Emily Kame Kngwarreye in Osaka

Emily Kame Kngwarreye in Osaka

Emu Woman, 1988/89, 92 x 61 cm, Courtesy The Holmes à Court Collection

Posted by Aboriginal Art Directory | 18.03.08

Author: John McDonald

From the very first time he laid eyes on the work of Emily Kame Kngwarreye (c.1910-96), in the 1998 retrospective at the Queensland Art Gallery, Akira Tatehata knew that it was something special. At that time, Tatehata was a curator at the National Museum of Art in Osaka, Japan’s second-biggest city. His career path took him to the university, where he became a professor, then back to the Museum, as director. Reserved and scholarly, with dark-rimmed glasses and an unruly forelock that keeps tumbling over his forehead, Mr. Tatehata does not appear to be a passionate man. Yet from his first encounter with Emily’s work he conceived a burning desire to hold a show in Japan.

When he found a fellow Emily enthusiast in Seiichiro Sakata, the former Australian correspondent for the mighty newspaper group, Yomiuri Shimbun, and now the company’s general manager of Culture Promotions, he had a partner with the means to advance his unlikely project. And so, after two years of painstaking preparation, on 25 February, Emily Kame Kngwarreye opened in Osaka.

It would be hard to overstate the importance of this exhibition for the international profile of Australian art, and more particularly, for indigenous art. The Japanese, historically one of the most insular and risk-averse of peoples, have taken a huge leap of faith in initiating this show. There have been many Australian touring shows, but never before have the Japanese hosted a full-scale retrospective by a single Australian artist.

They might have been pre-empted in the mid-1990s, when the redoutable Uli Krempel, director of the Sprengel Museum in Hannover, proposed an Emily retrospective in Germany. At that stage, no Australian venue had held such a show, so there was considerable resistance to the idea. The result was the QAG show of 1998, while the Sprengel went on to be co-host, with the Tinguely Museum in Basel, of a John Mawurndjul retrospective two years ago. This was the first time an Australian artist had been given a retrospective by a major European museum. Significantly – and disgracefully – no Australian institution has been willing to provide a local venue.

Margo Neale, the curator of the QAG retrospective, was also enlisted as the curator for the current show, held under the auspices of the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. Even though the NMA is housed in the country’s silliest building, it is largely free of the envy and competitiveness that dogs the major art galleries. Craddock Morton, the director, says that he doubts whether any other institution could have secured the same number of top-level loans from their Australian peers. In the web of uneasy relationships that exists between institutions, the NMA is neutral territory, and Morton – a former senior bureaucrat – has a management style that is both discreet and effective.

If this makes him an excellent person to deal with the Japanese, Margo Neale is a very different proposition. In the precious world of curatorship, where people tend to be reserved scholars or shameless trendies, Margo is a bar-room brawler. She is without peer in terms of her passion for the art she exhibits, her flamboyant approach, and her blind determination to have her own way. Ronin films have been following Margo around to make a documentary about this exhibition and the results should be worth watching – especially the scenes where she sits in a room with seventeen Japanese men telling them how the show is going to be done.

If the Japanese are the most polite and formal people on earth, the Australians are the most casual. Even by Australian standards, Margo takes a lack of formality to a new dimension. It could have been a recipe for disaster, but the exhibition is an unalloyed triumph, with everyone agreeing that Emily’s work has never looked better. Mr. Tatehata says he cried when he first stood in front of Emily’s "Big Yam" (1996) in Australia, and he was moved to tears again during the preparations for this show.

What makes the experience so breathtaking is the stupendous problem of reconciling the work itself – so monumental in scale and ambition, so impressive in its mastery of modernist techniques – with the fact that its creator was an elderly Aboriginal lady from the desert community of Utopia who never picked up a paint brush until the age of eighty. In a prolific and uneven career of only eight years, this tiny woman went through more metamorphoses of style than most artists manage in half a century. Even more startling is the fact that each of these stylistic shifts was so full of confidence and conviction.

With Emily, one never senses any hesitation, any period of transition, as is common when an artist ventures in a new direction. She worked with no apparent pause for reflection – hammering away at a canvas, her face pressed close to the surface as she sat cross-legged on the painting. She might slide from one end of the picture to the other in this fashion, then get up and walk away without a glance at the finished product.

Even among Aboriginal artists this was freakish behaviour. It has led Mr. Tatehata into exhaustive attempts to analyse her work in formal terms, noting the way she uses lines of different thicknesses and frequencies; the root-like traceries behind the billowing clouds of coloured dots; the interplay of tones and half-tones, of forms within forms. Finally, he has thrown his hands in the air and declared she was "just a genius". The exhibition is actually subtitled: "Utopia: the genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye". The fact that her home was called Utopia (or "no-place"), makes her achievements seem even more mythical.

While the term "genius" attracted jeers in a post-modern era when the very existence of authors was questioned, it deserves consideration. Rather than viewing it as a lazy, Romantic catch-all which removes the need for analysis, one might see "genius" as the term of last resort when all analysis fails. In his biography of Mozart, Wolfgang Hildesheimer tells us it was a mark of genius that the composer could tap out a piano concerto on the window sill while awaiting his turn in a game of billiards, then go home and write it all down note-perfect.

Self-consciousness is the enemy of genius, and the driving force behind that phenomenon – so common in every sense of the word - the would-be genius.

In Japanese there is a Zen concept known as "muga" in which mind and body act as one. To attain this state requires many years of training, whether we are talking about painting, ceramics, archery or even golf. It was a state that Emily reached as an unwitting consequence of the life she led in the desert, and her immersion in its Dreamings. Just as the Dreamings present a paradoxical combination of life, law, ceremony, history and religion, so do Emily’s paintings defy easy categorization.

Margo Neale has responded to this challenge in creative and controversial fashion by staging the drama of Emily’s career in reverse. The Osaka museum is built entirely underground, and as we descend by long staircases it is like going ever deeper into the high-tech tomb of some manga emperor. On the first level, visitors are greeted with the enormous painting that goes by the grand but "ad hoc" title, "Earth’s Creation" (1994). It is a stunning first taste of what awaits – a huge, complex vista of greens, reds, blues and yellows, that many will find reminiscent of late Monet. Alongside there is an education room, providing the show’s only background information on the artist and her community.

On the next level down, at the entrance to the show proper, we meet the small work that is possibly Emily’s last painting: "Untitled (Alhalkere)" (1996). This free, abstract piece is no more than a collection of broad white and pinkish brushstrokes on a dark ground. Each stroke is clearly defined, but the picture itself has a mystical vagueness. One thinks sentimentally but inevitably, of the mists closing in.

At the end of the show we find another small picture, "Emu woman "(1988-89), a mesh of earth-coloured lines and dots that shows the influence of the batiks Emily had been making along with the women of Utopia. This is said to be her first painting – a debut full of bravura.

To reach this point the viewer must negotiate a series of rooms containing 120 large and small-scale works. Many felt it was difficult to believe that these pictures were painted by a single artist, but despite the variety, there is a touch that resurfaces from one piece to the next.

A large wall is dominated by the National Gallery of Victoria’s "Big Yam Dreaming" (1995), a work that Tatehata acclaims as one of the greatest paintings of the twentieth century. A series of dot-within-dot paintings based on seeds, from 1989-90, has been hung in such a way that the works resemble icons, while another arrangement plays on the idea of an altarpiece. Within rooms, and following sight-lines from one room to the next, each work appears to be in dialogue with its neighbour. This theatrical hang is largely down to Margo Neale, and it makes for a genuinely exciting presentation. In Emily’s case seeing is believing, but to view her paintings on foreign soil is to recognize her uniqueness with absolute clarity. From a small desert community has come an artist whose legacy belongs not Australia, but to the entire planet.

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Last modified: May 6, 2008 12:50 AM