Rooted in tradition
Aboriginal culture has long been intimately connected to the landscape of Australia; inhabited by humans for over 40,000 years, the region is characterized by deserts, grasslands, and dramatic arched rock formations. Kngwarreye was an established elder of her community and was trained to create ceremonial sand paintings inspired by her ritual “dreamings,’” as well as to paint decorative motifs on women’s bodies as part of a ceremony called Awelye. These visual forms were connected to cultural expressions in song, storytelling, and dance. While her paintings have never been figural, they remain influenced by the culture in which she grew up as well as the natural environment.
In the late 1970s, Kngwarreye began to work in the medium of batiks, making works that were purely artistic endeavors for the first time. In 1977, she was a founding participant of the Utopia Women’s Batik Group. Her compositions were abstract and featured the motif of repeated dots, acting sometimes as a linear stroke, or elsewhere used to fill large patches of space. A decade later, in 1988, the S.H. Ervin Gallery in Sydney initiated a “Summer Project” that sought to facilitate the creation of Aboriginal art, as well as to establish a market for the genre. Sponsored by the collector Robert Holmes à Court, curators traveled to the Aboriginal homeland of Utopia and delivered acrylic paints and materials. After two weeks, they returned to find “abstract and richly expressive” compositions created by many of the artists and held a group exhibition in Sydney.
Kngwarreye’s painting Emu Woman was selected for the cover of the exhibition catalogue as a gesture of respect for her seniority, as she was the oldest artist from the community. Dominated by rich, earthy tones, the painting—her first ever on canvas—contained references to plants and seeds that featured in her “dreaming” ritual. Against a dark field of charcoal, violet, and black, the piece is punctuated with bright marks in tangerine and white hues, which lend the work an electric sense of energy and rhythm. Her decades-long experience in painting directly on the human body informs the curving swells of dotted marks that comprise the composition.
The “global” turn
Earth’s Creation belongs to the “high colorist” phase in Kngwarreye’s work, which is characterized by a loosening of her compositions—which were no longer reliant on pseudo-geometric patterns—and the expansion of her color palette to include a range of tones beyond the familiar clay and ochre hues that dominated her prior works. Still connected to the natural environment; however, these works reference the changing atmospheric character of seasonal cycles. Earth’s Creation documents the lushness of the “green time” that follows periods of heavy rain, and makes use of tropical blues, yellows, and greens. The piece has often been likened to Claude Monet’s studies of seasonal and temporal change, and given its formidable, room-filling scale, a comparison to the artist’s Water Lilies of 1914–26 might be remarkably apt.
Earth’s Creation was created as part of the larger Alhalkere Suite, which contains twenty-two panels, and is still considered one of the most virtuosic of Kngwarreye’s immense and prolific artistic output. In the last two weeks of her life, Kngwarreye completed a suite of twenty-four small paintings. These were characterized by extremely broad, milky strokes of jewel-toned hues of blue and rose, and communicate the artist’s long-standing fascination with color and her sophisticated grasp of abstract composition.
The artist’s works at the National Gallery of Australia.
Read a Reframing Art History textbook chapter that includes Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s Earth’s Creation—“Re-Mapping Land Art: Earthworks, Borderlands, Ecology”
“Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye” at the National Museum of Australia.
Emily Kame Kngwarreye, The Alhalkere suite from the National Gallery of Australia.
“Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye” review by Chrischona Schmidt.
More on Australia 1900–present from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.