Obituary: Kudditji Kngwarreye

 

Our dear old friend, Kudditji Kngwarreye passed away peacefully last week.  The Aboriginal Art Association of Australia broke the news after calling Old Timers Village in Alice Springs and confirming the news with the nurses.  We send our condolences to the family and the Utopia communities.

Upon reflection of this Old Man’s life, we realise that he lived through a time of seismic change. His country was given the name Utopia by German Settlers, who transformed the land in to cattle stations.  He became a skilled stockman, which in recent years we as a nation have begun to recognise the key role Aboriginal people played in the development in the cattle industry in Australia. Kudditji witnessed the success of Albert Namatjira, and experienced the 1967 referendum. Kudditji and his countrymen had their land claim approved in 1979 and throughout the years he has felt the effects of different government policies on Indigenous people of the Northern Territory. 

But throughout it all, Kudditji maintained a strong connection and intimate knowledge of Country. He was a traditional custodian of many important Dreamings, of the land and Men's Business ceremonial sites. Kudditji held the responsibility of an Elder, and frequently took the young boys/men hunting emu in these lands, merging tradition with practice as part of their initiation as men.

Kudditji’s interest in art was more than likely sparked when he witnessed the great success achieved by indigenous women from Utopia in the mid to late 1980s. The women had the opportunity to take part in Batik workshops which created an opportunity to create art for an external market and establish a source of income. In 1988 the Utopia Women's Batik Group was commissioned to produce the opening exhibition for the Tandanya Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide. The 88 batiks toured internationally before being acquired by the Holmes à Court Collection in Perth. Not long after this, a project to introduce the Utopia Women's Batik Group to painting began. The resulting 1988/89 exhibition titled “A Summer Project” received great attention and coincided with the worldwide art boom that was occurring.

Being a regular visitor to Alice Springs, Kudditji most probably heard of similar things occurring in Papunya and was attracted to the opportunities painting offered. It is stated that he began painting around 1986, which would coincide with the transition to the painting medium in Utopia.  Initially, his highly intuitive and gestural method of painting that he became known for was not welcomed by galleries.  Instead, he was encouraged to paint in the fashionable style of the time, executing works with overt iconography, figurative elements and detailed infill. After seeing the great Utopian artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye catapult on to the Australian and International Art scene using a technique similar to his, Kudditji resumed his exploration of the abstract.  Encouraged by Mike Mitchell of Muk Muk Art and after intensive workshopping and trialling, the quintessential Kudditji brushwork emerged.

Through kinship, Kudditji was the brother of Emily Kame Kngwarreye. Although not related in the eyes of the non-indigenous art lover, the common name was a selling point used by many galleries when Kudditji first arrived on to the scene.  Initially, it was a way to attract the interest of the Australian art market that may not have understood the subtle and compelling connections to culture and country found in Kudditji’s art, but certainly understood the collectability of anything associated with Emily.  Soon, however, the name Kudditji spoke volumes.  His art spoke for itself and he needed no help by way of reflected glory from his skin sister, Emily.  For international collectors of contemporary art, Kudditji quickly became an obvious addition. They saw mastery in his paint handling technique and appreciated his floating fields of luminous colour.  Whilst many international visitors compared him to the great American abstract impressionist, Mark Rothko, Kudditji was totally unaware of any similarities.  He was just painting his country, his Dreamings, his way.

From 1990 onwards Kudditji was selected for numerous international exhibitions, playing an important role in showcasing the depth and diversity of Indigenous Australian art. From the early 2000s Kudditji based himself in Alice Springs, not only because his art career was starting to take off, but due to his health requiring more constant access to medical facilities. In 2006 he was exhibited at the Arken Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen, attracting huge critical acclaim.  Later the same year, he was named as one of the top 50 most collectible artists in Australia by Art Collector magazine. 

In 2013, Kate Owen Gallery presented the exhibition ‘The Master Returns’ – a long-awaited new body of work by Kudditji and his first since overcoming a difficult battle with illness. We weren’t sure what to expect, but the results were phenomenal. He appeared re-invigorated, not only in a health sense but in his approach to his work; bold, strong, assertive, energised and compelling are some of the words that come to mind when I think back on that exhibition. Gallery Owner and Director, Mr Geoff Henderson commented at the time, “Quite simply, this is the most powerful and compelling body of works I’ve seen from him”. 

While painting, Kudditji could be heard singing. On one level it was a way of infusing his works with stories of the land; the ancestors, hunts, travels and the food and water of Anmatyerre country. On other levels, the act of painting reminded him of home and his singing was his way of maintaining his bond with his country, far away from Alice Springs. He painted the country he longed to see again, and, at least in that moment of singing and painting, he returned to his country, if only in his heart and mind. 

Kudditji’s art has also been the exemplar of the ideological riddle that has nagged at the art world for years; can contemporary Aboriginal art effectively transition from the exhibit rooms of specialist Indigenous galleries, to being celebrated alongside international contemporary art?  While the argument appears quite straightforward – as to be contemporary simply means to be of one’s time – writers such as Christopher Allen have put forward that Aboriginal art, as “the expression of a culture that could not possibly be more conservative, traditional and conventional, poses a conundrum.”(2008)

However, from Nicolas Rothwell’s recent review of AGNSW exhibition ‘Art from Milingimbi- Taking Memories Back’ I can’t help but deduce that a balance is being achieved, where galleries are placing once perceived ethnographic content (or beautiful artistic expression that has, in the past been weighted with air of mysterious ethnograph-ique around it), in the context of a gallery space. Thorough curatorial research and collaboration with scholars and holders of Indigenous tradition is being married with more aesthetic considerations.  This is resulting in distinct schools of expression being celebrated within the large umbrella of ‘Aboriginal Art’ and a growing appreciation that somehow Australian Aboriginal Art bridges the chasm from the deeply traditional to the contemporary.

To this day, Kudditji remains an artist with a singular aesthetic quality. His art can stand alone as exceptional contemporary works and he has pioneered a highly intuitive gestural method of painting; mixing paints on the canvas creating vibrant and colour saturated spaces, the colours shifting as the ambient light changes.

However, as with many indigenous artists, Kudditji would be amused by such esoteric matters, dismissive of and disinterested in debate on the subject.  For him, his art remained his own expression of the ancient stories that he was the custodian of.  How the non-indigenous world chose to categorise his work was not something that ever occupied his mind.  What remained paramount was the story, however abstract his representation of it may have been, that his art told.

Artists around the world were inspired by the work of this great man, including Melbourne-based painter Vincent Fantauzzo (a four-time Archibald People’s Choice Award winner). Vincent’s 2016 exhibition Last Contact at Nada Hobbs Gallery showcased five triptychs; each containing a portrait of a great Central Australian artist, together with a painting by the Indigenous artist and a landscape by Fantuazzo. His great affection and respect for Kudditji is undeniable “"He kind of looks like a character from Lord of the Rings but there's nothing fake about him. Everything is genuine and real."

Fantauzzo has commented on the sense of urgency he felt to complete his portrait, when in 2015 Kudditji fell ill and there were fears he may not recover. "I get goosebumps thinking about it. That's the time when I realised what he meant to me and what he taught me." Fantuazzo entered his portrait of Kngwarreye in the 2015 Archibald Prize as well as Kngwarreye’s artwork in the Wynne Prize. Neither painting was shown in the finalist exhibition.

In 2015 Kudditji became too weak to carry on painting and retired to Old Timers Village where he lived out the remainder of his days in peace, surrounded by his countrymen.

Kudditji's songs will continue to echo through his beautiful artworks, which now hang in galleries, private collections, homes and offices all over the world.

Travel safely home to Anmatyerre Country Old Man. You will be missed.


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