Emily Kam Kngawarray (Emily Kame Kngwarreye)(circa 1916-1996)
Alhalkere 1989 inscribed 'Emily Kngwarreye' and catalogue no 'B63' verso synthetic polymer paint on linen 152.0 x 121.5cm (59 13/16 x 47 13/16in).
PROVENANCE Commissioned by Donald and Janet Holt, Delmore Downs, Northern Territory Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi, Melbourne Collection of Ruth and Reuben Hall, Melbourne Niagara Galleries, Melbourne The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 2006
Alhalkere is one of five works that Emily Kam Kngwarray painted for Delmore Downs in September 1989 1. It takes its place amongst a small, select group generally called 'seed' paintings that began to appear around the middle of 1989, the first year of the artist's brief but celebrated career. Between 1989 and 1996 Kngwarray became the most famous Australian artist of her day and still towers in current histories of great Australian painters.
Kngwarray's early paintings were fluid and varied configurations of dots and lines that set out the fundamentals of the breathtaking oeuvre that would follow. Over eight years, Emily Kam Kngwarray took the conceptual kit of desert art, dot and line, on a creative journey that astonished the art world. Each new stylistic manifestation enthralled her audience of local and international admirers, and encircled her in multiple discourses on the complex matter of her genius and how it might relate to modernity. The 'seed' or 'fields of dot' paintings2 were one of the first markers of the artist's prodigious capacity to innovate.
Kngwarray's earliest works involved infinitely varied interplays between grids and dots and the spatial zones they created. The dots and lines were relatively small and fine and the palette quite often 'traditional'. The artist's first painting on canvas Emu woman 1988-89 - part of a community endeavour called A Summer Project is a perfect example of this palette and painterly dynamic 3. After the shock of its newness, audiences began to see that Emu woman (and many of the works that immediately followed) had strong links with the imagery in Kngwarray's batik works. Emily's bold, expressive style in this medium was regarded as idiosyncratic and unconventional. It signalled the radical individualism that surfaced as she forged her career in the new media of paint on canvas. There are many accounts describing Kngwarray as a woman of character and humour; of great vitality and forceful personality. The linguist Jenny Green noted that in traditional roles, Kngwarray was a powerful singer and a central figure in women's ceremonies (awelye). She also remarks that Emily's voice had great range4. All this suggests forces, resonances and creative capacities that are mirrored in her art.
Kngwarray's Emu woman attracted great interest when the CAAMA first paintings project was exhibited at the SH Ervin Gallery in Sydney in April 1989. This was also the month that Emily and other Utopia artists approached Donald and Janet Holt at Delmore Downs, an adjoining pastoral station, with a view to painting for them5. Thus began a new association, of artist and agent, between Emily and the Holts, one that lasted until the end of her life6. Emily continued to paint for CAAMA Shop7 and in June 1989 she and Louis Pwerle began working as recipients of a CAAMA artist-in-residency project based on Utopia8. As well as the five works painted for Delmore in September, including Alhalkere, Kngwarray also painted three works for the bush residency.
Janet Holt describes Alhalkere 1989 as an intensely focussed work belonging to an early, unpressured moment in Kngwarray's career9. In retrospect, this year was one of relative calm before the storm of interest that eventually led to a diaspora of agents and galleries, and the prolific output of later years. Alhalkere belongs to a new phase, a style categorised as seed paintings executed between mid 1989 and the early 1990s10. The term refers to works in which the surface is so densely over-dotted that the underlying linear structure is virtually masked. The traceries of Alhalkere's subterranean grid are barely visible beneath the surface plane of jostling dots that form eddies of indistinct patterns. In some seed paintings the dots are over-dotted, black or red spots anchored on white, like eyes, and in others like Alhalkere, they are formed of single colours.
Although seeds were an important theme for Kngwarray - her bush name Kam means yam seed - this painting has been given the title Alhalkere after the artist's country. Alhalkere is a small excision on Mt Skinner station on the western boundary of Utopia. This land is set aside for the use of the traditional Anmatyerre owners. Alhalkere encompassed everything Kngwarray painted: it was the place, the seed and flower of her genius. In the most quoted of the sparse statements she made about painting, and after listing several of her Alhalkere themes separately, Kngwarray famously said that she painted: The whole lot, everything.11
The deep connection between the artist and her country is expressed in the body piercing displayed in one of the most reproduced of her photographic portraits12. In this Kngwarray is shown in profile, displaying her iconic pierced septum, an emblem of a rocky arched outcrop in her country. Both are named Alhalkere. Another powerful geological formation on Alhalkere is the site of the Yam Dreaming. Nearby, the ground is sprinkled with tiny, gravelly ochre rocks. On a visit to the area with her nephew, the late Greeny Petyarre13, I got the impression that these rocks were themselves incarnations of the yam seed. To look at the ground was to look at a painting, and Greeny himself seemed momentarily startled by the realisation. The country Kngwarray painted, the very ground, like her paintings, was a place of metaphor, full of seeds.
Alhalkere 1989 is a masterpiece of abstraction. Taut with compressed energy, such seed paintings in retrospect seem to represent the big bang of Kngwarray's painted universe, one that in 1989 had only just begun expanding.
Anne Marie Brody
This painting is sold with accompanying documentation from Delmore Gallery.
1 Janet Holt, pers.comm. 2 Margo Neale [ed.], Utopia: the Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, exh. cat., National Museum of Australia Press, 2008, pp. 69, 72 3 Anne Brody, Utopia Women's Paintings. The First Works on Canvas: A Summer Project 1988-89, exh. cat., S.H. Ervin Gallery, Sydney, 14 April - 21 May 1989, cover illustration, Heytesbury Holdings Ltd, Perth, 1989 4 Jenny Green, 'The Enigma of Emily Ngwarray', World of Dreamings, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2000 at www.nga.gov.au/dreaming/index.cfm?refrnc 5 Janet Holt, 'Emily Kngwarreye at Delmore Downs 1989-1996', in Jennifer Isaacs [ed.], Emily Kngwarreye Paintings, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1998, p. 150 6 Janet Holt, op.cit. pp. 148-158 7 CAAMA is the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association. Its arts retail arm CAAMA Shop was established in 1983. From 1987 CAAMA Shop through its manager, Rodney Gooch, represented the Utopia Women's Batik Group and initiated the first paintings project with this group in the summer of 1988-89. 8 CAAMA/Utopia Artists-in-Residence Project: Louie Pwerle and Emily Kame Kngwarreye 1989-1990. Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts [PICA], 8 June - 8 July 1990, exhibition brochure, A PICA publication, Perth 1990. This project was funded by The Robert Holmes à Court Foundation. 9 Janet Holt, pers.comm. 10 Margo Neale [ed.], Utopia: the Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, ex. cat., National Museum of Australia Press, 2008, pp. 69, 72 11 Emily Kame Kngwarreye 'Interview' in CAAMA/Utopia Artists-in Residence Project: Louie Pwerle and Emily Kame Kngwarreye 1989-1990, op.cit. 12 Margo Neale, op.cit., pp. 220-221 13 Marc Gooch (nephew of Rodney Gooch) and I were taken to Alhalkere by Greeny Petyarre in late 1996.