an aboriginal essay…

Sooo, I told myself that I would post something every week and second post in…already failed.
Currently: typical me has procrastinated way over the due date at uni again so I don’t really have much time to write to y’all what I was planning. Which is why I’m posting an old essay of mine…
I wanted something establishing for my first actual post and I felt like Aboriginal Art and their culture is beyond any awesome description!
My lecturer, Peter Brunt was very patient with me all throughout my Pacific Art course. He is the most pleasant, humble man I have met in the art history department. You are lucky, London town! Peter is gonna be co-curating with Nicholas Thomas and Adrian Locke at the Royal Academy of Arts in 2018/19 (final dates still to be confirmed…eeeee exciting). It’s gonna be a mad exhibition of Oceanic art…I will have make it back to Ol’ Blighty fo then fo sho! And he won the Art Book Prize for 2013, yay!


If you haven’t got a copy, it is so worth the money…bad ass photos and exciting new perceptions on art in the pacific. What’s not to like?!
[Art in Oceania: A New History]

Ermmm, anywho…my essay question stated:

Referring to the work of ONE artist involved in either the Maori modernist movement, Aboriginal Australian desert painting or modernism in Papua New Guinea, discuss the relationship between the work of this artist, modernism and the nation-state.

I understand if you can’t be bothered reading all of it and/or sift through to get to the good bits but in this essay, I feel I voiced an (understandable) overt passion for Aboriginal art and made clear my opinion on certain issues I feel strongly about…
I understand that people romanticise about the Australian indigenous’ way of life…if it comes across that way in my essay, don’t hate! I was probably just getting real into it!
I also understand that many people are perhaps unaware of how awful the situation between whitefellas and the indigenous has been….in my mind I have equated it to the Holocaust and 400 years of slavery.
But this is an instance when art truly saves the day! Aboriginal art has been the bridge between the two worlds, benefiting…pretty much everyone.
So yeah, I hope you enjoy reading the essay as much as I enjoyed writing it, (hahaha) and share my admiration for sucha rich and beautiful culture.
And without further ado, I introduce you to Emily Kame Kngwarreye!


Emily Kame Kngwarreye emerged as the most celebrated artist of the Central Desert, and perhaps the whole of Australia, through a short but prolific career in painting. To fully appreciate and comprehend the power of her art, one must be informed of the socio-cultural changes of the Aboriginal people imposed by the devastating colonial history that seethes beneath the surface of contemporary Australia. Initially deemed ‘primitive’, it is only fairly recently that the recognition of the sophistication and skill involved within Aboriginal art has been considered. Throughout the two-hundred years of oppression, it was largely disregarded or ethnographically misplaced; classified as curios and flung into museums, representing the primal beginning of man and allowing for stereotypes to set in[1]. Yet the startling electricity of Emily’s work confronts many Western viewers in its modernity and in her innovative departure from the generic concentric circle composition. The essay will aim to argue Emily’s place within the realms of modernism by affirming the contemporary nature of her paintings whilst simultaneously confirming the authenticity of them as she maintains her roots in traditions.

In the 1930s, the nation was in the process of searching for a developed art form that was completely Australian to represent them on the world stage; this would take the greatest aspects from the Australian School of Landscape Painters, European Modernism and Aboriginal art[2]. Australia failed to realize the timeless originality of the indigenous until art centres, namely New York, took interest in the acrylic movement through exhibitions such as Dreamings[3]. Ricoeur understood traditional practices could not remain static but should acknowledge the past in order for invention to arise within the current climate of globalization;

“Human truth lies only in this process in which civilizations confront each other more and more with what is most living and creative in them. Man’s history will progressively become a vast explanation in which each civilization will work out its perception of the world by confronting all others.”[4]

When considered in this context, the acculturation that acrylic desert painting displays allows it to be described in terms of the global arena as opposed to merely the locality of place.

The Anmatyerre language group is located in a remote area of the Simpson Desert known as Utopia[5]. Emily’s paintings were, and are, contingent on her position as an Anmatyerre elder, combined with her experience of Dreaming over the course of her entire life, which came to a close in 1996[6]. Her birth country of Alhalkere had no contact with the white man until she was ten years of age in the 1920’s[7]. However, she did not pick up a paintbrush until a ripe age of around eighty[8]. Instantaneously, she received attention from critics, collectors and other artists[9]. Her style has been compared to the Abstract Expressionists[10], perhaps in the palpitating resonance that flows through the paintings and permeating mood that is suggested in her pigments. But with such sporadic visits from Europeans[11] and oblivious to the existence of Pollock, this demands explanation. To understand Emily’s art, and any Aboriginal painting, is to understand the cultural context, their traditions and world view.

From a typical European perspective and on a superficial level, the art of the desert appears abstract and schematic in the various shapes, dots and lines. Yet it is a complex and meaningful representation of the landscape that simultaneously expresses their intimate and unconditional relationship with it[12]. However, the full force of their artworks effects only initiated members of the clan that produced it[13]. Adults, in particular those who have participated substantially in religious life, gain the deepest reading of Dreaming paintings[14]. For Emily, her Dreaming is the source of her creative drive and the knowledge she translates on to the canvas. Alhalkere is the inspiration for virtually all her work but the truth of her paintings stretches further than this because of the elaborate explanation for Aboriginal topophilia[15], which is related to the Dreamtime. Elders such as Emily have access to the most secret spheres of sacred knowledge, which has been transferred across generations for thousands of years[16], elevating the European notion of the status of the painter with a genuine edge. Much Aboriginal artwork remained undiscovered for an extended period of time due to this exclusivity and the ephemeral nature of its traditional forms. The first settlers of the nineteenth century regarded them as a society that created no art at all[17], when in fact they possess the oldest, perpetuating art practice known to mankind.

Traditionally, creating art is woven into the fabric of daily life, from telling stories to the children whilst tracing symbols into the sand, to body painting with natural ochre associated with spiritual activity[18].  Thus, it provides harmony and order through the various stages of revelation, allowing the elders an element of control over the young[19]. From an early age, all are encouraged to draw, paint or weave[20] and although only some of them will pursue these paths, they are all learned in the codified graphs of their clan, making their art a type of visual literacy. The largest amount of art is made for ceremonial occasions and generally most Aboriginal art reflects the Ancestral Realm, or Dreaming as it is now understood globally. The term Dreaming is an inaccurate translation[21] that suggests Aboriginal people float around in a fantasy world like infants but their religious systems are far from primitive.

The Dreamtime refers to the dawn of time and the shaping of the earth’s face by the Ancestors who hail from a subterranean spirit world[22]. But Dreaming is not a time that has merely passed but coexists with reality. It is an existence and sustains life, bestowing energy to all plants, animals and humans[23]. Aboriginal spirituality is centred on the life force and through the commemorative rituals, the people are able to generate it and cultivate it[24]. The rituals themselves last no more than two minutes but require six hours of preparation recreating designs and objects of ancestors to the sounds of sacred songs[25]. The Dreamtime governs existence in the desert, presenting the indigenous with a profound philosophy and gives reason for their deep connection with the earth and their topophilic relationship with certain locations. Being hunter-gatherers, without buildings and other permanent structures, the location of certain events accumulates a sense of historical significance whether it be personal or clan related[26]. Thinking in this mind-frame means a person’s life is mapped onto the landscape, which is correspondingly an objectification of themselves.

Aboriginal art is religious in its purpose, motifs and practice.  Emily’s contemporary forms can be considered within the European market and are hung in galleries. They are still traditionally derivative but approach the new mediums of acrylic paint and canvas with a fresh and creative manner. With most modern Aboriginal art, myths and access to the Dreamtime provide the artist with an insurmountable array of symbols[1] and imagery seen in many of their paintings.

Emily’s first painting, Emu Woman[2], reflects much of her artistic practices and was the work that thrust her into the limelight of international fame.

emu woman 88

After a lifetime of creating traditional Aboriginal art, her cultural narratives found a new mode of expression in the fluidity of wax in batik which was introduced by Jenny Green to the women of Utopia, easing the transition to painting[3]. The Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) delivered to Utopia one hundred blank canvases in 1988 as part of a community-wide painting project and thus Emu Woman was discovered[4]. It proved to be a captivating combination of tradition and innovation in the new medium. Challenged with the confines of working within a rectangle, Emily adapted to the surface and began with linear patterns that evoke ritual designs and the formations made by root systems of plants[5]. Many Aboriginal paintings serve as mnemonic maps, arranged as if from a bird’s eye view looking down from the heavens and, almost topographically, into the land itself. The Dutch artists of the seventeenth century similarly found an affinity between maps and painting; both pictorial modes of representation demonstrate a revelation of knowledge and pose the metaphor for one’s life journey. However, Emu Woman mainly depicts graph designs that emulate the lines and contours of body painting for women’s ceremonies, praising the Emu ancestor[6]. Aware of the public gaze, she protects the sacred information by pushing abstraction and instead presents the Ancestral Realm through rhythmic, gestural movements in a thick impasto. She also communicates through an aesthetic arrangement of dots over the surface, perhaps visualizing seeds or the sand[7] on which she would have created ceremonial ground paintings countless times. Emu Woman illustrated to a global audience that Aborigines are capable of creating a dialogue with the West.

As Aboriginal communities have faced the dispossession of their land and the deprivation of their identity due to colonisation and rigid eurocentricity, they also faced changes in aesthetics. The Northern Territory Land Rights Act of 1976 brought forth the outstation movement that saw Aboriginal people return to their lands[1]. However, the repercussions of the prior injustice, which included inadvertent genocide in the generation of children who were assimilated into Western society, are deeds that are difficult to undo[2]. Yet, there are several efforts made to reconcile the past. Geoffrey Bardon’s post as an art teacher at Papunya School in 1971 sparked one of the most prominent art movements in recent years by simply offering paint to the Aboriginal grounds-men and cleaners[3]. The practice of art has breathed vitality back into their culture, attracting the young and creating legitimate income in the foreign regime of the whitefellas. It has freed them from banal tasks that government officers prescribe in desperate attempts to reduce unemployment[4], when in actuality there are no genuine jobs for them within European ideas of progress and the quest for economic expansion. Emily has brought pride to the people of Utopia[5] through her art which has managed to build a bridge between cultures in its communication of Aboriginal plights and beliefs.

Emily’s painting style continued to flourish, expanding with the sheer size of the canvases that grew ever larger, suitable for the subject of Dreaming. The evolution of her style can be followed in the excessive use of dots seen in Yam[6].


They are scattered across the plane like seeds or constellations of stars, shrouding the under-tracking pathways that refer to Ancestral journeys and disguising the relations between places and people. Playing a functional role within the art, Emily exceeds the impressionists in her employment of the dot. They appear to be applied in various sizes and in certain rhythms that allude to ceremonial dancing whilst her command of colour conveys the shift in seasons and night skies of the desert[7]. Her painting signifies an Aboriginal voice in the consideration of her culture and country, conjuring its magnificence to the deaf civilization that marginalized her from its benefits.

As Emily continued to hide sacred knowledge from the view of the public, she methodically enhanced her technique with an unrivalled eloquence, surpassing her fellow Australians. Her ‘high-colourist’ phase[8] shows a dashist romance with dots, reminiscent of early Kandinsky paintings. The huge scale is fit to capture the vast desert, the stretch of her life and the Dreaming.  Earth’s Creation[9] displays a fusing of dots which create dappled areas of colour that swirl and propel dynamically across the canvas.


Similarly to Yam, the work embraces ceremonial dances and her palette is determined by the seasons[10]. Lush greens of fresh foliage spread after the rains, making the earth gush with new life. This celebration of her country, springing into birth may reflect her success in the art world; which is appropriate as Earth’s Creation became the first Aboriginal artwork and the first painting by a female Australian artist to hit a million dollars in 2007[11].

This illuminates the issue of the selling Western Desert art as a commodity or any other pretty picture. Many Aboriginal artists feel dubious that white people will ever understand their paintings or way of life as “they know that white people don’t understand and don’t make the effort to understand.”[1] Nevertheless in the case of Emily, her works have a gravity of their own, pulling people in from across the oceans, instigating hope for ecumenical understanding. Questions are raised about the authenticity of modern Aboriginal art; the syncretisms of such paintings bare techniques that already existed within the culture but are now refined and developed. Emily’s work is traditional in all aspects but rather exhibits Aboriginal reality as it exists today. The indigenous are aware of their position in Australian society[2] and a European reading into their works may conclude their art as a political statement, legitimizing their world view through asserting their claim to the land[3].

Emily eventually abandoned dots for bold, minimal linear patterns that comply with her earlier works in the evocation of ceremonial body painting. Untitled (Alweye)[4] appears as a schematic abstraction of her previous technique of under-tracking.


On an international scale, these thick, recurring stripes can be placed alongside Western concepts of modernism. Japanese audiences have observed parallels with calligraphy in the powerful rhythm of her brushstrokes[5]. Both these art forms are modes of visual literacy; Aboriginal symbols cannot be equated to a rule-bound alphabet as each one possesses several meanings that depend on their context[6]. European contact has instigated the impetus to decipher their meanings and all the variations but with the emergence of Emily’s work, therein signals a break from iconic modes of Aboriginal art and also a break from the conventional narratives that accompany them[7]. Dreaming stories direct the viewer to a strictly narrative interpretation whereas Emily invokes the multiple layers of earthly and cosmological imagery in order to inspire the sublime in the viewer. She seems to focus on the process of painting, of channeling the Dreaming, obtaining its truth as opposed to drawing a Dreaming story. Thus, her method can be described as a type of shorthand[8], in their swift completions, capturing only the essential information. The line is most potent in Emily’s Utopia Panels[9].

EKK Tokyo_Picture-465_w480

The series, painted in the last year of her life, are truly the artist’s magnum opus in their modernist rendering and the transition into an art that swings towards conceptual. Acknowledging the history of her people, the size and shape are reminiscent of the Yuendumu Doors which in turn, nod towards the murals at Papunya. Traditional paintings were completed on the doors of schools in order to remind children of their heritage in fear that “they might become like white people which [they] don’t want to happen”[10]. The effects of colonization are most prominent in the introduction of writing; from Christian missionaries preaching the word of the Bible, to the supposed need for documentation and schooling – the beginnings of integration into white culture[11]. However, the seven panels swallow the viewer in repetitive waves of black and white, devoid of her usual luminous colour and thus subverting expectations of Aboriginal art. The imagery is disquieting in its violent relentlessness, our eyes reading across like the pages of a book[12] but also down and through the panels. Echoing modern day Australia and mass production, the panels certainly evoke typefaces and their oppressive effect. The graffiti artist and art theorist, Rammellzee wrote the Iconic Treatise Gothic Futurism, describing the symbolic battle against standardizations of letters, enforced by the rules of the alphabet. His letters were “armed to stop all phony formations, lies, tricknowledgies placed upon its structure”.[13] Emily’s approach is less militant but similarly, she fights the orthographication of the Aboriginal language[14]. Yet, without standardizing the language into an alphabetic form, such progressions as the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976 could not have been carried out[15]. However, the ultimate downside to this is the possible assimilation of Aborigines into a European mindset, against their wishes.

Emily explodes into modernism, not through an awareness of the Western canons of painting but through her exposure to writing. In a rebellion against these forces, she brings forth the milieu of her life within the context of land rights and their harrowing effects that continue to this day. Unlike Rammellzee, there are no letters to be seen in the Utopia Panels. And here, she presents her highest mockery. There is no code to crack or writing to translate[1]. Collectively, the panels create the illusion that the lines are seamless forming a large screen of static and consequently, nothingness. Her hastily executed lines are totally illegible across the panels, harking graffiti, which is abundant within Aboriginal society[2]. Graffiti offers an expressive form of writing that cannot be practiced within school and the workplace, and grants the opportunity to create a new found identity for Aborigines amongst others on the fringes of Australian society. Both graffiti and Emily’s work transcend oppressive limitations and are ubiquitous. Emily’s lines trail off the canvas as if continuing out into space, always evoking the Ancestral Realm. The lines themselves show evidence of calligraphic brushwork that stop and start in measured but organic rhythms. This creates the surface to swell and pulsate with the energy of the life force.

The modernism of Emily’s expansive style can be explained through her traditional source of creativity. The Dreamtime, in its omnipresence and eternal nature it provides endless inspiration that is also fluid, and therefore is able to correspond accordingly with colonial and post-colonial activity. Thus traditional values are open to new directions and by effortlessly slipping into abstraction, Emily proves the universality of Aboriginal cosmologies and aesthetics. By revolving around the Dreamtime, the process of her painting is therefore always ‘authentic’ and conforms to post-modernity through the continuum of the past, present and future. Emily’s work is, in this sense, strictly Australian Modernism, shaped by her changing environment and can speak with authority about the nation state to an international audience.






List of Works

Figure 1

Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Emu Woman, 1988-89, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 92 x 61cm, The Holmes à Court Collection, Heytesbury.

Figure 2

Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Yam, 1989, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 90 x 60cm,The Holmes à Court Collection, Heytesbury.

Figure 3

Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Earth’s Creation, 1994, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 4 panels, 275 x 160cm, Collection of Mbantua Gallery, Alice Springs.

Figure 4

Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Untitled (Alweye), 1994, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 6 panels, 190 x 56.7cm, private collection.

Figure 5

Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Utopia Panels, 1996, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 1 of 18 panels, 263 x 87cm, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane




Cubillo Franchesca and Wally Caruana (eds), Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art: Collection Highlights, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2010.

Smith, Terry, Transformations in Australian Art, Volume Two: The Twentieth Century – Modernism and Aboriginality, Sydney: Fine Art Publishing Pty Ltd, 2002.

Excerpts from Rammellzee’s Iconic Treatise Gothic Futurism,, accessed 14th October 2013.

McClusky, Pamela, Wally Caruana, Liza Graziose Corrin and Stephen Gilchrist (eds), Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art, Seattle: Yale University Press, 2012.

Berndt, Ronald M. & Catherine H. Berndt with John E. Stanton (eds), Aboriginal Australian Art: A Visual Perspective, Sydney: Methuen Australia Pty Ltd, 1982.

Alice Springs: Desert Park, ‘Language Groups: Art’., accessed  20th October 2013.

Peterson, Nicolas, ‘Art of the Desert’ in Aboriginal Australia, Sydney: Australian Gallery Directors Council Ltd, 1981.

Hodges, Christopher, ‘Utopia’ in Crumlin, Rosemary Aboriginal Art and Spirituality, Victoria: Collins Dove, 1991.

Edwards, Deborah, ‘Emily Kame Kngwarreye’ in Tradition Today: Indigenous Art in Australia, Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2004.

National Museum Australia, ‘Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye’., accessed 18th October 2013.

Biddle, Jennifer Loureide, Breasts, Bodies, Canvas: Central Desert Art as Experience, Sydney: University of South Wales Press Ltd, 2007.

Myers, Fred, ‘Materializing Culture and the New Internationalism’ in Painting Culture: The Making of an Aboriginal High Art, Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2002.

McLean, Ian, ‘Global Indigeneity and Australian Desert Painting: Eric Michaels, Marshall McLuhan, Paul Ricouer and the End of Incommensurability’, in Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, vol.3, no.2, 2002.




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