Installation view of Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye at the National Museum of Australia, Canberra. Photo: Lannon Harley, National Museum of Australia, 2008. © Emily Kame Kngwarreye/Licensed by Viscopy, 2015

Emily Kame Kngwarreye in Japan

Gay McDonald and Laura Fisher on staging Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye at the National Museum of Art in Osaka

The 2008 exhibition Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye in Japan represented a significant milestone in international exhibitions of Australian art. The tour to Japan was the result of a complex set of negotiations between the National Museum of Art in Osaka (NMAO), the National Art Centre in Tokyo (NACT) and the National Museum of Australia (NMA, Canberra), the Yomiuri Shimbun and the Australian Embassy in Japan. This kind of extended, cross-cultural, governmental-corporate collaboration is virtually without precedent in exhibitions of Australian art.

It was Akira Tatehata, a distinguished poet, curator and future director of the NMAO who conceived the idea of this exhibition. He had long harboured a desire to bring an exhibition of Kngwarreye’s paintings to Japan since he’d seen Indigenous curator Margo Neale’s exhibition of her work at the Queensland Art Gallery in 1998. Following a chance meeting with Neale, Tatehata sought assistance from the Australian Ambassador to Japan, Murray McLean to expedite the show and Neale’s involvement. McLean approached Arts Minister Rod Kemp, who requested that NMA, Canberra director Craddock Morton release Neale from other museum duties to deliver the exhibition.

This top-down path of persuasion and negotiation, initiated by a respected curator from outside of Australia, signifies the atypical character of this touring exhibition. It also set in train a relatively unorthodox model of institutional curatorial and exhibition management practices. Neale negotiated delivery of the project with the support of just two staff: Benita Tunks, an experienced consultant who had worked with Neale as a project manager, and Sonja Balaga as assistant.[1] This arrangement allowed Neale to circumnavigate the NMA’s bureaucracy and deliver the project in two years. At the same time, the Australian Embassy in Tokyo assisted with the project’s realisation and promotion through the contributions of Hitomi Toku (cultural officer), Ross Westcott (Counsellor, Public Diplomacy) and Bruce Miller (Minister, Political).

The atypical character of this international exhibition becomes more pronounced once the role played by Yomiuri Shimbun in the exhibition’s Japanese presentation is understood. Major newspapers and media groups are critical gatekeepers and sponsors of imported culture in Japan, a role they acquired in the post-war period. As historian Thomas Havens notes, ‘‘Japan was kept in cultural as well as economic and diplomatic isolation by the occupying authorities’’ after World War II.[2] In the absence of cultural leadership from the government, corporate or higher education sectors, the newspaper conglomerates took the initiative and began organising exhibitions from overseas.

This investment was and remains a commercial rather than a philanthropic one with newspapers favouring cultural events of mass appeal, such as blockbuster exhibitions of European and particularly modern French art. This approach has meant that most Japanese museum audiences are predisposed to appreciate a particular kind of foreign art – the modern Western canon. The co-billing of the Kngwarreye exhibition at the National Art Centre in Tokyo with that of Italian modernist Amedeo Modigliani, also following the NACT’s prior staging of exhibitions of art by Monet and Renoir, attests to the continued dominance of European art.

In his drive to bring Kngwarreye’s work to Japan, Tatehata had an ally in Seiichiro Sakata, general manager of cultural promotions at Yomiuri Shimbun. Sakata, a former Australian correspondent, shared Tatehata’s admiration for Kngwarreye’s work and helped to secure Yomiuri as a major sponsor of the Japanese tour.[3] Typically, Yomiuri is the exclusive sponsor of cultural imports, but in this instance the National Museum of Australia in Canberra covered all costs associated with the exhibition’s preparation along with transnational transportation costs. This arrangement required Yomiuri to negotiate with personnel from the NMAO, the NMA, Canberra, and the Australian Embassy in Japan, on key aspects of the exhibition’s presentation. Compared to other non-Japanese museum models, it is remarkable that Yomiuri was the sole manager of the exhibition’s Japanese tour, taking responsibility for the show’s installation, exhibition design and production of the catalogue publication: the NACT contributed only curators, Osamu Fukanaga (Chief Curator) and Hanako Nishino (Assistant Curator) and the exhibition venue.

Unsurprisingly, these multi-party negotiations impinged in complex ways on how the exhibition was presented. While such negotiations are usually erased from the archival trace, they can teach us much about the curatorial process that underpins the success or otherwise of an exhibition. Director of the Hayward Gallery in London, Ralph Rugoff, recently suggested that: ‘‘Good exhibition design begins with getting a sense of art’s extreme sensitivities to its surroundings and you confront this every time you install an exhibition. What might look great on paper has to be rethought when you start to install. If you see a travelling exhibition at different venues it makes this really clear.’’[4]

Rugoff’s comment regarding the necessity for a kind of curatorial recalibration to take place when a show moves from the conceptual phase to its physical installation echoes Neale’s approach to installation. Tunks describes Neale as a curator who adopts an organic approach and likes to keep options open as she moves from the conception to the actual resolution of the installation. At both venues in Japan the exhibition was hung in white cube spaces of roughly 2,000 square metres. But the two venues offered markedly different architectural spaces within which to install the exhibition. At the NMAO, a subterranean gallery, the exhibition was installed over several floors and within galleries with ceiling heights of approximately four metres. By contrast, in the vastly scaled and new NACT, the exhibition was presented in a gallery with ceiling heights of approximately ten metres, and half a kilometre of wall space freshly resurfaced in pristine white paper that created an almost invisible transition from wall to ceiling.

Curator Margo Neale discusses the installation for the National Art Centre, Tokyo, with the cultural officer Hitomi Toku, cultural attache Bruce Miller from the Australian Embassy, NACT chief curator Osamu Fukanaga, assistant curator Hanako Nishini, and project manager Benita Tunks. Photo: Eric Archer

For both Neale and Tatehata, it was important that Kngwarreye be showcased as a great contemporary artist. In terms of the physical installation of the exhibition, Neale wanted Emily’s work to ‘‘sing’’ in each space, and for visitors to feel a strong connection to the works: ‘‘I believe that the deepest learning experience is filtered through the emotional centres.’’[5] For Neale, one ‘‘key educative function’’ of the exhibition was to break down what she perceived as the stereotypical Japanese view that an Australian female Indigenous artist without training in an art school could not ‘‘produce masterpieces too’’. Knowing that audiences would expect a chronological presentation, Neale nevertheless tried to more directly engage those viewers unfamiliar with art beyond Europe or Japan.

To this end, viewers first encountered Kngwarreye’s biggest and most dramatic works, among them Big Yam Dreaming (1993) and the Alhalkere Suite (1995), before seeing the rest of the exhibition, arranged in reverse chronological order. In addition, some works were arranged in unusual configurations, as John McDonald noted: ‘‘A series of dot within dot paintings ... has been hung in such a way that the works resemble icons, while another arrangement plays on the idea of an altarpiece.’’[6] For Neale, these shrine-like arrangements were designed to imbue the works with a sense of sacredness, and were a conscious strategy to help Japanese audiences ‘‘go from the known to the unknown’’.

In Osaka, Neale had worked in relative freedom throughout the installation process, but in Tokyo there were strong differences of opinion between Neale and the NACT’s curators about how best to accommodate viewer expectations and habits. Fearing that viewers would be confused by a reverse chronology and that Kngwarreye’s batiks would be perceived as merchandise if hung too close to the shop, the NACT Chief Curator Osamu Fuakanaga and Assistant Curator Hanako Nishino proposed a conventional chronological hang. Ultimately, a compromise was struck. The exhibition began with the Alhalkere Suite (1995), and was otherwise arranged in a loose chronology, allowing the different themes that preoccupied Kngwarreye to be made clear to viewers.

Installation view of Alhalkere Suite (1993) in Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye at the National Museum of Art, Osaka, 2008. Photo: Benita Tunks. © Emily Kame Kngwarreye/Licensed by Viscopy, 2015

Kngwarreye’s work had an entirely different presentation at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. The ‘‘black box’’ environment that was employed is a fusion of exhibition architectures: while it borrows some strategies from the white cube in its use of a ‘‘neutral’’ backdrop of walls, carpet and artificial lighting, it is also highly atmospheric. Rather than working with an abundance of light, the installation involved the selective introduction of light to dramatically set artworks off against walls of varying shades from white, dark grey to black. This strategy was also intended to visually minimise the view of the gallery’s existing walls, described by Neale as about ‘‘as ugly as you can get’’.

We wish to conclude with some brief thoughts on the significance of ideas around notions of Emily’s ‘‘genius’’, and how the lens of international modernism (the ‘‘miracle’’ of her modernity) was brought to bear in many discourses associated with the exhibition. It is clear that these were flexible and accommodating frameworks for establishing a common understanding within a risky cross-cultural terrain. Aspects of Emily’s history – such as her working life as a cameleer, and the intersection of her personal history with significant Australian social and political histories around colonisation, pastoralisation and the Land Rights movements – were considered relevant to the exhibition of her work in Canberra, but not for the Japanese context, according to Neale. Rather, for this international audience, there was a strong emphasis on Kngwarreye’s singularity, on formalism, and on emotion. Further, emotion was seen to both underpin Kngwarreye’s ability to render natural phenomena in compelling ways, and to be a universal medium for audience engagement, exemplified by the frequently repeated description of NMAO Director Akira Tatehata’s first encounter with Kngwarreye’s work in the 1990s that had reduced him to tears.

These aesthetic notions were not only effective in rationalising Kngwarreye’s worth in terms familiar to those Japanese viewers acquainted with European modernism. They also dovetailed with Neale’s curatorial ambition to strike the viewer emotionally and to ensure that Kngwarreye be recognised as a significant international artist unencumbered by politicised cultural specificity. The issues that underpin these objectives were further highlighted in an astute comment made by a Japanese viewer interviewed for the documentary Emily in Japan: ‘‘The value of the paintings for Aboriginal people and for others are fundamentally different when they are exhibited in the West or Japan. When their works are shown by Westerners as interesting novelties it means that they are seen within the Western modernist framework, within the Eurocentric context of multiculturalism. I don’t know how we can overcome this difference. But it is important, I think. These issues are not a problem for Emily, but for us, the audience.’’[5]

Similarly, Tatehata stated that he hoped the exhibition might inspire Japanese audiences to ask ‘‘what does multiculturalism mean?’’[6] Japan’s condition as a culturally reclusive country, whose citizens struggle with immigration, created the impetus for a productive examination of cross-cultural perspectives through a truly remarkable exhibition by one of Australia’s leading artists.

Installation view of a museum visitor looking at Kngwarreye’s batiks at the National Museum of Art, Osaka, 2008. While many of the batiks were mounted into white canvases to ensure they were given equivalent value to the paintings hung nearby, they were tilted off the wall to differentiate them from paintings. Photo: Sonja Balaga


  1. ^ This article draws on content from interviews with Margo Neale, Benita Tunks, Hitomi Toku and Andrew Pike by Laura Fisher and Gay McDonald in February to April, 2015.
  2. ^ Thomas H. R. Havens, Artist and Patron in Postwar Japan: Dance, Music, Theater, and the Visual Arts, 1955–1980, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982, p. 132.
  3. ^ John McDonald, ‘Emily Kame Kngwarreye in Osaka’, Craft Arts International, 1 February 2008:
  4. ^ Gina Fairley, ‘Museum Architecture: Spectacle or Receptacle?’, ArtsHub, 6 December 2013:
  5. a, b Emily in Japan: the making of an exhibition, Directed by Andrew Pike, Ronin Productions, 2009. Transcript available at
  6. a, b Edan Corkill, ‘Dreamtime on canvas’, The Japan Times, 21 February 2008.

Laura Fisher is a sociologist and art historian. She is currently a post-doctoral research associate at Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney.

Gay McDonald is a Senior Lecturer at UNSW Art & Design and worked as a curator before completing her PhD in art history in the United States.

The authors are collaborating on a research project: Offshore Encounters: Curating Australian Art in Cross-cultural Contexts.