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  • Writer's pictureFlow Australia

Kngwarray masterpieces on show at National Gallery

Important artworks by one of Australia's foremost painters, Emily Kam Kngwarray, are going on show at the National Gallery of Australia.


A supplied undated image obtained Tuesday, November 28, 2023 shows Emily Kam Kngwarray, Anmatyerr people, Untitled (awely), 1994, National Gallery of Australia, Kamberri/Canberra. Image AAP


In the eight years Emily Kam Kngwarray spent working on canvas, she became one of the most significant painters of the 20th century.


A wideranging show at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, opening on Saturday, celebrates her work across six exhibition rooms, with early batiks from 1977 to paintings made before her death in 1996.


A senior Anmatyerr woman, Kngwarray grew up in the remote desert area of Utopia in the Northern Territory, 230km from Alice Springs.


For most of her life she had little contact with the world outside her Aboriginal community, but after switching from batik to painting on canvas, she quickly became an artist of international standing aged about 80.

Kngwarray's paintings can be found in the world's most prestigious galleries, and private collections from New York's Central Park to London's Mayfair, said co-curator Hetti Perkins.


But for Perkins and fellow curator Kelli Cole, the retrospective was about bringing Kngwarray's art back to its fundamental source - country.


"She was of distinction but she was of her country... she rarely left that country and her work is inextricably linked to that," Perkins said.


Perkins lives in Alice Springs and Cole was born there, and the pair have spent extensive time consulting with Kngwarray's community over the past two years as they prepared the show.


They have the community's backing for every artwork and image in the exhibition, which has made for a retrospective with deep integrity, Cole said.


Developing the show this way has also led to fresh insights about Kngwarray's artistic intentions.


Paintings that are often interpreted as broad and universal are in fact highly specific, with every gestural mark rooted in Kngwarray's cultural knowledge, Perkins said.


Her use of stripes, for example, references Awelye women's ceremonies, which involve body painting on the chest, arms and breasts.


There are many other connections too, from the Ankerre (emu) to the Arlatyeye (pencil yam) along with its its seed, Kame, also the artist's middle name.

Emily Kam Kngwarray's work is rooted in her cultural knowledge and country in remote NT.


Provenance has also been an ongoing consideration, with every work verified by the curators.


Another NGA exhibition of Aboriginal art, Ngura Pulka - Epic Country, featuring paintings from the APY (Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara) Art Centre Collective, has been subject to allegations of interference, which are strongly denied.


The Kngwarray exhibition features many never before seen works from private collections, and seminal artworks recently acquired by the national collection, the 1994 painting Untitled (awely), bought to mark the NGA's 40th anniversary among them.


There are several important paintings on loan from state galleries, including the monumental Anwerlarr anganenty (big yam dreaming) from the National Gallery of Victoria.


In the NGA's permanent galleries, art from other Utopia figures is on display, so that Kngwarray's work can be seen in the context of her peers, and the community where she continues to have a presence, Cole said.


"They talk about her as the famous painter, they're very proud of her," she said.


Emily Kam Kngwarray runs from Saturday until April 28, 2024.


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