That Silly Old Woman

Posted by Aboriginal Art Directory | 16.05.98

Author: Jeremy Eccles
News source: Canberra Times

“The all-over picture relies on a surface knit of identical or closely similar elements which repeat themselves without marked variation from one edge to the other. It…dispenses apparently with beginning, middle and end…dissolving the pictorial into sheer texture, sheer sensation…seeming to speak for and answer to something profound in contemporary sensibility”.

Boy, doesn’t that describe an Emily precisely, even if it does wallow a bit in artspeak. The extraordinary thing is that it was written by the influential American critic Clement Greenberg precisely 40 years before Emily Kame Kngwarreye picked up a brush to paint! And he was writing about Abstract Expressionism not the multiple layers of dots representing seed or flowers, nor the parallel lines originating in body painting or scarring, nor even the increasingly wild colouration and configuration of squiggles suggesting subterranean yam roots which added up to Emily’s famous dictum that she was painting “the whole lot” of her Dreaming.

Mind you, the sumptuous catalogue for this Retrospective does contain the alternative view of Chris Hodges, an artist himself dragged into the Emily Industry by both passion and the profit motive, that her works “are truly abstract” and therefore transcend such literal readings. But even he, who watched her whole career (rather than jumping on the gravy train after it had pulled out of the famous “A Summer Project - 1988/89” exhibition/ station) has to admit that her many multi-panelled works “may” (or may not) “be linked to the song-cycles of Utopia that can go on for hours, repeating and reinforcing the same theme”. There are almost as many interpretations of the enigmatic Emily as there are people with rooms full of her paintings to sell. At this far-too early stage in the assessment process, this article will inevitably be as impressionistic as one of her paintings.

The man who initiated the Summer Project which diverted the 80 odd women of Utopia from batik work on silk to painting acrylics on canvas was Rodney Gooch - then running the CAAMA shop in Alice Springs. One of his motives was a sympathy for “this silly old woman” (Emily) who always seemed to get to the pot of dye last when it was a mess, and whose batik work was often mocked by her peers. She simply didn’t have the patience for work that couldn’t be altered. But her first ever canvas - /Emu Woman/ - went on to the cover of the exhibition catalogue, and appears in this retrospective. She’d been a painter all along, in her head. Her peers stopped laughing.

Instead, they began a process which has honourable origins in the communal life of Utopia’s Aborigines, but which can also be presented as exploitative and distasteful - living off the old lady. So did the white dealers who dropped everything to head up the Sandover Highway; Utopia’s neighbours - the Holts of Delmore Station - who are said to have bought $100,000 of new canvas within weeks of the Summer Project’s success; and half the taxi drivers in Alice Springs. Officially, her 8 year career produced 3000 paintings. Gooch, in a documentary to be seen on the ABC in the Spring, estimates that there may actually be as many as 9000 canvases out there. At a sale in Sydney last weekend, 4 of her works of varying sizes averaged $15,000. Put baldly, that makes the Kngwarreye Industry worth $135 million!

Of course, her income was nothing like that during her life. But it was quite enough to ensure that everyone kept her painting in sickness and in health, come rain or shine (at 42o C). Could she really have been pushed into the boot of a car on top of her own canvases to get them to the market quicker? How much of this industrial level of output was co-produced by peers such as her adopted nieces Lily Sandover and Barbara Weir? Could her last days have seen her propped up to paint vertically (she normally sat beside a canvas on the ground and turned it round to cover it), and given a broad priming brush to make the task of whacking paint on to her last 24 canvases a little easier? And was her death really greeted by a panic-stricken flight of dealers to Utopia - not to pay tribute to her genius, but to bicker over ways of maintaining the gravy-train?

But I’ve seen a few of those last cruel canvases, and one can almost forgive Emily’s exploiters. They are (in Clement Greenberg’s predictive eye) Expressionist sensations - emphasising her extraordinary sense of colour. “That’s pretty” was her only standard of judgment before hobbling arthritically away from a finished work. Some are less pretty in our eyes than others. But the huge number of hits and the artist’s ability to find new ways to tell the stories of her /Alhalkere/ land must derive from an incredible capacity for visualising the finished work.

“The fair illusion of the world of dream in which everyone is a finished artist, is the pre-condition of all visual art”, noted Nietzsche way back in 1872. And who could possibly be a more finished artist than one whose whole spiritual life was a Dreaming. For only there, Nietzsche continued, “the artist might experience, with ready understanding, the entire divine comedy of life, along with its inferno”. Or as Emily kept saying, “Whole lot”!


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