Dr Nikita Vanderbyl

Big yam dreaming by Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Big yam dreaming, 1995

On a black background I see a mass of white lines crossing in and out of each other. Sometimes the lines run parallel in groups, sometimes they snake off and form cul-de-sacs. The white lines run along the edge of the canvas rather than disappearing over it. They remind me of roots or animal tracks, layer upon layer, building up to a tight-knit mass, but unlike roots there is no feeling of depth, everything is immediate. These white lines are more like paths or conversations, heading off in one direction, before changing direction and joining others.

The experience of looking at the white on black paths is frenetic, my eye doesn’t rest. The overall effect is one of high energy, a force that demands attention. My attention is stretched across the large space of the canvas, I can’t look away but I’m not sure where to focus. I’m trying to figure out what it means.

I look at Kngwarreye’s painting and I feel something is being demanded of me. I must engage in some way, there is a secret or a meaning here which I am being asked to consider. How should I respond as a non-Indigenous viewer to this depiction of Anmatyerr ontology? (Anmatyerr is Kngwarreye’s language group, Anmatyerr and Alywarre peoples live in the eastern part of Central Australia in twenty small communities called Utopia.)

I will tentatively share my thoughts on looking from my position as an outsider.

The title Big Yam Dreaming is appropriate given the scale of the painting, almost 8m by 2m, and the significance of the subject to the painter. Kngwarreye painted her Country known as Alhalkere. As an Elder she was a custodian of women’s Dreaming sites and her Dreaming was the source of her creative power.1 This is how the National Gallery of Australia describes it. Dreaming is more than a story about the time of creation, it’s something that requires constant attention, hence Kngwarreye repeatedly paints many of the same subjects.

Alhalkere was her responsibility as an Elder, and it shaped her identity, her roles and her obligations. How do such responsibilities translate onto the two-dimensions of the canvas? Is it just a seeming tangle of lines?

Looking slowly is about appreciating what I see, without the need to find a ‘right’ answer. Everyone will see something different.

What do you see?

View Big Yam Dreaming

Known today for the impressive number of paintings she made in a short career as a older woman, Emily Kame Kngwarreye (her last name pronounced: karmeh ng-wah-ray) is one of Australia’s most famous First Nations artists.

During the 1990s when she painted Big yam dreaming, Kngwarreye’s growing reputation took place alongside a growth in recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the arts generally. Iman and Bidjara scholar Marcia Langton wrote at the time that this recognised cohort included Michael Nelson Jagamara, Gordon Bennett, Trevor Nichols, Rover Thomas, Jimmy Pike, Fiona Foley, Ron Hurley, Sally Morgan, Pansy Napangarti. This was alongside the music of Yothu Yindi, Archie Roach, Roger Knox, the Mills Sisters, Kev Carmody and Coloured Stone and the filmmaking of Tracey Moffatt, Michael Riley and Essie Coffey, Eric Renshaw, Wayne Barker, Rhonda Barker, Coral Edwards, Destiny Deacon, Bruce McGuinness, Brian Syron.2

If we don’t think of the 90s as a happening time in First Nations arts, we are not looking hard enough.

As a moment of reckoning and understanding, this period held great potential for Indigenous artworks and agendas to reach across into the mainstream. Not all of these names have maintained the level of recognition as Kngwarreye though.

So as we look slowly at Big yam dreaming can we also catch a glimpse of Tracey Moffat’s haunting post-colonial visions or hear the beat of ‘Treaty’?

It remains a banger and generally significant for so many reasons.

Who was Emily?

In the late 1970s, as Aboriginal art produced by male artists was gaining an ever wider audience, Kngwarreye was introduced to the wax resist technique of batik. Through a government-funded initiative the people of Utopia,3 began translating designs—previously inscribed in sand or on the body—onto fabric. Utopia is a 1,000 square kilometre region situated about 250km north east of Alice Springs in Central Australia. Making designs with batik allowed the women, and some of the men, to communicate their epistemologies in completely new ways.

Other government initiatives followed and introduced acrylics and board as another medium to work on. Australian art critic/art historian Terry Smith wrote that Kngwarreye took to this new format as though she needed no preparation. Her first painting on composition board (now in the National Gallery of Victoria) depicts the ceremonial breast markings for the Awelye ceremony.4 Kngwarreye’s first solo show was in 1990, following a group exhibition of women artists from Utopia.

Hers was quick trajectory to recognition which is often commented on.

The fame experienced by some Aboriginal artists in the form of international recognition is perhaps exemplified by this image of Walpiri artist Michael Nelson Jagamarra’s Art Car. Not just sought after, Aboriginal art was embraced in some interesting and post-modern ways. Western Desert dot painting on a BMW! This contrast makes me at once deeply uncomfortable and but also visually satisfied. (This artwork probably needs it’s own edition of Slow Looking).

File:Michael Nelson Jagamarra BMW Art Car.jpg
Michael Nelson Jagamarra BMW Art Car. Taken in Shoreditch, London at the RSA exhibition of the BMW Art Cars, part of the London 2012 Festival (Via Wikimedia Commons)

Critical reception

Critics have long highlighted some of the apparent contradictions of Kngwarreye’s reception, which itself points to the challenges of writing about Aboriginal art.

Australian critic Rex Butler, for example, described the situation like this:5

At the same time, and contradictorily, we were presented with an image of extraordinary formal inventiveness, an untutored native genius able to ring almost unlimited changes on a restricted iconography, and of an overworked and exploited old black woman, pushed by the economic needs of her tribe, mercenary art dealers and, indeed, the whole museological apparatus itself into over-production, for whom the whole aesthetic distinction between good and bad works of art was simply not relevant.
Untitled (Alhalkere) 1992 via Art Gallery NSW
Untitled (Alhalkere) 1992 via Art Gallery NSW


Critical responses to Kngwarreye’s paintings could not resist comparisons with European or North American abstractionist painters. Perhaps more than other Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander painters, her work was compared to works of Abstraction and Abstract Expressionism.6

Writing in December 1995 in response to a survey of Kngwarreye’s work in Canberra, Australian art critic Sasha Grishin summarised her approach in words which are still accurate I think:7

She achieves that very rare blend of intricacy in detail and boldness in overall design. Parallels with western European moderns are largely beside the point. Kngwarreye has no need of Monet, Matisse or Jackson Pollock, they are irrelevant to her vision and path of development. There is a singing purity in her work: it is an art of total conviction, not one of struggle and questioning. She paints the [C]ountry which owns her and retells with infinite variety its eternal story. This is summed up in her simple and glorious words: "This is my country; this is me."

It’s the reception of Kngwarreye in Japan that I’ve found the most interesting. In this context her line work in particular resonated with viewers who noted parallels with calligraphy and she was hailed as a tensai or genius by all levels of the public from blogs to TV programmes.

Nearly 130,000 people saw her two shows in Osaka and Tokyo in 2008.8 This is quite astounding given that cumulatively the shows were open for 6 months, with some overlap.

Nakamura Kazue was uneasy about the use of the word ‘genius’ upon viewing posters for the exhibitions on the walls of the bustling Shinjuku station.9

It seemed there was an urgent need to make this hitherto unknown artist legitimate within the genealogy of Western art history in order to persuade viewers of her artistic value. But Western art history is not the only art history on Earth, and, of all the peoples in the world, the Japanese should be fully aware of this.

Kazue finds that Kngwarreye’s reception in Japan was in part due to the similarities between her work and abstraction, which is viewed as a ‘supposedly highly sophisticated style’. Exposing a contrast in understandings, Kazue noted the Japanese public may have been puzzled by the idea that ‘Indigenous people can be contemporary: that one can be [I]ndigenous and a challenging, innovative, experimental artist’.10  

For many Japanese people, the word senjūmin [indigenous] implies something opposite to development, civilisation, high-technology. Indeed, it was only in 2008 that the Japanese Diet passed legislation to officially recognise the Ainu as an [I]ndigenous people in Japan with their own unique culture.

For the director of the National Museum of Art in Osaka, Professor Akira Tatehata, Kngwarreye was “just a genius” and his response to Big yam dreaming when he first saw it in Brisbane in 1998 was so powerful he was moved to tears.11

This is perhaps how the superlative was attached to Kngwarreye; but I always love a story about someone having a physiological response to an artwork.

Wax lyrical

Kngwarreye made fine art for the Western art world for a short time. A wax resist technique introduced her to fabric as a medium. Acrylic introduced her to monumental exposure and recognition. She produced an estimated 3,000 artworks. Superlatives seem appropriate.

Kngwarreye completed Big yam dreaming in two days, the same amount of time it took her assistant to prime the canvas. Though I can’t be in front of the painting and observe its texture right now, looking slowly at the hi-res files on the internet allows me to observe the movement of Kngwarreye’s brush. Some lines have definitive starting points, others have the quality of multiple strokes to construct their rooted journeys across the canvas. I enjoy the overall effect, it has a balance that I can see critics respond to when they draw comparisons with Abstract expressionists. But Kngwarreye is not interested in expressing any of the things that preoccupied Pollock, Rothko, De Kooning et al., she has translated and transcribed the narrative of the yam and her obligations as an Elder into something accessible to many different audiences across the world.

I first learnt of this painting in 2014 while working as an usher for the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. The event was a diverse line up of speakers (including Aboriginal Elders, celebrity chefs, curators, artists and poets) speaking on the significance of the painting and the yam itself. I stood at the back of the darkened auditorium, probably seeing Uncle Bruce Pasco speaking for the first time and wondering what (on Earth) was Matt Preston trying to say about yams? But I loved that a painting was so ‘wordy’ and led to all of these different interpretations.

Big yam dreaming could be read in any number of ways. I like to interpret the roots of the yam as the many paths our lives take, sometimes straightforward, sometimes doubling back, sometimes solo, other times entangled. Whether it was her intention or not Kngwarreye’s painting is for me a meditation on the history of this continent and the pressing necessity of non-Indigenous Australians to appreciate the(ir) history as messy, complex, tangled, bounded, curving, layered, sometimes incomprehensible but always personal and inescapable.

Big yam dreaming 1995, National Gallery Victoria, via National Museum Australia

1 Emily Kame Kngwarreye at the National Museum Australia online.

2 Marcia Langton, Well I heard it on the radio and I saw it on the television, 1995, 10.

3 The region was given the name Utopia by German settlers leasing the land in 1927. This land is known as Urapuntja by the Aboriginal people. Read more here: https://www.utopialaneart.com.au/pages/history-of-utopia-art-movement

4 Terry Smith, ‘Kngwarreye Woman Abstract Painter’ in Emily Kngwarreye Paintings (Craftsman House, Sydney 1997) 27.

5 Rex Butler, ‘Emily Kame Kngwarreye and the Undeconstructible Space of Justice’ Eyeline 36 Autumn/Winter 1998, 24.

6 See Roger Benjamin, ‘A Modernist Hero’ in Emily Kame Kngwarreye: Alhalkere, paintings from Utopia (Queensland Art Gallery) 1998.

7 Sasha Grishin, ‘Exquisite, inventive colouristCanberra Times 5/12/1995, 21.

8 Nakamura Kazue, ‘A Dialogue to Find Ourselves and Others: the reception of Emily Kngwarreye in Japan’ May 2015, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art 9(1-2):22-27 DOI:10.1080/14434318.2008.11432789

9 Nakamura Kazue, ‘A Dialogue to Find Ourselves and Others’, 23.

10 Nakamura Kazue, ‘A Dialogue to Find Ourselves and Others’, 26-7.

11 John McDonald, ‘Utopia, the Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye’, Craft Arts International no. 73 2008, 84.