Essay By Jeremy Eccles for Emily Kngwarreye & Minnie Pwerle Show September 2010
Jeremy Eccles sets the scene
I first encountered Utopia when I met the amazing Rodney Gooch in Alice Springs in 1987. He'd just become de facto arts adviser to the artists on this white-named, but now Black-run cattle station NE of Alice up the Sandover Highway. Officially, his job was to record Aboriginal bands like Coloured Stone for the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA). But he soon found that Aboriginal art sold well in his CAAMA shop, though it was then really only being produced by the Pintupi and Luritja men of the Western Desert. At Utopia, the mainly female artists were limited to tackling batik.
Gooch told me that he'd soon be showing this work in Sydney – 88 glorious silks, all destined for the Holmes a Court Collection. Just a year later, Gooch was back with 80 equally exciting works on canvas – the so-called “Summer Project, 1988-89”; he'd had no hesitation in giving the catalogue cover to the stand-out work, 'Emu Woman' by Emily Kngwarreye. It was the first time she hadn't had to share her art-making materials, explained Gooch; “And this is the painting that will turn her into a star”, he predicted.
And it did.
Later Gooch would say: “Emily had an approach that no other artist had. All she ever wanted to create was something that was pretty, that blended together to look appealing. She often looked at works and tilted her head, then she'd go over it in a light, bright colour to give it that final lift. She wanted to get it right because she always wanted to develop”.
And no one could doubt Emily's capacity as a universal artist to change her style radically when she'd finished with the previous one. What few acknowledge is Emily's astounding capacity to envisage each work finished even as she sat in front of the blank canvas – however large it was.
For, famously, Emily would despatch each work on its way to a $20,000+ sale in a city gallery with the simple judgement, “That's pretty”. Did she say the same of the 8 metre long 'Big Yam Dreaming', commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria in 1995 as a massive skein of white roots on black? Or the even larger, hectically coloured 'Earth's Creation' 1994 (a retrospective title) which sold for a million dollars two years ago to make it the most expensive work ever by an Australian woman artist?
I personally find the wild excess of this 'Colourist' period – as named by Margo Neale, curator of the big retrospective Kngwarreye enjoyed in 2007 in Japan – less to my taste than Emily's early dotting, her stripes and yam roots, and the late, late washes which the Japanese would talk about in the same breath as Malevich.
Look at the big 1994 'My Country' in this show and note how similar Emily's choice of desert tones is to Nolan's in his Wimmera period. And don't overlook the tiny canvas evoking for me a bush fireside at night – its densely interwoven red strokes relieved by some with a yellow afterglow speaking of flames sparkling in the cold desert air. And relish my favourite of the three yam works – the 1996 'Yam Dreaming' – where the start of each brush-stroke reveals pink tinges that animate this work like the heads of a bucket-full of eels!
Three Yam Dreamings; three different pictures. Does Emily's cousin (tribal sister) Minnie Pwerle have the same capacity for infinite variety? Probably not. But she does offer a match for Emily's boldness of stroke and colour. And has any artist anywhere come up with as many variations on her own breasts? For body paint is where Minnie came into art – from her own body in ceremony to the brilliance and joy she offers to so many on canvas.
Pwerle spent an eternity watching Kngwarreye and the Petyarre sisters painting without ever revealing an interest. It took a late rapprochement with her daughter, the artist Barbara Weir – who'd been taken away as a child and returned to find her mother unwilling to have her maternity revived, then dashed, once again. For Minnie had been imprisoned for her 'mistake', and then spent 3 months walking back to Utopia with baby Barbara – only to lose her to the assimilation police.
It was not until 1999, when Minnie was almost 80, that she shyly plucked up the courage to ask Barbara's art dealer son, Fred Torres, for paint and canvas. But the family recognised her talent and market potential immediately, building to a solo show during the Sydney Olympics. And soon there wasn't an Aboriginal art gallery in the country without a Minnie Pwerle coruscating in the window.
Sadly she, like Emily, began painting too late to manage a sustained career – dying in 2006. Neither artist hit the mark in every work. But look at Minnie's striped 'Body Paint' (2005) and appreciate how she's capable of making your eyes believe that the dominant tones of red, purple, blue and pink can live harmoniously with a single stripe of acid green!
It is also worth mentioning that both Emily and Minnie showed a discipline to paint through thick and thin – rain and shine, dust and dogs, family pressures and some dubious dealers. And despite their vigorous production, prices have risen and their market is strong. What’s more, if you’re buying one of these works for its beauty, it’s vigour, for what it says to you and for what it represents in terms of both the country from which the women sprang and the strength of purpose with which Aboriginal women work to hold family and tribe together – then you should not be disappointed.