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.
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!’).
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 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.