Kathleen Petyarre (Photo: Mimi Art Gallery)
I was introduced to aboriginal art about 25 years ago after a friend spent several months in and around Alice Spring in Australia. When she returned to the U.S., she shared a breathless enthusiasm for a whole slew of artists she had discovered while she was Down Under. Of all the art she introduced me to, it was the pioneering early women painters—Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Kathleen Petyarre, Gloria Petyarre, Dorothy Napangardi, Minnie Pwerle—whose work spoke to me most powerfully.
Now, all these years later, all these early artists have passed away with the exception of Gloria Petyarre. Gloria’s sister Kathleen is the most recent one to leave. She died in November at what was guessed to be 80 years of age.
Like most aboriginal artists, Kathleen’s work was focused on a principal dreaming ancestor. Hers was a small lizard called the thorny devil. While her painting style reflected many of the forms and traditions of her aboriginal heritage, it was also uncannily good at carrying on a conversation with Western contemporary aesthetics. Some of her paintings were seen on display in cultural and ethnic museums (like the Peabody Essex in Salem MA for example,) but her work was also often paired with Western artists such as Agnes Martin, Brice Marden, Terry Winters.
I have adored Kathleen’s work from the beginning. In honoring her extraordinary achievement, I reread my many postings about aboriginal art on Slow Muse. I have included a few passages from those essays as a tribute to a remarkable artist. RIP, Kathleen.
A description of the Dreaming by aboriginal art historian Fred R. Myers:
It would be inadequate to conceive of the Dreaming simply as a philosophy, as an explanation of what there is, or as an explanation of “the landscape.” The Dreaming is not the landscape itself or principally even an explanation of it, although that is one of its qualities. The landscape instead is how the Dreaming has been materialized, how it has been experienced, a manifestation of it, but it is not an account of what it “is”.
Geoffrey Bardon, the first non-aboriginal to make western art supplies available to the indigenous people of Central Australia, commented on how these artists had a “predilection for a sensitivity of touch, a hapticity or physical quality different from the visual sensation of eyesight…The painters seemed to me to understand space as an emotional idea, the capacity to feel this idea often excluding any need to visualise what was represented.”
Australian artist Denise Green, well versed in aboriginal art, expanded on that idea in her interview with Dorothea Rockburne in her book, Metonymy in Contemporary Art:
I think the reason I paint, or that I do whatever I do, is to deal with (I don’t think of it as unconscious) subliminal knowledge. And I do think that one has knowledge about things that haven’t occurred yet, and I try to work for those kinds of knowledges. For me, these are emotional truths.
[Subliminal knowledge] is what I call developed intuition. What I have found is that when I learn something—while you are using it at the moment, it’s right at the top of your brain. But, as you move on and are using newer information, the formerly learned information goes into a mental file and with time that file goes deeper into the drawer and becomes what I call subliminal information. It is trained intuition because the files begin to combine, all on their own accord.
Philosopher and author David Michael Levin makes this distinction: “I think it is appropriate to challenge the hegemony of vision in the ocularcentrism of our culture. And I think we need to examine very critically the character of vision that predominates today in our world.”
Sandhills (Photo: Cooee Art)
(Photo: Karlangu Aboriginal Art Centre)
Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming (Photo: Arts d’Australie – Stéphane Jacob)