Emily Kam Kngwarray is regarded as a phenomenon in Australian art. She worked with immense speed and assurance for an elderly woman who, it is popularly believed, started painting in her seventies—moving from batiks to acrylic on canvas in 1988. In a brief eight-year painting career, Kngwarray produced an extraordinary number of canvases, reputed to be as many as 3000—an average of a canvas a day. To the art world, both her output and her seemingly ‘abstract’, gestural style were unlike anything previously seen from an Aboriginal painter. Far from being an overnight sensation, however, Kngwarray’s works are the culmination of a lifetime of making art for ceremonial purposes. By the time she took up a paintbrush and acrylic paints, Kngwarray was a truly experienced artist.
In Kngwarray’s paintings, symbols are used sparingly to transcend the narrative aspect of the Dreamings they evoke. Her strong marks and fields of colour express the resonance of ancestral power in the landscape, in the same way that rarrk (crosshatching) does in Arnhem Land bark paintings. The three paintings illustrated here reveal a range of approaches to painting that she developed over the span her acrylic painting career.
Traditionally, Kngwarray’s main concern was with the atnwelarr (pencil yam), a creeper with bright-green leaves, yellow flowers and edible roots. Her name, ‘Kam’, means the seeds and flowers of the pencil yam plant. The practice of naming a person after a particular feature of a Dreaming emphasises their connection to the Creation.
One of her earliest canvas paintings, Ntange Dreaming 1989, is akin to a self-portrait but not in the sense that Kngwarray has made an image of her face or her physical features. Rather it is an image of her identity expressed in terms of her ceremonial status, her role in Anmatyerr society and her intimate relationship with the ancestrally created landscape of her birth. Ntange Dreaming is composed of a series of awely, or designs that are painted onto women’s breasts, arms and torsos in ceremonies. Overlaying these, Kngwarray has applied lines of dots using her fingers directly onto the canvas, in the same way designs may be applied to the body. The dots themselves signify the seed of the native grasses (called ‘ntange’ in Anmatyerr) that women collect and grind into a paste to make damper.
Anoranngait, healing plant 1990, painted the year after Ntange Dreaming, reveals a more formal side of the artist’s oeuvre. The application of the paint is consistent with the 1989 painting but the palette is relatively subdued and the composition more regular. Kngwarray explained the related subject of the painting in the following manner. When a child or adult falls ill in the artist’s country, women collect the leaves of a fuchsia-type shrub called anoranngait and boil them in water to produce a light but strong green liquid, which is washed over the body, particularly on the affected areas. The artist described the bathing motion with scooped hands and splashing motions over her chest and stomach. The painting is her adaptation of the traditional liturgies for aligning ceremonial participants with the healing powers of nature. The stippled patterns depict the medicinal plant, evoke the shimmering heat haze, suggest an aura of supernatural power, and can even extend to the all-encompassing canopy of stars in the night sky.
Yam awely 1995 was a major undertaking in the final year of the artist’s life. In contrast to the intimate detail of Ntange Dreaming and Anoranngait, healing plant, Kngwarray now extended her brush mark to the radius achieved by the full sweep of her arm, thus relating the painting directly to the human scale despite its monumentality, in a manner similar to that Jackson Pollock achieved in Blue poles 1952. The free-flowing gestural nature of the brush marks in Yam awelye is derived from another traditional source of inspiration, that being the palimpsests of sand drawings made by desert women as part of a spoken narrative and storytelling.
Kngwarray was intensely traditional in her life and outlook, yet her work challenges pre-existing notions of the ‘traditional’ in Aboriginal art.
Franchesca Cubillo and Wally Caruana
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Franchesca Cubillo and Wally Caruana (eds) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art: collection highlights National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010