Emily Kngwarreye and the enigmatic object of discourse

Butler, Sally. (2002). Emily Kngwarreye and the enigmatic object of discourse PhD Thesis, School of English, Media Studies and Art History, The University of Queensland.

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Author Butler, Sally.
Thesis Title Emily Kngwarreye and the enigmatic object of discourse
School, Centre or Institute School of English, Media Studies and Art History
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 2002
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Open Access Status Other
Supervisor Phillip Almond
Total pages 253
Collection year 2002
Language eng
Subjects L
410202 Fine Arts (incl. Sculpture and Painting)
420305 Aboriginal Cultural Studies
Formatted abstract
This thesis examines the discourse regarding artwork by the Australian Aboriginal painter, Emily Kame Kngwarreye [c. 1910-1996]. It considers the art as an enigmatic object of discourse because of the dilemma it poses for interpretation and how it evades conventional categories of representation. The thesis argues that this enigmatic status encodes how cultural difference invokes a necessary dimension of epistemological uncertainty within concepts of representation and interpretation. The enigmatic object of discourse is also examined in terms of how it advances shared discourses of meaning and value for a community of cultural difference beyond postcolonialism and the lingering remains of modernist essentialism.

Kngwarreye's art is described as particularly enigmatic because of an apparent duality or an aesthetic coincidence occurring between two very different visual traditions. The artist's translation of traditional Aboriginal iconography into acrylic canvas painting closely resembles key developments in Euroamerican modernist abstraction. Her art is unique in terms of its achieved credibility within these two apparently incommensurable realms of aesthetics. The study begins by analysing the development of Kngwarreye's enigmatic aesthetic, mapping how it invokes contradiction but at the same time embodies the aura of a community of difference. This enigmatic aesthetic is said to stimulate review of both modernist abstraction and Aboriginal visual culture and thus anticipates a shared realm of aesthetics.

Chapter two examines how cultural representations other than art impact on reception of Kngwarreye's paintings. Identity politics and the uncertain status of cultural reconciliation in Australia contribute to a discourse regarding the art that constantly fails to secure its subject. The Australian perspective is mapped onto a global context by examining how frameworks of recognition of the art are contoured by deeply ingrained contradictions regarding autonomy and equality within the political economy of the democratic ideal. The thesis examines the particularities of reception of Kngwarreye's art to demonstrate how the pragmatic management of this fundamental contradiction within modernist liberalism defines the project for contemporary cross-cultural discourse.

This fundamental contradiction is examined in terms of a curatorial challenge in Chapter Three. The Queensland Art Gallery's retrospective exhibition of Kngwarreye's art is a landmark in the representation of contemporary Aboriginal art, but it also expands the generic category of contemporary art. The Gallery's pursuit of a balanced representation of Kngwarreye's discrete Aboriginality amid an ethos of multiplicity provides a fascinating insight into the difficulties of translating ideology into curatorial practice, and transforming a complex discourse into the concrete form of an exhibition.

The dilemma surrounding critical perspectives of art, or establishing any consensus of opinion within an ethos of multiple views, emerges within critical response to the Kngwarreye retrospective. The thesis examines how several critics negotiate aesthetic judgement of Kngwarreye's art, or attempt to suspend judgement without diminishing its worth. The internal dynamics of these critical approaches are shown to emphasise the contingency of representation and interpretation where it concerns cultural difference.

The final chapter approaches the enigmatic object of discourse in terms of a secret. Aspects of Jacques Derrida's Politics of Friendship are cross-referenced with the politics of the secret in Aboriginal culture to demonstrate how the failure of representation is an integral part of representation. This cross-referencing goes some way towards arguing why Kngwarreye's enigmatic aesthetic strikes a chord with contemporary attitudes regarding representation and interpretation.

Keyword Kngwarreye, Emily Kame, 1910-1996
Artists, Aboriginal Australian -- 20th century
Art, Aboriginal Australian -- 20th century

Document type: Thesis
Collection: UQ Theses (RHD) - Open Access
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Created: Fri, 24 Aug 2007, 18:05:14 EST