Emily Kame Kngwarreye – Early Days

Emily Kame Kngwarreye
Emily Kame Kngwarreye

There’s been much written on Emily Kame Kngwarreye – a number of books in fact.  Her works have been exhibited all over the world! Compared alongside Monet! A genius!

I knew Emily before she ever became famous, way back in 1986/87.  We gave her  two pieces of canvas, around the 90 x 90cm size, when we were in the early stages of collecting paintings ourselves.  The paintings came back with some basic women U shapes and digging sticks.  Nothing out of the ordinary.  We sold one for a very modest price (probably around the $300 mark) and for some inexplicable reason I decided to keep the other – and I still have it! It is one of Emily’s very first paintings on canvas and is now in the Mbantua permanent collection.  I have no recollection of ever seeing another Emily painting with symbols in them.

Emily Kame Kngwarrye - MB000412
Emily Kame Kngwarreye – MB000412

During this period in time my main focus was my business – Mbantua Store.  Art was a side interest as the running of the business was 12 hours a day and I also had a very young, growing family.

Barbara Weir, who had become a good friend during that era, used to tell me all the time to get Emily to paint for us but I resisted for quite some time because of other work demands and I honestly had little appreciation for the paintings. I was very much old school – I liked neat and tidy dot work or landscapes – and I didn’t change overnight even though Barbara finally convinced me to buy paintings from Emily and I also had a wholesale market for them.

I can’t quite pin point the time I changed but it was a few years later, after Barbara had regularly told me that the paintings represented everything, that my daughter Dale Jennings and I got together and started staring into the paintings and questioned each other as to what we saw.  That was the beginning of my comprehension!  (Yes, I am a bit slow at times, I know!).  And shortly after that I was with a fairly prominent art journalist looking at a couple of Emily paintings that were lack-lustre browns, blacks and creams (and this journalist said words to the effect of ‘Emily did paint some pretty ordinary works at times!’).

Emily Kame Kngwarreye - MB007739
Emily Kame Kngwarreye with painting MB007739

This was something that I would have agreed to prior to my enlightening – the paintings in reference were not cosmetically beautiful to the eye – but I had to come to their defence!  Over the 30 plus years of traveling regularly to Emily’s lands of Utopia I have seen the countryside in drought many, many times.  The colours of the land are reminiscent of these paintings; dead or no grass… various tones of browns and mustard yellows… blacks from fire ravaged mulga forests… dust… flies by the trillions… ‘Stare into the paintings’ I told the journalist, ‘Free your mind’.  She didn’t.  Or certainly didn’t acknowledge that she did!  But that had been me not long before!

I certainly changed, so much so that I built a small but modest sized museum where we dedicated about 25% of its room to Emily paintings and to photographs that Dale and I visualised in her paintings.  I also bought Earth’s Creation at auction in 2007 for over $1 million and put that on display in the museum.

Earth’s Creation by Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Earth’s Creation has since been on exhibition in Japan, the Australian National Museum in Canberra, Parliament House in Darwin and, of recent, spent a few months in Venice, Italy, at the Venice Biennale.  A couple of years ago it was independently valued at $4 million.  So there are many more people out there in the world that have had my “enlightening”, and probably much quicker off the mark than myself!

And I am glad – not from the point of view of valuation – but that I was able to see what others could see and, ultra-importantly, what Emily could see and what she was able to accomplish coming from a completely different upbringing, culture and worldliness than I have.

Tim

Emily Kame Kngwarreye

The vast majority of people over the years, who have had negligible or no exposure to Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s paintings, generally have little or no idea as to why they are held in such high esteem and admired by those who understand her work.

Recently, an acquaintance of mine from the “vast majority” that I mention above, selected from our website this image of an Emily painting.   She said to me,  “Tim, it is an atrocious looking painting.  How on earth could anyone think that it is anything but?”

We all have our own views, ideas and likes regarding art.  My explanation to her was that Emily was a very old, authentic and traditional aboriginal lady when she painted this.  Her upbringing was all to do with the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime – and she even had a hole in her nose from those very early days. This is an absolute rarity now!

She spoke next to no English and through interpreters and the few English words that she possessed, she said that her paintings were about everything.   And “everything” was pretty much to do with creation and mythology.  She was given paints and canvas and almost immediately showed the art world how a little old aboriginal lady could master modern abstract, representing what she saw through her eyes and thoughts.  And thus allowing us, the viewers of her paintings, to see what we believed them to be.    It was all about everything.

Personally I love this piece.   I look into it (and probably because I knew Emily and have had over 30 years experience with her family and other Utopia people), I see it as quite a mystical painting.   I think of her having lived under the stars in the Central Australia deserts all of her life and this is a representation of her perspective of the night skies.  I see bright stars, more distant stars, stars behind clouds, reflected sunsets on the evening clouds, storm buildups – and I imagine thoughts and wonderings of all people when lying on the ground looking up into the night heavens.

Others might see something completely different and I’m sure that they do – and that in itself shows the genius of Emily Kngwarreye.

-Tim