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Thursday, Feb. 21, 2008

Dreamtime on canvas

Staff writer

It was just two years ago that the Australian media was bemoaning the unrequited nature of their country's love for Japanese art. Explaining the dearth of Australian art in Japanese public collections — despite the huge presence of Japanese art in Australian collections — Melbourne newspaper The Age reasoned, "Japan still hankers for European art."

Emily Kame Kngwarrey
Emily Kame Kngwarreye at work © 1996 MAYUMI UCHIDA

Australia, your time has come. Japan is about to host the largest exhibition by an Australian artist held anywhere in the world outside their home country, ever. Starting Feb. 26, the National Museum of Art, Osaka, will host a 120-work retrospective for the late Aboriginal artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye. (The show will move to the National Art Center, Tokyo, from May 28.)

Of course, the irony is that for the director of the Osaka institution, the suave, chain-smoking Akira Tatehata, that Kngwarreye is Australian was irrelevant. "She could've been South American," says Tatehata from behind a veil of smoke during a recent interview.

But, apparently, not European or American — after an hour it's clear that Tatehata, who speaks in the eloquent stanzas of a published poet (his moonlight gig), agrees with The Age that Japan is too Euro- and America-centric. He predicts: "This exhibition will make Japanese face the question, 'What does multiculturalism really mean?' "

Tatehata's first encounter with Kngwarreye's art came in 1998, when he visited a landmark retrospective for the her at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney. The progression of the artist's career had been so fast, and come so late in her lifetime, that just 10 years earlier she had held her first paintbrush; and just two years earlier in 1996, she had died, probably at age 86.

Kngwarreye was born around 1910 in one of a group of Aboriginal communities known as Utopia, around 250 km northeast of Alice Springs. So isolated is this swath of central Australian desert that in the 122 years since Europeans arrived, few had made it this far. Kngwarreye, who was known as Kame, meaning yam, did not come into contact with the English language until she was a teenager.

News photo

Still, the white man's presence was felt. Kngwarreye's community was one of many to suffer from some now infamous governmental policies — not least of which was the forced removal of Aboriginal and mixed-blood children, which continued from about 1869 until around 1970. Kngwarreye herself was not taken from her family, but during her long life, she knew many who were, and no doubt would have felt a double vindication that her retrospective in Japan fell in the same month as the government's long-awaited apology for this policy.

By the late 1970s, art had emerged as one way for Aboriginal communities such as Kngwarreye's to generate income, and the women of Utopia were provided with materials to make batik prints. This was Kngwarreye's first encounter with Western art-making and, like her contemporaries, she drew on her community's tradition of sand and body painting to make graphic representations of Aboriginal creation myths called the Dreatime.

In 1988, the Australian Aboriginal Media Association arrived at Utopia bearing paints and brushes. Kngwarreye took to them for their comparative ease of use (washing the batik fabric was taxing labor). Approaching 80 years of age, she painted sitting down, with the canvas lying flat in front of her. Working her way from the outside in, she would generally create a maze of lines or arrangements of determinedly placed dots. (As she painted on the ground, the paintings have no "top" or "bottom"; they are reproduced here as they appear in the exhibition.) The works quickly gained her the attention of dealers and curators.

An Aboriginal modernist?

When asked to explain why Aboriginal artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye's paintings are good examples of Modernism, curator Akira Tatehata takes two deep drags on his cigarette before warning, "We'll get into such details you won't be able to use them in your article."

Pointing to one of her largest works, "Big Yam Dreaming" (1995; above), he says: "For Emily, this is a picture of yam roots. The Kame in her name meant yam, so this was a way for her to express her own Dreamtime roots ? to connect with her ancestors." At the same time, he explains, the construction of the net of lines, with its clumps of concentrated activity balanced by more open areas of pause, has the same dynamism as the Abstract Expressionist painters of the 1950s.

"This gives the painting rhythm, but also depth," he says, "as if we are looking at a mountain range from above. Also, the lines are not continuous swipes with the brush. They are controlled and woven together so that one line might be above another at one point, and below at another. So you know there is depth, but you can't get a completely clear picture of what is happening.

"Jackson Pollock did the same thing in his drip paintings, switching between colors."

"Emily's batik work (examples of which will be included in the exhibition) was nothing out of the ordinary. Her paintings, however, were magnificent," says Tatehata. "Part of it sprung from her natural affinity with color — the colors of the acrylic paint allowed her to express her visions in their full glory."

But other than that, he continues, "There is nothing to explain her taking to the medium other than genius."

While Australian academics tend to defer to Kngwarreye's statements that her works relate to Dreamtime stories, Tatehata is happy to interpret them as examples of Modernism.

"Let's be clear on this," he says. "I am saying she is one of the best abstract Modern painters. All of those concepts — abstract, Modernism and maybe painting, too — would have been foreign to Emily. This is a totally alien context from which I view her work," he says.

But, he shrugs, "That is all I can do. I can only interpret it with my own values — which happen to be very Modern."

That is not to say Tatehata blinds himself to Kngwarreye's background. Not only did he visit Utopia himself last year, but he will also create a room in the exhibition to explain the Dreamtime and some of the meanings attributed to elements of Kngwarreye's paintings.

"Making an effort to understand a foreign culture like Kngwarreye's is very important," he explains.

Still, Tatehata believes that attempts to appreciate a work purely on the basis of an academic understanding of its context — or a pre-existing bias toward any country — are bound to failure.

"This is what is dangerous about multiculturalism in this country. Multiculturalism tells us to value a different culture because it is different. The act of appreciation becomes a moral imperative. Emily's work shows us that some work, regardless of its origins, is so strong, so touching, that we can't help but like it with our hearts."

"Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye" shows till April 13 at National Museum of Art, Osaka; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (closed Mon.). For more information call (050) 5542-8600 or visit www.nmao.go.jp

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