The Japanese market has always been a little strange for Aboriginal Art. Whilst the Japanese love of Australia as a holiday destination is well known, their appreciation of Aboriginal Art has taken a little longer to develop. It seems at long last Aboriginal Art is making inroads into the Asian market. Hopefully the Japanese will come to appreciate our Indigenous art in the same way as many other people from other parts of the world have!
Akino Yoshihara / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
OSAKA--An Aborigine community in the boundless red desert of central Australia nurtured a gifted artist who was full of dynamism and creativity. Emily Kame Kngwarreye, who lived in a remote region on the edge of the Simpson Desert for more than 80 years, had no exposure to the Western art world for most of her life. Nevertheless, she is highly admired by international art experts and collectors as one of the great abstract painters of the 20th century.
The sophisticated artistic expression in her paintings is often compared with that of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. In fact, the development her art followed is regarded as parallel to that of contemporary art itself.
Some readers may still remember a Sydney auction that stunned the art world in 2007. Her 1994 painting Earth's Creation was sold for more than 1 million Australian dollars (about 95 million yen), marking a new record for a female Australian artist.
Margo Neale, a senior curator of the National Museum of Australia, says Emily's paintings appeal to Western viewers because they are not "readable," unlike other conventional Aborigine paintings, which have visible motifs.
Emily--as she is most commonly known--was born around 1910 in her paternal clan's country, Alhalkere, in the Utopia region, about 230 kilometers northeast of Alice Springs. As a senior custodian of her people's culture, she had been involved in body marking and sand drawings for decades before starting batik work in 1977 as part of government-funded education programs.
In 1989, when she was in her late 70s, she moved to acrylics on canvas, and produced between 3,000 and 4,000 works in the eight-year period until her death in 1996 at the estimated age of 86. Her studio was an open-air space on the ground where she usually sat cross-legged.
Emily, who was unable to write, painted from her shoulders instead of her wrists, making her paintings look extremely gestural.
Neale says Emily's brushstrokes were the natural and spontaneous brushwork that many Western artists struggle to achieve. "Hers are totally exuberant, free and direct," she says.
The exhibition, titled Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, is currently on show at the National Museum of Art, Osaka. It explores the life of the extraordinary artist through more than 110 works, including batik dyed textiles, from 65 collections.
The exhibition, for which Neale is curator, came to fruition due in large part to the persistence of the National Museum's director, Akira Tatehata, who refers to Emily as a "miraculous painter."
Tatehata recalls his first encounter with her art at a retrospective exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery in 1998: "I was stunned [with her innovative art] because I didn't understand how an aboriginal genius whose life was unrelated to Western art culture could achieve the highest level of contemporary abstract art."
He says he was impressed by the way she created modernist pictorial space in her paintings, because he found her space was similar to the space that has been used for centuries by the great Western masters.
The exhibition will surely smash viewers' stereotyped images of aboriginal art, which is often perceived as primitive.
Although her abstract paintings are rather difficult to interpret, her art cannot be separated from the indigenous culture and tradition of Alhalkere, which is deeply connected with her life and spirituality.
Neale says, "No matter how original and profound her formal virtuosity, her style and methodology derive from very local aboriginal practices in which she was rigorously schooled."
She adds, "Her cultural traditions are quite Japanese in many ways, [such as] the reverence for nature, ritual, ancestor worship and the idea of the past in the present."
Aborigines pass down their cultural narratives about their worldview, known as Dreaming. These Dreaming stories are important records of their ancestral activities. For Aborigines who did not have a written language, painting helped them memorize history and laws, and retain their culture.
Likewise, Emily paid homage to her ancestors through singing and dancing for women's ceremonies, called Awelye, while depicting aspects of her Dreamings, such as pencil yams, grass seeds and emus, in her paintings.
Neale says it doesn't matter how different the paintings look; they are all about the same subject, her ancestral Alhalkere.
"It's her reason for being and source of her creative power," she says.
Emily's first painting, Emu Woman (1988-89), which was produced as part of a project organized by the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association, caused instant excitement for the quality of its aesthetics. The painting consists of decorative dots featuring ceremonial marks made on women's breasts in earth tones.
However, Yasuyuki Nakai, curator at the National Museum of Art, Osaka, argues that her style maintains flatness and simplicity while also expressing many ideas.
He also says that she--whether consciously or unconsciously--neutralized colors by skillfully using combinations of receding and advancing colors, applying black dots to white lines and brown dots to ochre lines, for example.
The degree of abstractness she employed grew over the next few years as she started to use colors indicative of her home while sticking to dots ranging from fine to coarse.
Emily is said to have determined which colors she would use not only by her emotional state but also by the changing seasons.
Kame--Summer Awelye I (1991) is painted in colors of yellow, orange, red and pink in the form of layers of fine dots, expressing wildflowers in full bloom throughout the dry land after summer rain.
In 1992, Emily went to Canberra to be awarded an Australian Artists Creative Fellowship by then Prime Minister Paul Keating. While there, she saw her own paintings hanging at the National Gallery of Australia.
Nakai says Emily's style of dot paintings had completely changed by that point, adding that it was a turning point in her career.
"Seeing her own work in Canberra may have made some impression on her because she was considering stopping painting at that time," he said.
The Alhalker[e] Suite (1993), a large-scale installment composed of 22 canvases, shows her prodigious talent in the use of diverse colors.
Nakai says, "Emily appeared to have created the composition of the paintings to make each look distinctively different by skillfully arranging warm and cold colors."
Moreover, experiments in brushstroke can be found in some of her paintings of this period.
Five untitled paintings displayed side by side were painted with a big shaving brush belonging to an artist and gallery owner whom she had known for a long time. The large multicolored dots that look like chrysanthemums were created as a consequence of the strength in her hand. As she slapped the canvas with the brush, the hairs splayed out in all directions, causing the paint to follow suit.
In early 1994, the expression of her paintings shifted from dots to minimal stripes derived from ceremonial markings on women's bodies. Because of the simplicity of the lines, the flow of the brush can be clearly observed. Some lines represent single strokes while others indicate the brush was lifted up in midflow, adding unique movement in the paintings.
Those minimal stripes, however, were transformed into meandering lines, becoming more bold and powerful a year later.
Challenging the limits of her physical strength, Emily depicted the yam as her major Dreaming story on a series of large canvases with flagging energy. In fact, the yam is important to her not only as a staple food, but also as an analogy for her life.
Her epic work Big Yam Dreaming (1995), measuring three meters by eight meters, was completed in just two days.
The white lines intertwining with each other against the black background represent hidden roots growing under the surface of the ground. The picture symbolizes the life force of the roots, which causes cracks on the surface of the ground.
Emily's distinctive dots and lines completely vanished from her final series of 24 paintings depicting Alhalkere, produced two weeks before her death in September 1996. Despite being in poor health, she never lost her desire to paint and asked for a brush about 10 centimeters wide. Consequently, her brushstrokes became bold and smooth.
The small canvases feature slabs of vivid colors, including rose, ultramarine and red. The direct and immediate action of the brushstrokes looks somewhat tensed, reflecting her mental state in those days, but also shows her unbelievable vitality and great confidence in her work.
No matter how her style of painting changed, her deep affection for her country, Alhalkere, remained in her mind through her life.
*Note: Emily's paintings have no established position in which they must be shown, so their display may vary depending on publication or exhibit.
The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye
Until April 13, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (until 7 p.m. on Fridays). Closed Mondays.
National Museum of Art, Osaka in Kita Ward, Osaka, a 10-minute walk from Higobashi Station on the city's Yotsubashi subway line.
Admission: 1,300 yen for adults; 1,000 yen for university students; 600 yen for high school students. For details, call the museum at (06) 6447-4680 or visit the Web site at www.emily2008.jp. The exhibition will tour to the National Art Center, Tokyo, in Minato Ward, Tokyo, from May 28 to July 28.
The Daily Yomiuri is giving away five pairs of tickets to Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye at the National Museum of Art, Osaka.
To apply for the tickets, send a postcard to arrive by March 20 with your name, address, age and telephone number to: Daily Yomiuri Ticket Giveaway, 5-9 Nozakicho, Kita Ward, Osaka 530-8551.
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