Curators KELLI COLE and HETTI PERKINS with JENNIFER GREEN outline the ideas and perspectives that underpin the National Gallery’s major exhibition Emily Kam Kngwarray. This introduction is drawn from the exhibition publication.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are respectfully advised that this story contains images, and references to, deceased people. Where possible, permission has been sought to include their names and images.
Just over half a century has passed since Aboriginal artists from Central Australia began experimenting with new artistic forms, and today most audiences have at least some knowledge of desert art. This familiarity provides viewers with tools to appreciate the diverse ways in which these artists express symbiotic relationships between culture and Country. The use of new materials, pioneered by Papunya-based artists in the early 1970s, rippled throughout the desert homelands in subsequent decades. In the late 1970s, at Utopia in the Sandover region to the north-east of Papunya, Emily Kam Kngwarray joined art and craft workshops. These echoed other initiatives that grew into community art centres throughout Aboriginal Australia. For Kngwarray and her peers, this development was part of a cultural continuum of expression, but in creative media understood by western audiences. The artistic revolution led by desert artists was initially ignored and later lauded. It galvanised Australian art and Kngwarray was in its avant-garde.
The selection of works in this publication, sourced from public and private collections, follows the development of Kngwarray’s work since the early days, when she experimented with batik, to her subsequent paintings on canvas. It surveys the last 20 years of her life. Beginning with one of Kngwarray’s earliest batiks, it includes Emu woman, her first painting made as part of a collective project, the monumental Anwerlarr Anganenty (Big Yam Dreaming), painted in 1995, and six of her works that represented Australia at the Venice Biennale in 1997.
This publication embraces multiple viewpoints and perspectives. Essay ‘The life and legacy of Emily Kam Kngwarray’ draws from audio recordings of Kngwarray made in the 1980s and 1990s and from a rich collection of archival images that illustrate parts of her remarkable life. The juxtaposition of images and biographical texts in this essay speaks to complex histories of intercultural entanglement. While Kngwarray’s earlier years predate the documentary and cartographical enterprises that enable a particular view, piecing together what can be found in the historical record gives some indication, if fragmentary, of what life may have been like growing up as an Aboriginal person in the Northern Territory in the first decades of the twentieth century. These are contextualised by other stories of the early days that are held in community memory.
'Kngwarray’s power and cultural authority is outstandingly revealed in the works of art themselves.'
Kngwarray’s recordings are presented in her language, Anmatyerr, along with English translations. They highlight the force of her personality and her strength, humour and agency. Kngwarray emphasises the significance of her Country, Alhalker. She talks of her first encounter with whitefellers and their strange animals, and recounts one story of her determined and strategic escape from a policeman, and her solo journey back home. She also discusses the central themes of her works of art and her transition from working in batik to painting on canvas. Photographs of Kngwarray engaged in everyday practices—hunting, enjoying the company of family over a cup of tea, gathering bush fruits, painting up for ceremony, learning new artistic skills and shopping at Vinnies after receiving a major national art award—provide an intimate yet respectful view. They give a sense of her life in the Sandover region and of her cultural and aesthetic processes.
The contemporary custodians of Kngwarray’s Country provide a unique perspective. As editors, we worked closely with a group of women from Alhalker and Anangker Countries, and with Utopia Art Centre, the representative body for their art. We met at the art centre at Arlparra (New Store), in other homeland communities where the women live, and in Mparntwe/Alice Springs. The women viewed images of Kngwarray’s batiks and paintings, looked at old photographs and listened to audio recordings of Kngwarray’s stories of her early days. They reflected on her legacy, and their insights about Kngwarray and her works of art permeate this publication. Contributors to this process included Judy Kngwarray Greenie, Jedda Kngwarray Purvis, Maureen Kngwarray Purvis, Jennifer Kngwarray Purvis, Violet Petyarr, Josie Petyarr Kunoth, Elizabeth Kngwarray Kunoth, Helen Kngwarray Kunoth, Barbara Kngwarray Long, Margaret Kngwarray Long, Jean Kngwarray Long, Louisa Kngwarray Long, Melissa Kngwarray Long, Patsy Kemarr Long, Rosie Pwerl, Dolly Petyarr, Rosemary Petyarr, Anna Petyarr Price and Joy Petyarr. Many of these women are established artists whose art practices date to the late 1970s, when Kngwarray first learnt to make batik.
The unprecedented trajectory of Kngwarray’s recognition and fame as an artist is now well known, way beyond the country of her origins. Kngwarray’s power and cultural authority is outstandingly revealed in the works of art themselves. However, critical responses to her work have often been framed by definitional categories derived from western artistic traditions—tropes of modernism and abstract expressionism. The history of western art was confounded by its encounter with a continuing cultural tradition much more ancient than any that has sprung from European soil. Some who have written about Kngwarray’s work have struggled to reconcile the origins of her works of art within the framework of their eventual destinations in the art market.
The contributors to this book argue for more nuanced analyses that acknowledge both the cultural specificity of Kngwarray’s inspiration and the majestic scope of Country and its ancestral inheritances. Kngwarray—perhaps unintentionally, certainly unconcernedly—demonstrated that Aboriginal art was not compelled to assimilate to a western art tradition. As Stephen Gilchrist observes in his essay, ‘I am Kam’, the theoretical discourses stimulated by Kngwarray’s work anticipate the need for reframing definitions of contemporaneity and call for new cultural coordinates that acknowledge Aboriginal ways of being. The curatorial essay ‘lanterna magica: the art of Emily Kam Kngwarray’ examines the compelling nature of the artist’s work in close detail, charting the alchemy of abstraction and meaning through her stylistic and thematic changes.
In the research that underpins both this publication and its companion exhibition we also untangle some misconceptions about the representational foundations of Kngwarray’s works of art, which, for Kngwarray, are grounded in detailed knowledge of Country and its ecosystems. This holds true regardless of the degree to which figurative and iconographic elements of her work are transparent to outsider viewers—those who do not know her Country like she did. Photographs of Kngwarray’s Country and its biota highlight the significance of particular plants, most importantly the anwerlarr (pencil yam) and kam, the underground seeds and seedpods of the pencil yam that Kngwarray was named after. Scientists trained in the western tradition are currently revising the taxonomic classification of this plant. In terms of Aboriginal ecological knowledge systems, the distinctions between the anwerlarr yam and other yams found in the Sandover region where Kngwarray lived are well known and reflected in their Anmatyerr names, their habitat and their uses. The group of Anmatyerr women we consulted guided us in our enthusiastic search for anwerlarr yams, which were prolific after summer rains, and shared their knowledge of other plants and animals that inspired Kngwarray’s artworks.
Dylan River, an award-winning Kaytetye filmmaker and photographer from Mparntwe/Alice Springs, documents Alhalker Country in a suite of photographs reproduced in this publication. These provide a broader view and a poetic segue between the other contributions. River comes from a family of storytellers and filmmakers, and their personal histories are embedded in the Northern Territory, close to where Kngwarray came from. Freda Glynn, his grandmother, was one of the founders of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA), established in 1982 to maintain and sustain the culture and languages of Central Australia. In 1987 CAAMA commenced a series of projects that increasingly brought the artists of the Sandover region, including Emily Kam Kngwarray, into prominence.
A counterpart to River’s panoramic views of Alhalker Country is a map by Brenda Thornley. This tells another story, showing the locations of current towns and homeland communities as well as the boundaries of pastoral and freehold lands. These juxtaposed views of Country reveal much about the changing political topography Kngwarray navigated during her lifetime. Chrischona Schmidt provides a chronology of key events of local, national and international significance that shaped Kngwarray’s life, including the history of the art movements in Central Australia, and details some of the major exhibitions that Kngwarray participated in. A glossary of Anmatyerr words gives further information about some of the key terms used in this publication.
A highlight of the community consultations was the women’s camp in Alhalker and Anangker Countries in early 2023. This was an occasion for remembrance, reunion and celebration. The multi-authored essay ‘Mer anwekakerrenh iteth anetyel: our Country is alive’ documents this event and completes the circle by including the voices of the current generation who follow in Kngwarray’s footsteps. It combines texts in Anmatyerr and English and photographs of the camp provided by Emma Masters from Tamarind Tree Pictures. The women painted up with the ceremonial designs for their Country, sang the Alhalker and Anangker songs and danced, sometimes accompanied by the sound of Kngwarray’s voice on an old recording. As Jedda Kngwarray Purvis says, listening to her voice made us proud: ‘This is our song. We are going to keep on singing it. We are going to learn to sing the way she did and keep on singing’.