Emily Kame Kngwarreye in Osaka

February 1, 2008

“Why is it,” asks Margo Neale, “that they call Emily the impossible modernist?’” The term assumes that an elderly Aboriginal woman who spent virtually her entire life in the central desert region, had no chance of becoming acquainted with the great icons of modern art. The underlying idea is that modernism was the invention of artists such as Picasso and Braque, Matisse, Duchamp and Pollock. To be a modernist means to follow in the tracks of those pioneers who took western art off in an entirely new direction.

For Margo Neale, the Australian curator of Utopia: the genius of Emily Kame Kngwaarreye, which is being shown in Osaka and Tokyo during 2008, this conception of modernism is far too narrow. Instead of treating modern art as a series of dogmas to be learned, as it were, at the feet of the masters, she sees no reason why an Aboriginal artist could not arrive independently at similar discoveries to those made by the American Abstract Expressionists as they worked their way through the influences of Picasso and Surrealism; through the study of myths, and the psychoanalytical theories of Freud and Jung.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye (c.1910-96) never spent a minute on the couch of a New York shrink. She never hung out at the Cedar Tavern, or went to see exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art. She never read an art magazine. And yet, had the pictures in Osaka been painted by an American artist, the show would undoubtedly be hailed as one of the most remarkable bodies of work in the late modern era. This historic collection of 120 pieces – the first time the Japanese museums have ever hosted a retrospective by an Australian artist – begins the process of putting Emily’s reputation on an international footing.

‘Impossible’ or not, it is right that we relate Emily’s work to modernism rather than the lame ironies of post-modernism, which dominated the years in which she painted all her pictures. The modernists viewed art as a striving towards some impossible goal – a heroic, utopian endeavour doomed to end in failure. The postmodernists accepted failure as the very foundation of their work, seeing art as a series of strategies and marketing devices by which one might become rich and famous. We may thank Andy Warhol for making material ambitions into legitimate aesthetic goals, and purging contemporary art of any lingering traces of Romanticism.

Emily Kngwarreye knew nothing about such issues, but painted with a spontaneity – an inspired sense of freedom – that the modernists would have envied. Indeed, if modernism is more a matter of style and technique rather than tradition, she may be considered the last great modernist of the twentieth century. Emily began painting in her late seventies and worked solidly for the next eight years. During that time she produced an estimated 3,000 pictures, although some believe the true total is much higher. When one examines that brief but explosive career, in the way that a retrospective allows, it is striking to see how the work continually changed and developed.

Emily’s earliest pictures grew out of the Batik designs she made with other women from the Utopia community. Her first painting is Emu woman (1988-89), a mesh of earth-coloured lines and dots that contains – in embryo – the basic components of all the works that follow. Most of these would refer to the yam roots she was authorized to paint by virtue of the complex relationships by which the desert communities grant artists custodial rights for particular motifs.

A typical canvas might hold a field of densely impacted dots, or linear designs where tendrils of paint twist and turn like living things. There are works in which rows of loose horizontal lines echo ceremonial body paintings; and the last, very moving paintings such as Untitled (Alhalkere) (1996), where the picture is nothing more than a few swipes of white tinged with pink.

One of the most controversial aspects of the exhibition at the National Museum of Art in Osaka was that these late works were the very first things visitors saw. Walking from room to room one followed Emily’s career in reverse, arriving finally at Emu woman. By travelling backwards in time, Margo Neale hoped to throw viewers in at the deep end, hitting them straight away with the large, impressive pictures Emily painted in her prime. It was a way of focusing attention on the art itself, rather than the anthropology of Aboriginal life.

That aspect was dealt with on the floor above, in an education room that provided the necessary background information on the artist and her community. The only painting on this level was the gigantic canvas called Earth’s Creation (1994), which formed a highly dramatic introduction to Emily’s work. Because the NMAO is built entirely underground, viewers descended from ground level to this first stage, then down to a second level for the exhibition.

This arrangement was intended to dispell the common idea that Aboriginal artists need to be placed in some special category. It attempted to stimulate the same spontaneous excitement felt by the director of the NMAO, Akira Tatehata, when he first saw Emily’s work in the 1998 retrospective at the Queensland Art Gallery. In those days, Tatehata was an academic and critic but he decided that if circumstances permitted, he would one day hold an Emily Kngwarreye in Japan.

The chance arose when Mr. Tatehata became director of the NMAO, and found another Emily fan in Seiichiro Sakata, the former Australian correspondent for the newspaper group, Yomiuri Shimbun.  Nowadays Mr. Sakata is the company’s general manager of Culture Promotions, and was able to provide the means for such an ambitious undertaking. The National Museum of Australia was enlisted as a partner, and Margo Neale, the curator of the 1998 retrospective, was brought in to work on the exhibition.

Had it been a matter of an Australian museum approaching one of its Japanese counterparts with a proposal for such a show, it is unlikely that anything would have happened. This suggests that it makes more sense for Australian visual arts organisations to spend relatively small sums bringing in influential people from abroad, rather than huge sums exporting cultural product to a largely unfamiliar audience.

Mr. Tatehata says that he experienced such a profound reaction to Emily’s painting, Big Yam (1996), when he first saw it in Australia, that he was moved to tears. During the preparations for this show he felt the same emotional response, and found himself marvelling at the artist’s creative abilities, which seem to elude all explanations. Finally he decided that Emily was “just a genius”, and so the exhibition got its title.

Mr. Tatehata is in no doubt that the National Gallery of Victoria’s Big Yam Dreaming (1995), is one of the greatest paintings of the twentieth century. Occupying a large wall close to the entrance, this monumental picture can hardly fail to make an impact, with its white lines of paint thrashing about like angry serpents on a black background. If Big Yam Dreaming doesn’t completely dominate the show, it is because it is competing with such an abundance of diverse and powerful works. In hanging the exhibition, Margo Neale took all sorts of chances – arranging works like altarpieces, creating tantalizing sight-lines from one gallery to another.

There were aspects of the hang that were surprising, almost shocking, but the overall impact justified every innovation. Why not take a few risks? This was, after all, an unusual, groundbreaking show for the Japanese. When the day comes when Emily’s work is on permanent display in museums of modern art around the world, it might be time to consider a more stately approach.

Published for Craft Arts International

Utopia: the Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye
National Museum of Art, Osaka, 25 February – 23 April.
National Art Centre, Tokyo, 28 May – 28 July.
National Museum of Australia, Canberra (TBA)