From the Land
During the 2008 exhibition Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye at the National Museum of Australia, I heard numerous accounts of people being so deeply and immediately struck by Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s all-encompassing paintings, they were moved to sit down or were brought to tears. The profound emotional resonance her paintings had with her audience is rare. She was a superstar artist of mythic status and frequently compared to significant artists such as Monet and Kandinsky, but seldom have I heard of such a direct emotional response to a body of work.
When Kngwarreye was asked what she painted, her response was:
%Whole lot, that's whole lot, Awelye (my Dreaming), Arlatyeye (pencil yam), Arkerrthe (mountain devil lizard), Ntange (grass seed), Tingu (Dreamtime pup), Ankerre (emu), Intekwe (favourite food of emus, a small plant), Atnwerle (green bean), and Kame (yam seed). That's what I paint, whole lot.
Everything Kngwarreye put on canvas was ‘from the land’.%
She painted the very lifeblood of her country with such informed confidence and sincerity. Her two strong hands, that had once handled camels, now held brushes loaded with paint as she intuitively blotted the canvas or ambidextrously created tangles of lines representing pencil yams. “The enactment of these strong cultural connections to her community and Country through kinship ties, ancestral history and law was an everyday practice that informed her art, making her life and art inseparable.” Perhaps it is this honest outpouring of thousands of years of deep cultural knowledge, its inseparability from her life and art to which her viewers became overwhelmed; a visual communication of something ineffable that reaches straight to our hearts as she painted the ‘heart’ of her country, herself, her Dreamings. The whole lot.
This inextricable connection between self, Dreaming and the land is something that is at the centre of all the artworks in From the Land. The exhibition affirms the extraordinary spiritual and cultural nourishment provided by this country to its Aboriginal people and the one-ness of their existence with this vast land. The physical and spiritual wellbeing that comes from the land is depicted through Dreaming stories, body paint designs, initiation ceremonies, as well as depictions of traditional medicinal and food sources.
The exhibiting artists are custodians of the Dreamings they so knowledgably paint. Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, renowned painter at the forefront of the Western Desert Art Movement, depicts men taking young boys through a complex series of initiation ceremonies. His painting, Initiation Ceremony contains symbolic references to the ceremony including the belts worn by the men during the initiation, and the work is dotted in a way now synonymous with Western Desert art. The artist’s own handprints are predominantly placed on the painting in white, a permanent sign of the artist’s custodianship of this story.
Makinti Napanangka was a senior Pintupi woman, also from the Western Desert, but unlike the detailed dotting approach of Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Makinti dragged haptic lines across the canvas, as in her exhibited work, Lupulnga. The rough strokes are reminiscent of the hair string skirts worn by women during ceremony, and the repetition of the line akin to the rhythm of the ceremony itself.
Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula’s magnificent painting, Kulwa, Water Bird at Kalipinpa illustrates how the kulwa (egrets) are attracted to water and eat the white seeds that float to the surface. The footprints of the egrets can be seen in the painting. They are overlayed with white dots representing the rainstorm that blows the egrets to the desert and also the body paint design associated with the ceremony. The black dots are Kampurrapa (bush raisins) that grow after heavy rain, reinforcing the reliance upon the land.
In Bush Potato, Lorna Fencer Naparrula tells the Dreamtime story of two women of the Naparrula and Nakamarra skin groups who are searching the country for bush potatoes. Bush potatoes grow as roots underground so the women use digging sticks to find them. Shown in this painting are the holes the women dig to unearth the potatoes. The meandering lines represent the complex root system and branches of the bush potato plant.
Utopian artist Gloria Petyarre’s feathery brush strokes show the movement made by wind in the medicine leaves when they are left to dry, while Minnie Pwerle’s patterning, the design painted on women’s breasts for awelye (ceremony). Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri paints the Spider Dreaming, Dinni Campbell Tjampitjinpa the Snake Dreaming and Charlie Egalie Tjapaltjarri the Wallaby Dreaming. The painting of these Dreamings, their laws and culture, are vital for the preservation of the Aboriginal cultures and for passing to others their story; and at the centre of it all, their complex and paramount connection to this remarkable land.
Image: Makinti Napanangka, Rocks at Lupulnga (C)