The Alhalker suite is a monumental installation of 22 canvases which evokes the cycles of nature and the spiritual forces that imbue the earth. It is a response to the artist’s land, Alhalker, the desert country of Kngwarray’s birth, on what is now the cattle-station called Utopia.
Mer Alhalkerel, ikwerel inngart. Kel akely anem apetyarr-alpek Utopia station-warl. Mern arlkwerremel akeng-akeng mwantyel itnyerremel, lyarnayt tyerrerretyart, tyap lyarnayt. Mern angwenh, ker kaperl arlkwerrek, ilpangkwer atwerrerl-anemel netyepeyel arlkwerrerl ... Mam atyenhel mern anatyarl itnyerremel, anaty itnyerremel, anaty, amern akeng-akeng lyarnayt, tyap alhankerarl utnherrerl-anem, arlkwerrerl-anemel. Ikwerel anerl-anemel, arlkwerrerl-anemel. Mern anaty mam atyenhel itnyerlenty-akngerleng artnepartnerleng, akely-akely akenh artnelh-artnelh-ilerrerleng mernek. Mern akely akelyek. Kel alperliwerl-alhemel mer-warl, mern ampernerrerl-anemel, atnwelarr ampernerrety-alpem ... Tent anetyakenhel, antywa arterretyart, antywer renh arterrerl-anemel, kel alelthipelthipek arterl-anem kwaty akenh atnyepatnyerleng. Arrwekeleny ra. Long time kwa.
I was born at the place called Alhalker, right there. When I was young we all came back to Utopia station. We used to eat bits and pieces of food, carefully digging out the grubs from Acacia bushes. We killed all sorts of lizards, such as geckos and blue-tongues, and ate them in our cubby houses ... My mother used to dig up bush potatoes, and gather grubs from different sorts of Acacia bushes to eat. That’s what we used to live on. My mother would keep on digging and digging the bush potatoes, while us young ones made each other cry over the food – just over a little bit of food. Then we’d all go back to camp to cook the food, the atnwelarr yams ... We didn’t have any tents – we lived in shelters made of grass. When it was raining the grass was roughly thrown together for shelter. That was in the olden time, a long time ago.1
The Alhalker Suite describes the land in flood, fertilised by water; the rains and storms of early spring. The painting celebrates the coming of water after long periods of drought, as so often happens in the desert. After the rain, brilliantly coloured wildflowers carpet the landscape, and the soft-looking spinifex bushes appear beside the desert oak trees and blossoming wattle.
Moreover, Kngwarray is paying homage to the Altyerr, or the spiritual forces which are the legacy of the original ancestors who created the land and everything in it, and who laid down the codes of behaviour and law. The powers of the ancestors have imbued the land and have graced generation after generation of Kngwarray’s people.
The work is an important benchmark in Kngwarray’s career. In this major work, she revisits the themes and techniques of her earlier works: the paint is thick and juicy, areas of bold colour are juxtaposed with more muted tones, lines are defined in series of dabs of the brush. Her later canvases became more restricted in colour and sparsely painted, sometimes using only black on white to trace the patterns of the sacred Yam awelye or women’s designs.
The 22 panels of the work can be displayed in any order. Kngwarray did not determine the sequence of canvases nor did she impose any limitations on the overall configuration; they could be displayed in a horizontal line or in a grid. In many ways such freedom allowed to the exhibitor of the work flies in the face of conventional artistic practice. Kngwarray herself was anything but conventional, although her career was dogged by those over-eager to sensationalise her achievements.
It is true that Kngwarray did not begin making paintings in acrylic on canvas until she was well into her seventies, in the summer of 1988–89 (she died aged about 80). The art world was amazed by this phenomenon, more so as the images she produced have been compared in quality and effect with those by some of the great painters of modern western art, from Claude Monet to Jackson Pollock. Her gestural style was easily equated to the work of the Abstract Expressionists. In fact, Kngwarray was barely touched by the western world of art. Moreover, she had spent a long life in creating art in ritual and private circumstances, far from the gaze of the general public, making ground paintings and decorating peoples’ bodies for ceremonies using the same techniques and designs that appear in her paintings. For Kngwarray, the late 1980s only saw a change in media, not in the visual language and meaning of her art.
The Alhalker Suite is one of her crowning achievements.
1Interview recorded and transcribed by Jenny Green, ‘The Enigma of Emily Kngwarray’, World of Dreamings, at www.nga.gov.au/dreaming/index.cfm?refrnc
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002