Kathleen Kngale painting at Delmore Downs, 2014. 

Kathleen Kngale painting at Delmore Downs, 2014. 

If paintings talk, Kathleen Kngale’s paintings whisper, as if they have breathed themselves onto the canvas. While there are changes in pitch and tone of Kngale’s paintings: sometimes faint, sometimes forte, her Dreaming story of Arnwekety (also known as Bush Plum and Wild Plum), has been almost her single subject since she started painting in the mid 1980s.

Kngale is a senior Anmatyerre woman from the Utopia region in Arlperre Country. A remote and uncompromising Central Desert region in the Northern Territory, Utopia is the homeland for the Anmatyerre and Alyawrre people. Fanned out across 14 small outstations spanning approximately 1,120 square miles, the land has been under management of its traditional owners since 1976 when the pastoral lease was obtained, giving the community autonomy over their cultural activities and economic enterprises.

Kngale, now a septuagenarian, started making art in the late 1970s under the auspices of the Utopia Women's Batik Group. The influence of this women's education project was monumental with participants such as Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Lena Pwerle and six of the seven Petyarre sisters all active members of the original group. Whilst the batik workshops were intended to be an explorative exercise they inadvertently laid the foundations for the artists who, a decade later, put the spotlight on Utopia as it burst forth as the epicenter of the Central Desert Women's painting movement.

Kngale belongs to a family of established artists, including her older sister Polly Kngale and younger sister Angeline Kngale. All sisters grew up watching their mother and aunties painting-up their fellow Anmatyerre and Alywarre clanswomens’ bodies for elaborate female ceremonies- a preparatory and decorative ritual that is as important as the ceremonial performance itself. The haptic rhythms of mixing paint and applying it to the skin informs Kngale’s rhythm and composition whereas the techniques acquired from batik painting - an unforgiving medium that requires the artist to use canting to make quick and intentional marks - informs Kngale's processes. Combined, both disciplines have given Kngale the confidence and the capacity to unfurl this landscape across the canvas with spontaneity and precision.

Don Holt, Kathleen's longtime dealer and friend notes:

Kathleen’s interpretation of the wild plum has become more important as she has grown older. She has become not only more knowledgeable, but also a greater authority on her tribal ceremonial life.
— Don Holt

‘While inspired by the same Wild Plum Dreaming, the three sisters paint quite differently in their choice of location, time, palette, inspiration and approach. Angeline works with a fine brush and may take a week to complete most paintings, usually preferring privacy. Polly, although older, and no longer painting with the same capacity, was faster and used a little bigger brush, completing most paintings in a day. Kathleen however, likes an audience, but only particular people. Some of her best paintings were produced during the time that senior Australian artist John Olsen stayed at Delmore [Downs]. Several other visitors at Delmore had a great rapport with her and inspired wonderful paintings. For example she would really 'fire up' when my daughters came to visit.‘

When Kngale paints Arnwekety she is vivifying the Bush Plum’s cycle of production, rest and regeneration. She is both recalling and calling-upon its seasonal cycle and all the relationships: human, animal, organic, elemental, and ancestral that enable and depend upon its regeneration. When viewed in sequence you get an immediate sense of what she is describing - almost like looking through a time-lapse camera you get clear, distilled impressions of the landscape as it transforms from season to season.

Kngale’s palette follows the dramatic seasonal transformation as the deciduous bush plum moves through its alternations. During the dry season the bush is bereft of fruit and dominated by creamy grey bark, small white flowers and pale green leaves. To correspond, Kngale knits together fields of pale pinks, yellows and soft blues, cloaked with luminescent dots that appear like pearl dust over her surfaces. The thin milky paint dries quickly allowing the story to be put down swiftly. The end effect becomes like pulses of light and colour – layers that take turns to reveal and conceal the rhythms of Arlperre Country.

The wet season brings the rains that soak the red desert and signal the Bush Plum's fruiting period is approaching. Similarly Kngale’s palette transitions to undiluted, high-pitched hues which saturate the canvas as the bush plum surges to life. An intensification of colour ensues as the blueberry-sized fruit ripens from yellow to orange, to pink to purple. With an abundance of fruit and foliage on the land, Kngale's surfaces swell with colour and gesture that is unique to this time of year in Arlperre Country. 

Kngale’s paintings work on both a micro and macro level. Taking a step back, the Arnwekety morphs into an aerial rendering of the landscape of Arlperre, which Sasha Grishin describes as ‘possessing a quality of spacious vastness’ with ‘a very subtle picking out of precious details, such as concentrations of Bush Plum plants, ancestral tracks, clay pans and soakages’.

Kngale's art making, like many other artist of Utopia, is a performative happening.  The painting enables the storytelling and sparks song, marks and movement. The story of the Bush Plum - her Dreaming, is taught to those who will be it's keepers for the future. Part administration, part affirmation, her paintings are assurances that the Bush Plum, and other life in Utopia, will continue to bloom and thrive. 

Miriam Grundy.

This exhibition is a curatorial collaboration between Delmore Gallery, Alice Springs and Pollon Art, New York. 

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