Desert Monet: Emily Kngwarreye

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Last Friday marked the 14th anniversary of the death of Emily Kame Kngwarreye (1910-1996), an Australian Aboriginal artist. She has been described as “one of the most prominent and successful artists in the history of contemporary indigenous Australian art,” “one of the world's great painters,” and the “Desert Monet.” Akira Tatehata, the director of the National Museum of Art in Osaka, summed it up by saying, “...there can be only one way to describe her. She was just a genius.” So today we present some fun facts about Australia's most popular aboriginal artist... perhaps their most popular artist period.

1. Only beginning her painting career at age 78, Emily Kngwarreye went on to become a highly prolific artist and “one-woman industry,” producing more than 3,000 paintings by the time she died at age 86. That averages out to about one painting a day for those eight years. (She finished her last painting, “Yam Awelye—Blue” just four days before her death.) Her high output was due in part to the dependence of others on her income: more than once she postponed retirement in order to continue providing funds for her community. Despite having no children of her own, she was responsible for as many as 80 kinspeople. The money she earned—estimated to be as much as A$500,000 a year—was spent not on herself, but on purchasing necessities and gifts for others, including supplying a car each week to the community.

2. Kngwarreye, who never studied art, developed her own unique methods for painting. She would spread her canvases on the ground and paint while sitting on or next to them. Over the years, she began using larger brushes, and eventually began trimming down the hairs around the edge of the brush, leaving the middle hairs longer. This styling of her brushes produced unique effects in her paintings, like dots with strong centers and softer edges. Kngwarreye could use both her hands to paint and would often switch from hand to hand, sometimes employing a brush in each hand to paint simultaneously. She was reportedly strongest with her left hand, though.

3. “Earth's Creation,” the sister painting to “Earth's Creation II” (shown above), is considered by some to be “Australia's most important painting.” The 6.3 meter by 2.7 meter work, sewn together from 4 smaller pieces of linen, was sold in 2007 for $1.056 million, setting a record for the sale of indigenous art. But it wasn't just the highest price paid for an indigenous work of art – at the time, it was the highest price ever paid in Australia for a work of art by a female artist, too.

4. When asked to describe the meaning of her paintings, Kngwarreye answered, “Whole lot, that's all, whole lot, awelye, arlatyeye, ankerrthe, ntange, dingo, ankerre, intekwe, anthwerle and kame. That's what I paint: whole lot.” (Or, in English, “...whole lot, my dreaming, pencil yam, mountain devil lizard, grass seed, dingo, emu, small plant emu food, green bean and yam seed. That's what I paint...”) Many of her paintings center around yams, an important source of food for the aboriginal people and especially dear to Kngwarreye, whose middle name, Kame, refers to the yam's yellow flower.

5. Although she didn't begin her painting career until she was almost 80, Kngwarreye had been creating batiks for several years before that. She was a founding member of the Utopia Women's Batik Group in 1977, but gave up batik when she began painting on canvas. Kngwarreye cited several reasons for her switch, including that she “got a bit lazy... it was too much hard work,” that making batik uses up all the soap powder, and that her “eyesight deteriorated.”

6. Kngwarreye's community was fairly isolated, so it wasn't until the age of 9 that Kngwarreye saw a white man or a horse. Then, one day, she was out in a dry riverbed digging for yams when a white policeman passed through on a horse, leading an aboriginal prisoner in chains. Viewing this strange sight, Kngwarreye believed the white man to be a devil-spirit.

Larger versions of Kngwarreye's "Earth's Creation II," shown above top, and "Yam Dreaming," shown just above, are available.

Fans should check out the collections of Kngwarreye's work at MBANTUA and Songlines Aboriginal Art; the retrospective exhibition at DACOU Melbourne and the National Museum of Australia's "Utopia: the genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye" exhibition; the Message Stick episode on Kngwarreye; this AIAM100 video on Kngwarreye; this Japanese video about Kngwarreye; and DACOU's collection of articles and stories about Kngwarreye.

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September 10, 2010 - 7:01am
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