Kwementyay Kngwarreye's Big yam Dreaming

Kwementyay Kngwarreye’s Big yam Dreaming demands to be considered among the great contemporary masterpieces of our time. This central icon of the Gallery’s collection, measuring three by nine metres, is painted entirely in bold white lines on black. It celebrates the natural increase of anooralya (the finger yam) at Alhalkere, country sacred to the artist. When the yam is in full growth, a green leaf spreads over the country. As the vegetable tuber ripens and is ready to eat, the leaf declines and cracks appear in the ground, revealing the nature of the long-tubered plant and its pattern of growth. The white linear network in Big yam Dreaming signifies these cracks in the ground and the long-branching tuberous plant underground, which has the taste and colour of a potato and is eaten raw or cooked. 

Painted over a three-day stretch, Big yam Dreaming recalls Kngwarreye’s work from 1977 to 1988 in the batik medium, where loose, scribbled lines were dominant over dots. These layered, tangled lines, derived from women’s striped body paintings, underscored her earliest canvases, which date from the summer of 1988–89 and in which there also appeared short horizontal stripes around the stretching edge. In 1991–92, this linear structure became obscured by colour fields of dots, initially small but becoming larger and larger dabs and eventually blotches, sometimes – as was characteristic of her 1993 output – blurred into dense and muddied essays on tone. In the summer of 1993–94, the artist stripped away the layered overpainting and began to work in bald monochrome parallel stripes: verticals and horizontals on unprimed sheets of paper. These lines were not scrambled or jumbled together but were left to stand unadorned on the bare surface: audacious arte povera. The Gallery’s six black on white striped works on paper, entitled Awelye: women’s body paint I–VI, 1993, prefigure in negative the linear cast of Big yam Dreaming, like six staccato studies for the fully orchestrated composition. 

The Gallery’s monumental painting encompasses all phases of Kngwarreye’s work yet transcends them in its grandeur and completeness of conception. The vast canvas, drawn in a single, continuous line, is gestural in the abstract expressionist sense and has the untrammelled rawness and irregularity evident in all the artist’s work. The drawn surface lays bare the skeleton, the bones, which structure much of her art. The rhythmical monochrome design can also be likened to the veins, sinews and contours seen in the body of the land from above. In the artist’s whole oeuvre, Big yam Dreaming stands as Kngwarreye’s greatest graphic statement, against which her colourist works float and have their anchor. Far from being intimidated by the monumental surface, Kngwarreye has been inspired by a vision of the whole, which she has sustained in all of the minute sections of the canvas, through contrasting rhythms: angular, meandering long stretches, short jabs, energetic rushes and exploding lines. The use of white on black forces the viewer to confront only the painting’s graphic elements and its inner properties of drawing, as one would the charcoal drawings of Mike Parr or the canvases of Franz Kline. 

Judith Ryan