Linear Bush Yam by Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Australian Alhalkere artist Emkily Kame Kngwarreye (1910? – 1997)

Whenever I think about abstract art prompted by a conversation, TV program, newspaper article, or question I always think of that painting. I saw it only once in a commercial gallery so I’m not sure if this is the actual painting, but if not it was very similar; Kngwarreye painted many like this: yam dreaming.

She was an extraordinary woman, tiny but forceful, born around 1910 in the Utopia community in the Northern Territory, 230 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs, and was raised in the artistic Anmatyerre tradition. She began painting on canvas in 1988 and for only about eight years produced an extraordinary bulk and variety of work, over 3000 paintings, recognised and collected nationally and internationally. She was unmarried and childless which was unusual and so had a hint of outsider about her. She died in 1996.

I have a soft interest in art and no more knowledgeable about it than the next person; but what I’m trying to do now is describe how this painting made me feel, because it was the feeling that I remember as the strongest. I wish I had had the sense to write it down then; remembering it now renders it difficult to put into words. The best and simplest way to describe that feeling is that it felt  – right: it couldn’t be any other way than what it is. Along with this feeling of right came an equally strong feeling of wonder that right it most definitely was and that I had felt it. Art had never affected me like this before or since. It was close to a revelation but without the what!

Michelangelo's prisoner pic
Prisoner (slave) by Michelangelo

On a visit to Florence many decades ago I went to see Michelangelo’s David at the Galleria dell’Accademia which was a memorable experience, but even more memorable was the Hall of Prisoners one has to walk down to get to the famous statue. On either side of this hallway are incomplete statues of male nudes looking as if they are emerging out of the stone and giving credence to Michelangelo’s reported utterance that he always saw the figure in the stone and all he had to do was discover it, chip away the extraneous stone, set it free. Michelangelo and Leonardo de Vinci both coveted the same piece of marble; Michelangelo won. We will never know what di Vinci saw in it.

I’ve grown to believe that this idea can be applied to all works of art, be it music, painting, sculpture, or story: they have the quality of existence, before the artist discovers them and makes them known to us. I saw Michelangelo’s five hundred year old discoveries eleven years before Kngwarreye discovered for us her Linear Bush Yam.

Knowing a piece of music or story well can create this feeling of inevitable existence but this same feeling hit me the moment I saw Kngwarreye’s painting; the mystery of it is still palpable after all these years. It wasn’t something in me, it was something in the painting. I still don’t know what it really is.