Australia 1908 /1912 – 1996
Utopia, Central Desert, Northern Territory, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, synthetic polymer paint on canvas
Vast areas of the centre of the Australian continent are classified by Europeans as desert. Yet Aboriginal people's intimate knowledge of the environment, learned over millennia, has allowed them to live well in these often hostile conditions.
The desert was the birthplace of one of the most important movements in modern Australian art. In the early 1970s, senior Aboriginal men at the government settlement of Papunya, west of Alice Springs, began to make portable paintings in acrylic using the traditional symbols of their ceremonial sand drawings, ground paintings and body painting.
The developments at Papunya spread in time to other desert communities, including Utopia, north east of Alice Springs, where Emily Kam Kngwarray emerged as a leading artist in the 1990s. In Kngwarray's paintings, symbols are used sparingly to transcend the narrative aspect of the Dreamings they evoke. Her strong gestural marks and fields of colour express the resonance of ancestral power in the landscape, as does the cross-hatching in Arnhem Land bark paintings.
Kngwarray is regarded as a phenomenon in Australian art. For an elderly, traditional Aboriginal woman who (as it was popularly believed) started painting in her seventies, she worked with immense speed and assurance. In a brief eight-year painting career, Kngwarray produced an extraordinary number of canvases — reputed to be as many as 3,000 works, or an average of one canvas each day. To the art world, both her output and her seemingly 'abstract' gestural style were unlike anything by an Aboriginal painter previously seen. Far from being an overnight sensation, however, Kngwarray's works are the culmination of a lifetime of making art for ceremonial purposes.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra