Curators KELLI COLE and HETTI PERKINS reflect on the National Gallery's recent acquisition of a major painting by EMILY KAM KNGWARRAY.
Acknowledged as one of Australia’s most significant artists, Emily Kam Kngwarray’s identity and work was integrally related to her position in the community of Anmatyerr and Alywarr women at Utopia, north-east of Mparntwe/Alice Springs. The awely (ceremony) shared by the women of this community was the basis upon which the Utopia Women’s Batik Group, and subsequently the paintings of Kngwarray — who was born c 1910 — and other Anmatyerr and Alywarr artists, was founded. This wellspring of knowledge and the contemporary artistic practice it fosters continue to inspire and be revealed in the community of Utopia artists today.
Long before Kngwarray’s creativity emerged in batik and on canvas, she painted designs on the bodies of women in preparation for ceremony. ‘Kam’ is the word for the seed and flower of the yam, after which the artist was named; the word ‘awely’ refers more broadly to the ceremonial world of women. Kngwarray, like other senior Anmatyerr women, had cultural obligations to her Country, and her art was an extension of the traditional ways of expressing an ancient reciprocity.
Kngwarray’s paintings are highly individual and energetic interpretations of ancient traditions. Untitled (Awely) 1994, references the body painting tradition for awely and the Kam Dreaming. Bold stripes capture the intimacy of the ritual and the rhythm of the Anmatyerr women’s ceremonial performance. The stripes are fluid, moving forward and backward, up and down, with a spontaneity that is at once forceful and gestural. It is a mark that occurs globally, like a word in language, that we all can understand.
Untitled (Awely) 1994 is a seminal painting from the later period of Kngwarray’s career. (She died in 1996 at the age around 86.) Embodying the dynamism of her distinctive and unique style, the work was selected to be shown as part of Fluent, Australia’s representative exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 1997. The painting is an emotive expression and reflection of the artist as a senior Anmatyerr law woman. Her close connections to her homelands and their associated stories are revealed in an oeuvre of paintings unprecedented in Australian art.
'On the many occasions I was in the presence of Emily, I was always aware (although in my youth and being totally naive) that I was in the company someone extraordinary, not only because of her artistic ability but she was the epicentre of everything. Her laugh was infectious but moreover her spirit was knowing.'
Kelli Cole remembers Emily Kam Kngwarray:
I have early and vivid memories of Emily and other Anmatyerr and Alywarr women, many of whom have since passed. I was fortunate enough to have travelled to the community of Utopia on two occasions in 1989 as a teenager with Rodney Gooch, Arts Advisor to the Utopia Batik Women, who was my uncle, the artist Robert Ambrose Cole’s partner. I remember the batiks drying in the hot desert wind, and a time when one blew off the line and tumbled and whirled across the red desert sands, followed by crescendo of voices, with the ladies yelling for someone to run and gather it up.
When the Anmatyerr and Alywarr women came to town to paint they would make their way to Uncle Robbie and Rodney’s many houses: you would find them painting, surrounded by an oasis of trees or sitting on the deck. Looking back, I wish I had spent more time sitting still and listening. On the many occasions I was in the presence of Emily, I was always aware (although in my youth and being totally naive) that I was in the company someone extraordinary, not only because of her artistic ability but she was the epicentre of everything. Her laugh was infectious but moreover her spirit was knowing.
Art & Artists
Alhalker - my Country