Alhalkere 'Paintings from Utopia'

Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Alhalkere 'Paintings from Utopia'
Queensland Art Gallery
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia 1998

Review by Grafico Topico's SUE SMITH

A painting of the biggest web of tangled white lines you've ever seen, like the world's largest pot of spaghetti splattered against a black wall, has viewers mesmerised, peering into its labyrinthine patterns.

Perhaps it's decorative? Maybe it has a mystery hidden beneath its skeins of paint? Fluently painted with twists and turns of a strong arm, it could have been painted by Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky or Robert Motherwell ... or any one of a number of the big names in 20th century abstract art.

But no, it's the work of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, an artist who ironically knew little if anything of the Euro-Americantradition to which her own work is so often compared.

An Aboriginal elder and former cattle station worker who turned to painting canvases at the end of her long life, by the time of her death in late 1996, Kngwarreye had become one of the most renowned of Australia's desert "dot" painters, producing an enormous body of work that has made her a luminary in art circles, if not in the eyes of the larger public.

Now a large retrospective exhibition of some 93 of Kngwarreye's works (consisting of 194 individual paintings, batik fabrics and works on paper) is spread out through six galleries at the Queensland Art Gallery, and seems set to impress art audiences and the public with her exuberant parade of tribal culture-laden, messy, huge, dot and line images, her paeans to the abundance of plants and seeds, her celebration of the radiance sought in religious ceremony.

Each room of paintings is accompanied by copious explanatory ethnographic notes, and there is a room showing photographs, rocks, ceremonial artefacts and a video of the artist and her people living and working in Kngwarreye's desert home land at Utopia, 230 km north-east of Alice Springs.

These are paintings heavily layered as much with tradition and history as with their sedimentary accumulations of acrylic paint on linen, dye on silk and cotton.

But as viewers from a different place and culture, what can we make of Kngwarreye? It is impossible, firstly, to escape the fact that her output has been contentious, wrapped in the over-inflated hyperbole and demands of collectors, the art market and museum curators.

Few Australian artists have received the rapturous reception that the art world has given Kngwarreye. Against the sometimes bleak and cynical backdrop of late 20th century Postmodern culture, she was greeted an artist who seemed to prove that painting, far from being dead, had the capacity to genuinely move and inspire people.

Here at last was an artist who seemed to spontaneously invent new modern styles of painting all her own, one whose work could stand as a proud analogue to modern European art.

She was also seen as the representative of an older, more spiritual culture, whose work might somehow reinvigorate a younger, anxious and too materialistic society. A hushed reverence often overcomes Kngwarreye's spectators and commentators; for some, Kngwarreye could do no wrong.

It has also been difficult for many people to disentangle their feelings about the intrinsic merits of the works themselves from the momentousness of Kngwarreye's subject - an assertion of Aboriginal identification with, and traditional ownership of, the land - and even to distance the art from the larger and emotionally fraught matters of Aboriginal reconciliation, the Wik debate, and the pain of the stolen Aboriginal children.

And commentators have not quite known how to address the mass production and unevenness of Kngwarreye's art. Collaboration is the hallmark of traditional Aboriginal art, but through the nineties, Kngwarreye's art became a commercial art industry, supporting an entire community.

The pictures seemed to roll off an assembly line as variousmembers of her family assisted in the painting, or painted works under her name which she did not touch.

What we have in this new retrospective is an uneven but impressive panorama.

Some paintings are only big or colourful. Kngwarreye managesto be celebratory, sombre, illustrative, repetitive and usually memorable, sometimes all at the same time.

There are about half a dozen marvellous pictures, including the huge Big Yam Dreaming, which stretches like a net across the entrance foyer, capturing viewers in its complexities.

Yam and grass seed is everywhere; the seed are like clouds of dust, skies filled with stars, for Kngwarreye.
They aerate and pulsate across the paintings, from the rain of red, ochre and white dots floating over the tracks of emus and the breast and body markings of ceremonies in the earliest works; to the explosions of colourful galaxies which shoot across the later paintings.

The gallery has done the artist and her community proud with this beautifully installed and respectful exhibition, even if it does not quite convince one of the artist's master status.

Copyright © 1998 Sue Smith. Not to be used without the permission of the author

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