Emily Kame Kngwarreye
Merne Everything V, 1993
What is guaranteed?
Property from The Thomas Vroom Collection
Emily Kame Kngwarreye
Circa 1910 - 1996
Merne Everything V, 1993
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas
Bears artist’s name and Delmore Gallery code 93L063 on the reverse
46 ⅝ in by 138 ¾ in (118.4 by 352.4 cm)
The painting is unframed and appears in good condition overall with no repairs or restorations. There appears to be a very fine crack in the surface of the paint approximately 4 cm long, and about 3 cm from top left corner. There are a number of hairs embedded here and there within the painted surface, possibly from the artists brushes. There is a small area of pigment loss approximately 4 mm by 2 mm in one of the white painted dots in the central section of the painting approximately 1.2 meters in from the middle left edge [this may have happened at the time of production]. The painted surface continues over the stretcher bars and could possibly benefit from a more accurate re-stretching.
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MerneEverythingV was painted by Emily Kame Kngwarreye in December 1993, locating it amongst the last of her Delmore Gallery commissions for the year. She was then in her eighties, having painted her first work, a small 90 x 60 cm canvas, a mere five years earlier—and hadn’t looked back.1Merne Everything V, with dimensions measuring 118.4 x 352.4 cm, is both a monumental and spectacular painting. It perfectly encapsulates the trajectory of Kngwarreye’s phenomenal achievement at this time— just over the half-way point of her short career. Within the Delmore canon, MerneEverythingV aligns with other large-scale commissions, major paintings such as Kame–Summer AwelyeI 1991 and Desert Storm 1992, painted at the height of other summers. In Kngwarreye’s world, this time of year could be powerful for painting.
While Utopia artists and their extended families enjoy the western festive season, of far greater significance are the many events—ceremonies dedicated to country—that mark the Anmatyerre/Alyawarre2 cultural calendar at this time of year. During these months, the shape of Kngwarreye’s oeuvre and the subject matter of her paintings no doubt reverberated with the resonance of recent ceremonies and their power to engender new creative thinking. Merne Everything V, however, can also be seen to involve more than this year-end momentum. It seems equally indebted to the continuity of Kngwarreye’s aesthetic practice throughout the whole of 1993—a period in which she explored her central theme, Alhalkere, in a close succession of varied and beautiful gestural works.3
The title, Merne Everything, tells us that at one level this painting is about bush tucker—food. Merne is described in the Anmatyerre dictionary as belonging to a system of classifying foods and is the name by which most fruits and vegetables are known.4 Of particular interest is the qualifying word ‘everything’ in the title. This mirrors Kngwarreye’s earlier much-quoted phrase—the whole lot, everything—her response to questions about the subjects and stories she painted.5 Yet, while the presence of merne is tangible ‘everywhere’ in Merne Everything V—its story woven into all its colours and textures—what Kngwarreye might mean by ‘everything’ remains elusive.
As a celebration of seasonal bounty and renewal, Merne Everything V is grandly symphonic. The vastness of Kngwarreye’s canvas is covered in the detail of her virtuosic mark making as she sets out myriad dotted ‘runs, roulades and cadenzas’ in painted coloratura. This lively surface is anchored around a barely perceptible rectangular grid, expressed most overtly in the vertical line that travels along the centre of the canvas. This fissure—painted in a patchwork of different widths, colours and dotting styles—creates the impression of a work conceived as two (inexact) halves.6
The notion that we are looking at some kind of map is enhanced by the different treatment Kngwarreye gives to this central area in contrast to the larger sections that flank it. Adding to the pictorial intrigue in this innovative and rare composition are two distinctly drawn motifs: the white form outlined on the right resembles a fragment of yam imagery and on the left, in green, is a significant, if enigmatic, oval form. Further afield, the expansive surfaces on either side of this centre zone are different—dense with diagonals, patches and meanders of dotted lines and scumbled paint.
There is much to observe in Kngwarreye’s buzzing topography. Merne Everything V compels the viewer to engage with every motif and facet of the painting. Illusions of depth and dimension are in play everywhere. They arise in the many short and long strings of dots that power their way through clouds and gatherings of other dots—in all directions and configurations. Other bright strings loop and curve back in on themselves, returning to the picture plane. In some places, forcefully painted hollowed-out dots give way to softly painted versions that meld into flat expanses of colour. An emphatic reddish dot in the middle right of the painting carries the imprint of splaying bristles where the brush has pounded down. Amidst all of this, Kngwarreye’s evocative palette establishes a broad pictorial unity interlaced with exquisite local harmonies.
Nothing in Merne Everything V is predictable and while many elements and marks might seem random and accidental, others are so specific they remind us that Kngwarreye knows exactly what is being painted each time her brush strikes the canvas. Occasionally a motif or a colour surprisingly surfaces, taking the viewer back to other paintings from other years.
In 1989, her first year of painting on canvas, Kngwarreye intriguingly placed four yellow ochre ‘photo-corners’ as a framing device on the edges of a small canvas board—a motif that rarely appears again.7 The colour symbolises anwerlarr (Vigna lanceolata var. filiformis), the pencil yam, an Alhalkere creation story of deep personal significance to Kngwarreye. On the upper right edge of Merne Everything V, Kngwarreye has again painted this ochre motif (albeit only one), joining three strokes of her brush to form an emphatic border. Perhaps she did not want the viewer to look or think beyond this point—this is where her painting stops.
The numeral V attached to the title serves to differentiate it from other works on the same subject. The numbering does not appear to be about series—a familiar concept in later years when Kngwarreye would sometimes paint several canvases on the same day in a similar style. Two of the paintings in the current sequence Merne Everything III [93I011] and IV [93K014] were painted a month apart, in October and November respectively. They are also illustrated in the Delmore publication Emily Kngwarreye Paintings .8 The inclusion of all three suggests that they were highly regarded commissions.
Anne M. Brody, Perth, 2022
1 The painting was Emu Woman 1988-1989, exhibited in April-May 1989 in Utopia Women's Paintings: The First Works on Canvas: a Summer Project 1988-89. The Robert Holmes à Court Collection, SH Ervin Gallery, Sydney, 1989, cat. no. 1
2 The Utopia community is made up of Anmatyerre and Alyawarre language speakers. Whilst people are bilingual, paintings and country are generally identified with one or the other—in Kngwarreye’s case Anmatyerre.
3 The stylistic origins of Merne Everything V go back even further, to important CAAMA and Delmore commissions beginning in mid-1992, including the National Gallery of Australia’s multi-panelled Alhalkere Suite painted in November. See M. Neale, Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, National Museum of Australia Press, Sydney, 2008, p. 128
4 J. Green, Central and Eastern Anmatyerr to English dictionary, Institute for Aboriginal Development, Alice Springs, 2010, p. 148
5 PICA 1990, Artist’s Statement in CAAMA/Utopia artists in residence project: Louie Pwerle and Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts
6 It could possibly represent a geological (ancestral) feature such as a gully or a watercourse.
7 Awelye 1989 25.5 x 20 cm. see M. Neale, ed., Emily Kame Kngwarreye: Alhalkere: paintings from Utopia, Queensland Art Gallery & Macmillan Publishers Australia Pty Ltd, Melbourne, 1998, cat. no. 13, pl. 43, p.75
8 Emily Kngwarreye paintings 1998, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1998, pp. 106-107