Kathleen Ngale (Kngale) Essays

Although Kathleen Kngale has been painting for over two decades, it is only in recent years that she has been acclaimed as one of the most significant and exciting artists in contemporary Utopia painting creating memorable and visually dazzling paintings. Kathleen Kngale is a seventy year old Anmatyerre woman from the Arlperre Country and belongs to a family of artists, one which includes an older sister Polly Kngale and a younger sister Angeline Kngale. All three sisters paint in individual and distinctive styles and have attracted widespread recognition. Kathleen Kngale's main dreaming is that of the Bush Plum or Wild Plum (Arnwekety), a prized food source for Aboriginal women in Arlperre in Central Australia and one which ripens between Christmas and May in this country. One way of interpreting her paintings is to view them as pictorial explorations of the impact of the changing seasons on the Bush Plum plant capturing the changing colours of these small berries as they ripen from yellow and orange to pink and purple. In her paintings she also traces the journeys of the women in search of the Bush Plum as well as pays homage to the spiritual forces of the ancestors who created the land forms, everything that exists around them and codified the patterns of behaviour. Her paintings, usually exhibited untitled, in their imagery tend to touch on all of these aspects of the Bush Plum plant, the changing colours of the seasons, the sacred topography and the process of travel through this country. Kathleen Kngale was involved with the Utopia batik movement in the 1980s and her method of work as a painter reflects something of this batik heritage, where each painted stroke is applied as if with a canting tool in the batik process and results in a mark, which then is built up layer upon layer. In her manner of paint application, there is both a great subtlety and complete confidence of touch. She frequently works with dotted underpainting like a spreading veil of colour favouring yellow ochres, purples, reds and lilac, on top of which there is a frenetic layering and patterning of dots with a pastel-like palette favouring pinks, pale greens, light blues, creams and lavender as the predominant colours. These optically blend and fuse with the underlying layer creating a quality of translucency and inner luminosity. Sometimes a further layer of individual dots is then applied in individual parts of the canvas giving them the appearance of luminous highlights or Bush Plums floating above the surface. Kathleen Kngale's canvases are distinguished from those of many of her contemporaries through the exceptional sense of pictorial depth created by these veils of colour and their light saturated surfaces. Although the background layer of dots frequently appears largely painted out, almost inevitably faint halo-like echoes remain of the earlier colour layer. This creates the impression of an aerial landscape possessing a quality of spacious vastness, yet at the same time, there is a very subtle picking out precious details, such as concentrations of Bush Plum plants, ancestral tracks, claypans and soakages. It is a landscape which appears as simultaneously endless and monotonous in its lateral spread, yet full of meticulously defined detail and painterly incidents to which we are given pictorial access from an aerial perspective. The careful control of the size of the dots and their concentration coupled with the richness of the colour palette creates dramatic passages of paint and evokes the impression of sweeping dynamic movement which is compositionally contrasted with areas of great stillness and tranquillity. Her underpainting in warm glowing tones suggests a relentless radiating heat, but the surface pinks, purples and mauves, with their sweeping drifts of colour, hint at the fecundity of the vegetation and suggests deep gullies, pools of water and areas of shade which glow with colour and light. While a parallel may be drawn with Emily Kngwarreye's so-called 'dump dump' style, when she was working with patches of colour applied with a broad brush, Kathleen Kngale is an artist of a very different artistic temperament. She is less gestural in her paint application, but she has an amazing control of her surfaces and the rare ability to evoke a breathing sparseness in some areas and a deep, rich and vibrant translucency in others. She is an artist who has created an unique and distinctive stylistic language, one of great visual power and spiritual resonance.

 

Professor Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA

The Sir William Dobell Professor of Art History

Australian National University

 

Kathleen Kngale belongs to the Anmatyerre tribe, which covers several hundred kilometers, from the Sandover River on Utopia Station, Northern Territory across the Stuart Highway towards Napperby Station in the west. She comes from an illustrious tradition of famous Anmatyerre artists such as Clifford Possum, who painted for Papunya Tula, and Emily Kngwarreye who like Kathleen, primarily painted for Delmore Gallery. Clifford Possum's country was at the western end of Anmatyerre country around Napperby Station. Emily Kngwarreye's country was Alhalkere, which is close to Arlperre, west of the Sandover River on Utopia Station. From her earliest childhood days in the 1950's, Kathleen Kngale watched as her mother and aunties painted their bodies during the woman's ceremonies. The mixing and application of ochre-based paint was therefore naturally familiar to her and it was very much a normal part of life in Arlperre country. The Anmatyerre women and the Alywarre women have a rich cultural and ceremonial life, which they continue to enjoy to this day. This strong ceremonial tradition plays a big role in the stability and harmony of the people of this region. After anointing each other with emu oil the women paint their bodies with ochre. This is an enjoyable, elaborate ceremony where the preparation is very much part of the ritual. The painting and decorating of their bodies takes up a significant part of ceremonial time — the dancing then begins, led by the appropriate 'senior woman'. Like Kathleen, young girls will have watched the older women from birth, absorbing and learning through observation. For aboriginal women, ceremony is a very important part of the ongoing fertility and productivity of their country. And, because Aboriginal women have continued to practice ceremony without fail, the Anmatyerre women are still strongly connected to their 'country.' Through these powerful traditions, they have gained strength and have maintained confidence in both themselves and their art. When art lovers and collectors fly great distances to land in the magnificent country of Delmore Station, they come seeking an experience that will allow them some personal contact with the artist whose work they are collecting. During these times, an artist such as Kathleen Kngale enjoys a wonderful sense of respect and appreciation for her dreaming, country and her paintings. The wild plum is a very productive and prolific fruit, full of nutrients and vitamins, and therefore highly valued. Kathleen's interpretation of the delicious and colourful wild plum becomes more important as her work progresses. As she has grown older, she has not only become more knowledgeable but also a greater authority in her tribal ceremonial life. This is reflected in the power and confidence of her more recent paintings. The older Aboriginal women teach the younger ones, not only when to eat the fruit, but the exact location of their favourite gathering grounds, teaching them to pay close attention as to where the rains have fallen and therefore when and where they can find the fruit. In a land of drought, where quite often there are infrequent summer storms, a complex understanding of their environment and of nature was essential for survival. When Kathleen paints today, the young girls still gather around to watch, while her sisters and other friends also paint and enjoy eachother's company. This celebration of life while passing on culture through her subliminal mapping of country is expressed most poignantly in Kathleen's most recent vibrant works on canvas. In the early 1980's, Kathleen, now seventy years old, as well her sisters Polly (80) and Angeline (63) had the opportunity to translate their cultural heritage in a new medium, the batik. Utopia-based art workers, Jenny Green and Julia Murray initiated and taught the women of Utopia the skills of the Javanese-originated batik, assisting the artists in both interpretation and production of textile works on fabric. During this inspirational period, the Kngale sister's created some of the most beautiful works on both silk and cotton, some of which were collected by Delmore Gallery. Certainly the next ten years of batik production, accompanied by the use of both new and vibrant colours, gave the Kngale sisters enormous confidence, which was demonstrated when they began painting on canvas in 1989. Kathleen Kngales early paintings for Delmore in 1989 and 1990 were quite formal and structured, very much influenced by the traditional body painting of the women of her tribe. Gradually, through the decade of the 90's, she became less structured and more adventurous in the use of form and colour. In the late 90's and early 2000 period, her dotting was fine and controlled, flowing into extraordinary clouds of pastel colours. As her confidence and experience grew, she began to experiment with richer and more vibrant hues, and with different brushes, resulting in the exciting, energetic and brilliant clouds of vivid intensity which we see today. As Kathleen Kngale's work has grown in confidence and power, she has become more recognized by national and international collectors and galleries alike. In 2000, she was exhibited by Stephan Jacob in Paris, followed in 2001 by Songlines Gallery in San Francisco. She has taken part in over twenty exhibitions over the past ten years and is represented in the collections of both The National Gallery of Victoria and The National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. Kathleen has been a finalist in the Telstra Art Award and is now recognised by important private collectors around the world. In her recent works, we see the artist in full bloom at the height of her power and confidence, creating these wonderful clouds of luminosity, deeply rooted in her wild plum dreaming story, with the pigmentation reflecting the stages and evolution of the fruit and flowers of the wild plum bush. Her paintings celebrate the good season and productivity of her country and, most importantly, the survival of her people and their culture through their art.

Donald Holt

Delmore Downs Station

Alice Springs