Growing up, there’s a woman Kelli Cole remembers well. A woman Kelli says today she is privileged to have listened to, hear speak in language, share cups of tea – and watch paint.
The woman, Emily Kam Kngwarray, was the first female Indigenous painter to stand out from a movement dominated by men – and pave the way for so many more women to thrive.
Kngwarray, who painted Country the way she saw it, shared sacred Dreamtime stories in canvas and is believed to have created more than 3000 works of art in her eight-year career before her death in 1996.
Kelli, a Warumunga and Luritja woman from Central Australia, said it was a privilege to grow up so closely to the artist and that it inspired her to reach to where she was today – the National Gallery of Australia’s (NGA) Curator, Special Projects, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art.
With her friend Hetti Perkins, an Arrente and Kalkadoon woman, and NGA’s Senior Curator-at-Large, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, the women are co-curating the gallery’s summer blockbuster exhibition, Emily Kam Kngwarray. It opens at the NGA in Canberra in December.
Kelli said as a young woman growing up in Alice Springs, she came to know the artist through Rodney Gouch whose partner, Robert Ambrose Cole, was her uncle. Mr Gouch represented the artist.
“That is what drove me to work at the NGA,” Kelli said. “It is really important for me to represent this artist. I watched her over the years, watched her change in style, the way she worked.
“It is also special for me to co-curate this exhibition with my good friend, Hetti Perkins – her dad is Charlie Perkins.”
Known as the Utopia women, the group – including Kngwarray – would often paint at Rodney’s house. The group formed part of one of the first art programs brought to Utopia – about 250km north-east of the Alice – which housed out stations and camps spread over 1000 km of land. Starting with batik, this artform marked the emergence of Aboriginal women out of the shadow of male artists.
From the start, their work reflected the women’s interaction with nature. Such was its success, money raised through the sale of their art helped the Anmatyerre and Alyawarr people take back control of their land as traditional owners.
“Emily was more than just an Indigenous artist,” Kelli said. “This is the first time the NGA has done a blockbuster exhibition with the work of a First Nations artist. That is her stature.
“Her work is collected in institutions around the world and in private collections [renowned collector Janet Holmes a Court purchased her first series of batiks].
“She passed over 27 years ago, but we are still celebrating this old lady. But we should also celebrate other artists who are still painting today, bringing them with us to keep this country strong.”
Kelli and Hetti have been working on the exhibition with linguist Dr Jennifer Green for about three years, after successfully flagging the idea of celebrating the artist with the NGA’s director, Nick Mitzevich.
Based in Canberra, Kelli has been living on and off Country for the past two years preparing for the exhibition, “living in Alice Springs so we can be close to the Utopia women and community who we have been consulting with”.
“Consultation is not just about taking and receiving, it’s about relationships, and through this exhibition we have retained close connections with the community that will continue beyond this exhibition,” she said.
“I also come back here a lot because this is the country she painted, we learn so much when we come back here. Emily’s country is still alive, but it’s not just about Emily, it’s a reminder of how enduring the faces are that she painted … that her country is very much alive.”
Almost 90 works will feature in the summer exhibition, from the NGA’s own collection and on loan from other galleries and private collectors. They will include pieces from her early batiks to her more monumental works.
Many works never seen before are included in the exhibition, along with new acquisitions of Kngwarray’s seminal works in the national collection.
“Kngwarray created thousands of works of art that drew from the vast cultural reservoir of knowledge that she channelled as an Anmatyerr matriarch of Alhalker,” Hetti said. “Her familial connection to her homelands and its associated stories are revealed in her artworks and are unprecedented in Australian art.”
Emily Kam Kngwarray opens on at the NGA on Saturday, 2 December 2023, and runs until Sunday, 28 April 2024. Tickets are now available for pre-booking online.