A Window on the Macrocosmos
June 14 – September 30, 2020
Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Dorothy Napangardi, Kathleen and Gloria Petyarre
This exhibition revolves around the relevance of Aboriginal art to contemporary society and the unprecedented issues of the twenty-first century. As Professor Yuval Harari, author of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018), states: ‘the existential challenges of nuclear war, ecological collapse and digital disruption are coming into plain sight.’
A Window on the Macrocosmos showcases the work of four innovative and representative female Aboriginal artists: Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Dorothy Napangardi, and the sisters, Kathleen and Gloria Petyarre. The Australian Aboriginal culture is arguably the most successful and certainly the longest surviving civilisation in human history. It is complex, focused on sustaining life in the most hostile of environments, and a source of profound practical, spiritual and cultural knowledge. Aboriginal art not only reflects the earliest period of this ancient culture, but is also of great artistic and anthropological merit.
These are just some of the reasons for its unique and continued significance. Pointillist constellations, hypnotic concentric circles and meandering lines all conceal the sacred motifs traced by the ancestors in the sand and on human bodies, which can only be deciphered by the initiated. Ancient Aboriginal languages were only spoken, rather than written, which gave rise to a vital oral and visual tradition. People communicated important cultural stories across the generations through symbols/ icons and sung poetry (performed in ceremonial cycles). The preservation of the Aboriginal culture was wholly dependent upon the handing down of such knowledge. Indigenous art is centred on storytelling, known as ‘Dreaming’. It is akin to a chronicle that records an understanding of the land, events, the cosmos and the beliefs of the Aboriginal people. The use of symbols is an alternate way of recording culturally significant stories, and of conveying survival skills, information about the natural world, and also of the sublime order of the universe, in which the human being is always just a very small part of the whole. As the Australian anthropologist Prof. A.P. Elkin wrote in The Australian Aborigines (1954): ‘this singular conception of the Aborigines, for whom past, present and future merge, is a kind of permanent state of grace, concentrating the vital energy of all Creation.’ ‘We Homo sapiens are living through the beginning of a great upheaval’, said the novelist Ian McEwan in an essay published by the digital journal Airmail (18/01/2020), before continuing: ‘During the decades ahead, we will have to consider very carefully what it means to be human.’
A catalogue of the exhibition will be published.
Emily Kame Kngwarreye (b. 1910, Utopia, Soakage Bore, Northern Territory, Australia – d. 1996, Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia)
The women of Utopia paint awelye (women’s ceremony) body paint designs on their bodies with ochre (natural earth pigment) for an awelye.
Emily is recognized, worldwide, as one of Australia’s most significant artists in the late 20th Century. Her paintings have influenced a change in the direction of Australian Aboriginal art from the use of traditional iconography to an open abstract landscape. Emily was born at Alhalkere in the Utopia Homelands, and was the adopted daughter of Jacob Jones, an important Law man. She learnt ancestral stories, song cycles, traditional body paint secret- sacred markings for women’s dancing ceremonies, and became a leader in women’s ceremonial business. Working as a stockhand, she became very familiar with the Utopia landscape, and her paintings are maps of her traditional lands. A bold, forceful and strong woman, her paintings, with their immediacy and strong, definite and sure lines painted the Utopia of her ancestors in the last ten years of her life. Emily painted the abstract markings of ceremonies and the landforms of her country of Alhalkere with its distinctive arched rock formation. Emily painted the “whole lot”, celebrating her country in Utopia.
With an experience as an Anmatyerre elder and the custodian of the women’s Dreaming sites in her clan, her paintings are inspired by the land, landscapes, cycles of season, flooding waters and rains, seeds, plants and spiritual forces. Highly expressive and abstract, her works are very unique in the landscape of Aboriginal art.
Her style shifted over the years, from colourful dots over linear patterns in her early work to bold stripes, often on dark grounds, by the mid-1990s.
In 1992 Emily received an Australian Artist’s Creative Fellowship, awarded to artists who have made a major contribution to the cultural heritage of the nation. In 1997, she represented Australia in the Venice Biennale and the Queensland Art Gallery staged a major retrospective that travelled throughout Australia. In 2008, a major retrospective of Kngwarreye’s work, Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, was exhibited at the National Museum of Art in Osaka and the National Art Centre in Tokyo. In 2011 a second major survey travelled from the National Museum in Canberra to Osaka and Tokyo.
Emily’s work is now included in every major public, corporate and private collection in Australia, the Musee du quai Branly-Paris, Ludwig museum-Cologne, etc… with works now increasingly being collected overseas.
Kathleen Petyarre aka Kweyetwemp Petyarre (b. 1944 – d. 2018, Mosquito Bore, Utopia, 300 km north-east of Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia) has emerged as one of the leading artists of the renowned Utopia art movement and as the heir to the late, great Emily Kame Kngwarreye, her aunt.
Kathleen’s central Dreaming is Arnkerrth, the thorny or mountain devil lizard, with sharp spikes on its head and back, which normally roams over a wide area. It moves in a quasi-circular fashion, leaving an exquisite pattern of tiny, not-quite-concentric tracks. Its travels through Kathleen’s country are depicted regularly in her works. These have become something of a trademark in Petyarre’s work, in which she recreates the journeys of the Arnkerrth through sandstorms, over sand dunes and hills, through watercourses, and even underground.
The fine dots might represent clouds of sand, sheets of hail, spinifex and flowers, or the bush seeds that scatter over the land, providing food for its inhabitants. Meanwhile, various shapes and colours are used to depict geographical features such as sand dunes, watercourses and rock holes.
Petyarre’s paintings are ‘mental maps’ of the ancestral lands she travelled as a child with her extended family.
Her imagery has been described as ‘simultaneously macro- and microcosmic’.
Her considerable reputation as one of Australia’s most original indigenous artists has been confirmed both nationally and internationally by her regular inclusion in exhibitions at famous museums and galleries, including the Louvre Museum in Paris. Kathleen’s work is included in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum (New York) and the Musée du Quai Branly (Paris), among others.
Dorothy Napangardi (b. 1950 – d. 2013 Tanami Desert, Western & Central Desert, Mina Mina) was highly experimental and a leader in her field. Reducing her paint palette to minimal colour and often using just black and white.
The subject matter for Napangardi’s paintings is her ancestral country, Mina Mina. Without any traditional iconography from her familial lines, creating her own innovative language to portray her country. Dorothy’s paintings are created by an intricate network of lines that collide and implode on top of each other creating a play of tension and expansion, transporting the viewer through a myriad of intersections. Her view is constantly changing: one painting giving an aerial perspective; the next as if she has placed a microscope to the ground.
She was born in Mina Mina, to the west of Yuendumu, approximately 420 km north- west of Alice Springs, where she lived a traditional lifestyle until the age of 11 years when her family first made contact with white settlement. Since the mid-late 1980s, Dorothy resided in Alice Springs. From 1990 onwards, she painted full time in her own studio at Gallery Gondwana.
With a very individual painting style that she developed by elaborating on the traditional designs of the kurawarri (dreaming), Napangardi’s paintings focus on this ancestral country, Mina Mina , which is a highly significant sacred site particularly for women, as it is the point of origin for Karntakurlangu Jukurrpa (Women’s Dreaming) for not only the Warlpiri but also for the Kukutja whose traditional lands are to the west. It was at Mina Mina that during Jukurrpa (the creation era) digging sticks emerged from the ground which the women took up as they commenced their journey along the dreaming route travelling east. Today these digging sticks are represented by the kurrkara (desert oaks) at the site. Mina Mina consists of two large claypans with several mulju (water soakages).
Her kinship responsibility is to her subsection group of Napanangka/Napangardi. Each custodian must know the songs, dances, rituals and body paint designs to ensure that this knowledge is passed on to their nieces as is the obligation of traditional law. Artists often refer to this as “keeping the Dreaming strong”.
Napangardi’s work is highly sought after by both collectors and curators worldwide. Her paintings and prints have been widely exhibited and are in all national collections within Australia and in major collections worldwide including most recently the MET, New York, Musee du Quai Branly.
Gloria Tamerre Petyarre aka Gloria Pitjara (b. 1942 in Mosquito Bore, Utopia, 300 km north-east of Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia)
Having been inspired by her famous aunt, the Anmatyerre artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Gloria often created her superb and unique works in the company of her sisters, Kathleen Petyarre and Violet Petyarre.
The mountain devil lizard and bush medicine leaves form the inspiration for her most famous paintings.
Gloria Petyarre’s Leaf or Bush Medicine series depicts the rushing movement of leaves with terse rhythmic brushstrokes. It has been acclaimed as one of her most successful stylistic developments to date. Petyarre utilizes close tonal values of colour. Together with the rhythmic patterning of her brushstrokes, this enables her to capture the movement of a tree’s leaves as seen blowing in the wind. The leaves of this tree are an important bush medicine. The leaves are gathered by women in the Arlperre Country and mixed with animal fat before being rubbed directly onto the skin.
Petyarre is an experimental artist renowned for her diversity and mastery as a colourist. Her work is anchored in awelye. This term describes not only women’s ceremonial body painting, but also the wider concept of ‘women’s business’, referring simultaneously to ceremonial body painting as sourced in stories relating to Arnkerrth, the mountain devil lizard, and to a larger cosmology that is foundational to Petyarre’s painting. Arnkerrth is a subject of particular importance to Petyarre, and her ability to constantly reinvent its visual representations has been widely recognized.
Since her first solo exhibition in 1991, Gloria Tamerre Petyarre has been regarded as a leading artist in the Utopia community. She has exhibited widely in Australia, Europe, North America and Asia. Her work is included in the Musée du Quai Branly (Paris), Metropolitan Museum (New York) and British Museum (London).