 December 2019.

Citation: Cite this excerpt as: Presley, Hannah. "Queenie McKenzie" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 234–235.

HANNAH PRESLEY is an Aboriginal curator based in Melbourne and is currently Curator, Indigenous Art, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

Queenie McKenzie appears in