Emily Kame Kngwarreye: The impossible modernist

Portrait photo of Emily Kame Kngwarreye (1994) Courtesy and © Greg Weight


Why do those fellas paint like me … ?

Emily Kame Kngwarreye 
Art critic Robert Hughes made the assessment that Aboriginal art was the last great art movement of the twentieth century.[1]It started at the Aboriginal community called Papunya, in which Aboriginal men had been painting on canvas for the outside market with great success since the 1980s. The Papunya art style, as it became known, sometimes compared to forms of Western modernism—from abstract expressionism to minimalism and even conceptual art—presented a comparison that was rarely taken literally, although some critics of the 1987 Dreamings exhibition in New York did wonder if the Aboriginal artists had been appropriating New York art. But when it came to the late paintings of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, critics really did start to question the relationship between modernism and Western Desert painting, ascribing to her the genius and expressive freedom associated with the masters of Western modernism. 

As art historian Roger Benjamin wrote in 1998 “several aspects of Kngwarreye’s work and career fed directly into the most cherished Euro‑American concepts of the artist as genius, and of modernist formalist heroics … This was a kind of painting curiously familiar to the non-Aboriginal art world—a manner of composing it admired in the abstract expressionist drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, certain large De Koonings, the colour field canvases of Jules Olitski and their Australian counterparts of the later 1960s.”[2]

Emily Kame Kngwarreye was black, female, spoke little English and was already elderly when she started painting on canvas, in the middle of the Australian desert, on a patch of country called Utopia, some 260 kilometres northeast of Alice Springs, a place she rarely left over her 80-plus years. She was in her late 70s when she was introduced to painting in acrylics on canvas after a decade working in batik with the Utopia women’s group. Neither batik nor painting on canvas is traditional; both were introduced, in the 1970s and 1980s respectively, as part of a government re‑skilling program. Perhaps because painting on canvas grew out of the women’s batik group, painting on canvas became a women’s activity, unlike the situation at Papunya begun by a men’s painting group. These were strongly gendered societies. But Kngwarreye broke the mould. 

At Utopia it was Kngwarreye’s painting that secured her place in the Western art market and brought millions of dollars into the community as the undisputed boss of the “money story”. She was the golden goose. Emily had no biological children of her own, although many others, so occupied a separate place and this, combined with her strong personality (described as bossy), her age, ceremonial status and past employment as a cameleer (a man’s role) also secured her unique status. The strength of her arms from cameleering was not an insignificant factor in the power and character of her painting stroke.

Installation view, Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, National Museum of Australia, Canberra, 2008. Photo: Lannon Harley

The conundrum of Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s great achievement as an artist is that a domain absent in the production of her work, Western modernism, played such an important role in its reception. Positively or negatively, Western modernism has framed the reception of her work, both responding to those who invoke modernism as a form of validation and/or those who deny its relevance in the name of her authenticity and Aboriginality. Some critics have sought to have it both ways, pushing her work into the slippery realm of the inexplicable enigmatic. 

Akira Tatehata, then director of the National Museum of Art, Osaka, who initiated the exhibition in Japan in 2008, and pursued the then Minister of the Arts Rod Kemp to assign me to curate, refers to Kngwarreye as the “The impossible Modernist.” Other descriptors have included “accidental modernist,” “reluctant modernist” or “modern without modernism.” Kngwarreye herself couldn’t escape this framing modernism. On seeing the work of Western modernists, and Sol LeWitt’s striped works in particular, she asked, “Why do those fellas paint like me?” Sol LeWitt did in fact have Kngwarreye paintings in his own collection, and is known to have been influenced by her. Kngwarreye may have been born around the same time as Pollock, but her artistic journey completely bypassed what Tatehata meant by modernism, namely the Western tradition of art known for its formalism and abstraction that spans artists from Cezanne to Pollock. 

Kngwarreye’s question about others painting like her may reinstate her agency and primacy, but it does not answer the apparent conundrum of her modernism. Yet, to take her seriously as a modernist, as Tatehata does, modernism needs to be repositioned from its Western axis to places seemingly peripheral to its operations and reach. As Bengali historian Dipesh Chakrabaty observed, when writing about Indian modernism, “How could one write of forms of modernity that have deviated from all canonical, that is Euro-centric, understanding of the term? How do we envision or document ways of being modern that will speak to that which is shared across the world as well as that which belongs to human cultural diversity?”[3]

Okwui Enwezor, the curator of the 56th Venice Biennale, may have found some resolution to this conundrum when he included Kngwarreye’s painting Earth’s Creation (1994) in his curated program for the 2015 Venice Biennale, All The World’s Futures. Earth’s Creation was resplendent in its painterly glory; unexplained, unmediated and aesthetically uninterrupted, avoiding the focus and politics of cultural difference that usually accompanies the presentation and reception of the work of Australian Aboriginal art in the national sphere. In Venice, it was presented as a work of international contemporary art, contextualised with other international artists, and presented alongside works by Ellen Gallagher, Huma Bhabha, Glen Lygon and Adrian Piper, with no attempt to define her as different by virtue of her cultural background. Earth’s Creation stood its ground in a way that is not possible in Australia or to date in any other international context, though her exhibition in Japan attempted to do so, where her Aboriginality has always been foregrounded ahead of her status as belonging to the pantheon of international greats, recognised by Enwezor.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Earth's Creation, 1994, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, four panels. Courtesy of Mbantua Gallery and Cultural Museum, Alice Springs. © Emily Kame Kngwarreye/Licensed by Viscopy, 2017 
Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Earth's Creation, 1994, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, four panels. Courtesy of Mbantua Gallery and Cultural Museum, Alice Springs. © Emily Kame Kngwarreye/Licensed by Viscopy, 2017 

Two major conceptual shifts in thinking about modernity have occurred since those claims were first made about Kngwarreye’s modernism around 1990 when she produced her first paintings. Firstly, the dominant Western model of modernity and modernism has given way to the notion of multiple modernities, or culturally specific modernisms. The second shift, related to the first, is that there is now a global climate in which people have a strong desire to look beyond their own cultures and find common ground with other peoples—to find connection through cultural difference. 

Both these shifts were evident in Kngwarreye’s substantial exposure on the international stage in Japan in 2008, as the first Australian artist (Indigenous or non-Indigenous) to be given a solo exhibition of such scale and significance, precipitating a range of cross-cultural responses and fresh fields of enquiry from within and beyond the conventional Western modernist frame. Despite being totally unknown in Japan, Kngwarreye’s work struck such a chord: it was deemed “the most successful contemporary art exhibition ever seen in Japan, breaking Andy Warhol’s record of ten years standing.”[4] 

As the lead curator for the exhibition Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye in Osaka and Tokyo, I was sensitive to a cultural sphere that opened new curatorial possibilities. The lens widened on readings of her work beyond the usual comparison with Western modernism. Connections with classical and contemporary Japanese art, culture and traditions were exposed and new viewing angles emerged as I drew out points of visual connection for a conservative Japanese audience seeing the work of an unknown artist from an unfamiliar culture. 

What did resonate with the Japanese sensibility that I could curatorially tap into it? Ancestor worship and reverence for age and for nature, sacred sites, ritual, ceremony and calligraphy remain important ideals in modern Japan, and have not interfered with the Japanese affair with Western modernism. Arguably, Western modernism rather than scholarship was an easier way for the Japanese to understand Western modernity. Tatehata, an award-winning poet, academic, contemporary art critic and curator, had no difficulty seeing the connection between Kngwarreye’s work, Japanese cultural traditions and Western modernism, yet he struggled to explain the phenomenon of “Emily” in art‑historical terms. And, while capable of responding deeply to her work, he was unable to come up with an appropriate intellectual paradigm to his satisfaction.

Exhibition installation of works by Emily Kame Kngwarreye, 2008, National Museum of Art, Osaka. Photo: Sonja Balaga. © Emily Kame Kngwarreye/Licensed by Viscopy, 2017
Exhibition installation of works by Emily Kame Kngwarreye, 2008, National Museum of Art, Osaka. Photo: Sonja Balaga. © Emily Kame Kngwarreye/Licensed by Viscopy, 2017 

In his struggle we see the struggle of most Western art historians to interpret Kngwarreye’s work and indeed to understand many Aboriginal works of an abstract appearance. I had the privilege of seeing Tatehata express both his absolute passion and intrigue for her work and his eight-year ordeal in trying to introduce her to Japan against much resistance. While he did not speak fluent English, his attempts to explain her work were palpable. For example, he was moved to tears when he saw Yam Dreaming. Speechless and shuffling around scratching his head, he said: “I don’t know how to explain this work, I can talk about it in formal terms, structure, composition, lines, colour but I just don’t know how she got there. I can draw comparison with Brice Marden, with Pollock and particularly with Yayoi Kusama but I know how they got there.”

At a loss for an explanation all Tatehata could say, was “it is a miracle and I just have to proclaim her a genius. But this is only an interim answer.” This forced him to question the legitimacy of declaring her a modernist. Searching to place her, he eventually declared her the quintessential outsider—outside both the Western and Eastern cultural spheres of his cultural imaginary. In Japan, the term “outsider” is usually associated with highly creative and inspirational people, artists like Yayoi Kusama. 

But the risk therein lies, as Tatehata further acknowledged, that such inadvertent praise for Kngwarreye’s paintings from the outside world is another form of cultural colonialism. Compelled to travel to Utopia, to experience it in his own limited way, this pilgrim’s progress was on par with the unease many Australian writers and curators felt about making comparisons with modernism twenty years ago. Tatehata was forced to the logical conclusion that, if attempting to understand Emily is anything other than a part of the original context, it is unacceptable. And, just as Emily’s work emerges from her own cultural context in its production, in order to appraise her work beyond the local it is impossible to rule out his own. 

In the end, Tatehata returned to a position where he could more clearly articulate some justification for the partial use of the term modernism, noting that while Kngwarreye may not be propelled by modernist urges to paint the way she paints, “the idea of introducing Emily’s works to outsiders through the cultural device of an exhibition is itself a modernist undertaking.”[5] By distinguishing between the zone of production and the zone of reception, he was in the position to recognise the productive significance of the connections between the two cultures, and the challenge of attempting to integrate another context into one’s own. 

Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Big Yam, 1996, synthetic polymer paint on canvas. Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. © Emily Kame Kngwarreye/Licensed by Viscopy, 2017 
Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Big Yam, 1996, synthetic polymer paint on canvas. Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. © Emily Kame Kngwarreye/Licensed by Viscopy, 2017 

Successive non-Indigenous Australian curators and academics have come to the same position, including Daniel Thomas who considers that it is “patronising, even racist [to] always imprison cultural product inside its particular cultural context”.[6] To confine Kngwarreye’s work to a local context would be to deny it the global exposure it deserves and demands, contributing to the lack of critical attention. Art historian Rex Butler takes an uncompromising stand, stating that “just as the meaning of a work of art lies not in any intention by its maker but how it is received by its spectator, so it is to be found not in the past when it is produced but in the present in which it is encountered.”[7] 

A review by Butler of the 1998 exhibition I curated for the Queensland Art Gallery, noted that “the strength of the Emily retrospective in Queensland was paradoxically its willingness to take sides, or more exactly its refusal to balance perspective, to provide some final synthesis. Rather, it simply presented the alternatives—the emic and the etic—and revealed that the trust was not to be attained by either of them, that each was caught up in the other it sought to avoid. As a result, the show escaped the two obvious rhetorics regarding putting Aboriginal art into the museum: both the unambiguous celebration of its maker and the ethnographical critique from the outside. Instead, something far more uncanny and disturbing was produced (and rare, despite virtually all contemporary art being devoted to the task): a profoundly anti‑museological show held within a museum.”[8]

While Australian art historians do not have the advantage of an outsider view, and get caught up in a restrictive and blinding political correctness, which often subsumes the artist’s agency, the absence of which is one of the advantages of showing internationally. One viewpoint taken up by Ian McLean is that her work is modernist because it engages with the modernity of her life on the Australian frontier, and not because it looks like the work of Pollock, Marden or Kusama. For this reason, he also argues, it is not unique, rather Kngwarreye’s art is the consummation of a long post-contact Aboriginal history a lineage, and she shares it with other Aboriginal artists such as the Papunya artists.

Aboriginal modernism might then be defined in terms of these juxtapositions rather than purely as a Western invention. As McLean observes, it alerts us to something unique about modernism as a truly global period style with local formations. I first confronted these questions before any of these discussions had taken place in the process of curating the national touring exhibition of Kngwarreye’s work in 1998. How do I present the work using a European model of the monograph in white spaces within a tradition that is alien to the lineage of the artist whose work is being represented?

Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Untitled (Awelye), 1994, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, six panels. Private Collection. © Emily Kame Kngwarreye/Licensed by Viscopy, 2017
Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Untitled (Awelye), 1994, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, six panels. Private Collection. © Emily Kame Kngwarreye/Licensed by Viscopy, 2017

How do I fully acknowledge the cultural traditions that inform the work; yet produce a successful show of great contemporary Australian art which is not marginalised through cultural difference? My answer to this dilemma was noted by Butler, “The show did not try to master the impossible real of Aboriginality, occupy some neutral position in relation to it … it both grasped the ethnographical dilemma at stake in any approach to Kngwarreye’s work and understood itself as necessarily unable to do so.”[9] In other words, there was no curatorial attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable, but rather the aim was to show both sides of the dilemma and let it speak for itself. 

Curatorially, this was done through the inclusion of what I referred to in Emily’s case as the Utopia room—a cultural hub that bears comparison to the inclusion of artists’ studios in exhibitions such as Jackson Pollock’s recreated studio in his retrospective at MoMA. It acknowledges the different genesis and trajectory of her work despite its visual compatibility with Western modernist works. As an Indigenous curator I have a responsibility to the artists and their communities (as well as to the museum) to tell as much of the story as possible. Providing minimal text—name, date, media, and dimensions—is in my view a simplistic strategy of avoiding the ethnographic trap. It is a form of cultural cringe or fighting a war that had already been won about Aboriginal art not being contemporary. Apart from anything else, we have had five Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists representing Australia at the Venice Biennale in the 1990s, two in the curator’s program in 2015 and another in 2017. 

Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Untitled, 1996, synthetic polymer paint on canvas. Private Collection. © Emily Kame Kngwarreye/Licensed by Viscopy, 2017 

Many retrospectives of Western masters also fall into this ethnographic trap, although in this case it would probably be called the sociological trap. As Michael Jagamara Nelson says, “the painting is nothing without the story.” The same is true of an exhibition. I have now curated three major exhibitions of Kngwarreye’s work, and each time have included more information about the context in which it was produced. This reflects both my sense of what curating exhibitions is about and the contemporaneity of her art. It is strong enough to defend itself on this point.

In conclusion, I will end how I started—using Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s own words. This vignette, as revealing anecdote, occurred on the occasion, in 1993, when she collected her prestigious Keating Award in Canberra, and was taken to the Art Gallery of New South Wales.[10] An eager entourage wheeled her to a painting by renowned Australian abstract expressionist Tony Tuckson that they were sure she would relate to—after all, everyone else seemed to see connections between her work and his. On tenterhooks they waited for her happy recognition of a fellow genius. Eventually, she erupted into her Anmatyerre language. The translation revealed that she was worried about her sick dogs back at Utopia and wanted to go home. Deflation. To stimulate a more appropriate response, the curator Deborah Edwards explained Tony Tuckson’s painting process and his interest in mark‑making and action painting, hoping she would see some connection. Kngwarreye responded in language: “Oh poor fella, he got no story. No dreaming.”[11]

Modernism and story are clearly not incompatible in Aboriginal modernism.



  1. ^ Susan Gough Henley, ‘The powerful growth of Aboriginal Art’, New York Times, November 2005.
  2. ^ Roger Benjamin, ‘A new modernism hero’, in Margo Neale (ed) Emily Kame Kngwarreye. Alhalkere Paintings from Utopia, Queensland Art Gallery and Macmillan Publishing, Brisbane, 1998, p. 47
  3. ^ Dipesh Chakrabarty, Habitations of Modernity: Essays in the Wake of Subtaltern Studies, Chicago University Press, Chicago, 2002, p. 244
  4. ^ Email correspondence from Akira Tatehata to the National Museum of Australia, November 2008.
  5. ^ Akira Tatehata, ‘The Impossible Modernist’ in Utopia: the Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Margo Neale (ed), National Museum Australia Press, Canberra, p. 31.
  6. ^ Daniel Thomas, ‘Taking charge. The art of Emily Kame Kngwarreye’, in Earth’s Creation: The painting of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, exhibition catalogue, Lauraine Diggins Fine Art, Melbourne, 1998, p. 2.
  7. ^ Rex Butler, Radical Revisionism: An Anthology of Writing on Australian Art, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, Queensland, 2005, p. 12 .
  8. ^ Rex Butler, ‘The undeconstuctible space of Justice’, Eyeline, no. 36 Autumn /Winter 1998, pp. 24‑30.
  9. ^ Rex Butler, 1998.
  10. ^ Australian Artists Creative Fellowships became known as “the Keatings” after the then Prime Minister Paul Keating, who established them in 1989.
  11. ^ Deborah Edwards, personal correspondence with author, 1995.

Margo Neale is senior Indigenous curator and advisor to the Director at the National Museum of Australia and an Adjunct Professor at the Australian National University. She is of Aboriginal and Irish descent, from the Kulin nation with Wiradjuri and Gumbayngirr clan connections.