On a recent trip to Australia I fell madly in love with the paintings of Emily Kame Kngwarreye (pronounced Ung-warh-ay). I am not alone as Emily has been hailed as an artistic genius, her paintings acclaimed around the world as modern abstract masterpieces, her works compared to that of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko and her work “Big Yam Dreaming” hailed as one of the greatest paintings of the 20th century. Heady stuff, yet outside Australia she is hardly a household name.
She was an unlikely candidate to take the modern art world by storm. In fact Emily was an Australian Aboriginal woman who lived her life in a remote community, rather optimistically named “Utopia” in Australia’s central dessert, 240 km north west of Alice Springs, a harsh landscape of mulga scrub and spinifex plants trying to survive on sandy flats of bright red desert earth with the occasional dry river bed lined with gum trees and paperbarks.
Emily spent her life in virtual isolation thousands of miles from the influences of the contemporary art world. She lived in poverty, had no formal education, spoke her native language Anmatyerre and didn’t even begin painting on canvas until 1989 at the age of 79 when her very first painting “Emu Woman”, wildly divergent in style from previous works by aboriginal artists, brought her to the attention of the art world.
In a rare interview, (translated by a relative) when asked what she painted, Emily replied “Whole lot, that’s all, whole lot. My dreaming, pencil yam, mountain devil lizard, grass seed, dingo, emu, small plant emu food, green bean and yam seed. That’s what I paint, whole damn lot.”
Traditional Aboriginals are a deeply spiritual people and her answer refers to the complex, mythical legends that explain Creation, determine Aboriginal laws and beliefs and assign to each individual their own particular dreaming identity. As Emily paints exclusively about The Dreaming it is impossible to understand her work without understanding The Dreaming.
For Australian aboriginal people, the dreaming is the unseen parallel universe they believe exists alongside the one they are living. This dream world, or spiritual realm is continuous and eternal, both ‘everywhere’ and ‘everywhen’, the past, present and future. It is their life force and as such the Dreaming exerts powerful influences over the real world.
The actual time of creation is called the Dreamtime. Dreamtime legends, passed on through generations by singing, dancing, storytelling and painting tell how the earth, sky, plants animals, rivers and changing seasons were all created long ago by spirit ancestors. The dreaming legends explain natural phenomena, like how colors came to be, the introduction of language and the first use of fire. They provide explanations of why things are the way they are and give meaning to everyday life. But it is even deeper than that. Because they believe that the spiritual realm is both ‘everywhere’ and ‘everywhen’ physical objects can capture and contain the spiritual ‘essence’ that was present at the time of creation. If Emily paints a yam flower it is not just an image of a yam flower, nor is it ‘a’ yam flower, it is simply ‘yam flower’. When Emily said she painted ‘whole lot’, she meant just that – she painted Creation.