Kam??? Ngwarray??? Kngwarray??? Or just plain old Emily??

The National Gallery of Australia’s big Christmas show is attempting several modest amendments to the story we all think we know about the grand mistress of Utopia art, now to be eternally known as Emily Kam Kngwarray. That’s according to orthographers who once tried to start her name with an N (above), which would have lost her from the indices of every book published on First Nations art.

This change comes about because much play has been put on the NGA’s connecting with the old girl’s family back on the former Utopia Station – Judy Kngwarray Greenie, Jedda Kngwarray Purvis, Josie Petyarr Kunoth, Maureen Kngwarray Purvis, Jean Kngwarray Long and Patsy Kemarr Long – and their preferences, all based on happy memories of someone they actually referr to as “that old lady, Kam”.

Hence my title, the Anmatyerre name for the pencil yam, whose roots suffuse the underground of Kam’s earliest paintings and take over the surface of whole canvases when she progressed to her black and white phase, famously covering an 8 metre canvas meticulously with her birth-name’s root-system.

But is the Anmatyerre word in an unfamiliar transliteration, English, which apparently preferences Kngwarray over the more familiar Kngwarreye, really relevant?

And where’s the ‘e’ on the end of Kame which was Margo Neale’s no-doubt well-researched usage when she curated first a Retrospective for the Queensland Art Gallery in 1998 and then the major ‘Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye’ for Osaka, Tokyo and the National Museum in Canberra in 2008. Hetti Perkins also used Kame at the Venice Biennale in 1997. Oddly, even today, there are reports that Kam is actually pronounced Kame – which suggests that the bloody orthographers have tin ears!

I fear that despite the best efforts of NGA curators Kelli Cole and Hetti Perkins, in some aspects, we have to admit that ‘Aboriginal Art is a White Thing’, as dear old Richard Bell keeps saying!

Not that Kam’s art is a white thing. Which is why I’m cheekily writing about this big NGA exhibition before I’ve seen it – as several other journos have done. The difference is that they’ve had promotional outings to Utopia to meet the artist’s family (she died without offspring in 1996 of course), read the as-yet-unseen catalogue, or done interviews with the curators. I feel I’ve just lived with Kam!

Significantly, Kelli Cole is the niece of Robert Ambrose Cole the late Aboriginal artist who was partner to Rodney Gooch. And Gooch is where Kam, Kelli and I came in.

For Rodney sold me my first Aboriginal artwork in 1987 when he was working up to delivering 100 canvases to the widely spread artists of Utopia for the famous Summer Project 1998/99, which would convert them from batik art to the real thing. He subsequently told me in the 1998 film – ‘Art from the Heart?’ – that Emily was such an untidy batik worker – always the last to the then-messy dye pot and simply lacking the patience for work that couldn’t be altered – that one of his motives was the hope that canvas would prove the medium to reveal her genius.

Which it certainly did. For Gooch, Kam’s most accredited dealer throughout her brief painting life, also speculated in my film that she might have created as many as 9000 canvases – against the accepted figure of 3000.

Despite this, though the NGA exhibition of 84 Kngwarray works will reportedly open with the 81 canvases that resulted from that Summer Project, it will feature quite a few of her batiks. This is thanks to the involvement of Jenny Green, the linguist who also introduced batik to Utopia. So it’ll be interesting to see whether Gooch was correct in his critique of the great lady. The NGA’s example of a 1983 batik in the show (pictured) suggests he might be right.

I wonder what other lessons we may learn from the NGA show? Margo Neale’s intent in her Japanese and Canberra show was to classify Kam’s art by periods – including her invention of the Colourism era (1993/4) when, for me, the artist briefly lost both her extraordinary sense of colour and her control of the meticulous dotting that was such a feature of her 1990/1 period.

As Utopia Art Gallery dealer Chris Hodges – the man who brought Rodney Gooch’s supply to Sydney – commented at the time that Qantas mucked up an Emily in transplanting her work to a plane, “It’s nothing like the absolute mastery in multiple over-dotting, invariably blending a range of three or four different colours, that she’d achieved. Simple white dots on red in groups as Qantas has ‘invented’ were quite unknown”.

The other fascinating oddity to emerge from Neale’s 1998 ‘Genius’ show was the different catalogue covers as it moved from Japan to Canberra. In Japan, they’d hailed the Nirvana effect achieved by Kam’s last suite of paintings – when she was rumoured to have been propped up in old age using a broad house-painting brush to cover small canvases.

Whatever the truth, there’s a spiritual magic in those works, marketed by Kam’s niece, Barbara Weir’s son Fred Torres, who’d arrived belatedly on the scene. But for some, there was a taint to these works, and the National Museum swapped the catalogue cover to a simple black and white yam, ‘Kam’.

I wonder whether the NGA will take the same restrictive view?

Not that Kam herself ever titled her works – that’s a marketing fantasy of recent times. And effective it is, pushing the four-panel ‘Earth’s Creation’s price over $2 million. By comparison, her own fond valediction to a departing canvas was invariably, “That’s pretty….whole lot; that’s what I paint, whole lot”.

And in my eyes, a special feature of the artist is the sense in her best works that when she sat down in the Sandover dust (or occasionally, on the neighbouring Delmore Downs verandah) facing a blank canvas flat on the ground, she had a clear vision of the completed work in her mind’s eye. Why not? For her Country – the subterranean yams, the movement of the grasses, or her body painting from ceremony were as familiar to her after 80 years learning as the back of the hand that wielded her brushes.

So what is the philosophy of this NGA show? “We’re trying to tell a beautiful story about this community and homelands,” Cole told one newspaper. “We’re calling it a major survey exhibition, but the consultation and community involvement definitely make it a more thorough, engaging and distinguished exhibition. The special emphasis on involving Kngwarray’s community sets us apart from other retrospectives”. As a result, Emily Kam Kngwarray will also include artworks by her descendants.

Which reminds me of a little-known fact that when Paul Keating took Kam in person to Canberra in 1992 to award her a Creative Fellowship, she decided that meant she had to retire! Briefly, her family took up painting in her successful style. But soon the boss was back – so be on the look out for tribute works!

For no one else could have produced 1995’s ‘Big Yam Dreaming’ at 8 metres, or the 6-panel ‘Awelye’ from 1994 which the National Gallery bought with this show in mind for $3.3m last year. Or the multi-coloured ‘Sacred Grasses’ series that seem to have been created in a fit of fury in 1995. Or those twenty-four mellow ‘Last Series’ works that do indeed speak of “whole lot”.