REFLECTION Emily Kame Kngwarreye
Reflect on the importance of place and belonging for you in your work…
This has been a surprisingly unsettling project for me personally. As an Australian, I’m familiar with aboriginal culture and to some extent aboriginal art and I’ve travelled into the centre of Australia. I’ve seen the colours, shapes and textures that are depicted in Emily’s art and experienced the intense atmosphere of the desert interior. To this point I haven’t felt drawn to aboriginal art in general but having spent some time looking at Emily’s work and researching her life, I found that the paintings resonated quite deeply with me.
I was struck with the strongly personal nature of the work. There was something about the seclusion of her life within the confines of her native environment that revealed a purity in her work. All of the changes and developments in the outside world during her lifetime were completely unknown to her and rather than this being a limitation on her expression, had quite the opposite result. It left her free to be the expression of the land and her people, there was nothing in the way. She became the cracks in the dry earth, the green of the rains when they came, the drifting movement of the seeds in the dry hot wind. She became the place!
Spending time researching her, transported me right back to Australia and I found this unsettling. Because I’ve spent many years in England, memories of my birth place don’t often arise. But there was something about these paintings which triggered a return to a place which has always held strong feelings for me. I could feel the heat from the images, I was once again back with the textures and smells of the bush- even the sounds on the video on the website conjured up the earthiness and colours of the landscape. I’ve been reading the book, ’Place’ by Tacita Dean and Jeremy Millar, and on page 20, the authors write, “both place and art might be said not to contain – and be contained by – boundaries…but rather an innumerable series of thresholds, which extend far beyond the physical limits of the site…, and across time also, remaining even when the particular place…may no longer exist .” I think it’s this ‘innumerable series of thresholds’ which defines my sense of place and belonging.
The question then arises, “Does the presence of ‘innumerable thresholds’ in regard to experiencing a sense of place prevent a strong association with one place?” Compared to Emily I think it does. There were no ‘thresholds’ for her. She was unencumbered by memory, experience, and all of her focus and energy went into expressing herself in the place where she belonged. Another contemporary artist whose work I have followed over a number of years is Kurt Jackson who is also deeply attuned to his environment. I have read two books on his work, “Place” and “Kurt Jackson, a New Genre in Landscape Painting.” Jackson graduated from Oxford with a degree in Zoology and his interest in and love for the environment has been the central focus of his art. Like Emily he works in the environment and is totally engaged with the natural world. His work is not just a pictorial representation of the landscape but the result of an immersion into the whole atmosphere and history of a place. Helen Dunsmore in “Kurt Jackson”, describes this immersion (page 47): “In Jackson’s view, the pictorial and aesthetic form one layer, whereas the drawing and the painting are informed by a deeper crossover between natural history, culture, politics, local gossip, myths, legends and personal experience of place.” I’m sure the same can be said of Emily’s work in that her understanding and deep connection with the land and her people underpin the pictorial layer of her paintings.
For Emily the material that she works on is unimportant. Her marks originate deep inside her and are the result of the culture and ancestral connections to her country of Alhalkere. Below the surface of her paintings are traceries of lines that are fully or partially obscured. This is the original drawing of the image which I think is very important in her work because they depict links between people and places and refer to ancestral journeys. The Australian aboriginal has always been nomadic and so journeying lines form the structure of life. The importance of this ‘drawing’ goes back to the passage quoted above by Helen Dunsmore referring to the “crossover between…culture,…myths …legends and personal experience.” I feel that this is the point where the two dimensional canvas becomes an installation, formed of layers of meaning as the artist explores that personal journey of memory, experience and history.