Aboriginal Art & Aerial Perspectives
What an Aerial Photographer can learn from Emily Kam Kngwarray’s Journey
I have always been fascinated by the aerial perspective in Aboriginal art, so when a friend mentioned I should see Emily Kam Kngwarray’s work while in Canberra I made a mental note to get there. 
I must confess I had no idea who Kngwarray was at the time. I now know that she made her debut in the international art scene in the 80s, and went on to become the highest-selling female artist in Australian history. There’s more. Emily only started painting in her 70’s and produced more than 3,000 paintings in her ‘working life’ that spanned a mere 8 years! If you did the math, you might questions these numbers. That’s a painting a day. 
But we judge her from our western worldview and our yardsticks for measurements of success. They have no meaning in an indigenous world.  
I’ve done my homework and researched the exhibition. The National Gallery in Canberra is attempting to apply an indigenous lens to this body of work. We are encouraged to appreciate and understand her deep cultural, ancestral and spiritual connection to Country. She is a senior Anmatyerr law woman and matriarch of Alhalker Country—a place North East of Alice Springs.
In reality, she was not an overnight sensation. She had always been practicing art in culture and ceremony—through both her drawing on sand as a custodian of women’s dreaming sites, and in the painting of bodies in ritual, as an elder. It was just later in life that she translated this knowledge to canvas—a medium that we value in the west.
As I read the descriptions and absorb the paintings, I being to see a Country that has been ravaged by drought and flooding rains. I see cyclical patterns, cultural food and the waterholes that women sat around. As an aerial photographer, I am trying to appreciate the dominance of aerial perspectives in Aboriginal art. In my own practice, I am still on a journey of learning to ‘read’ aerial abstract photographs and the elements needed to convey narrative, impact and composition. 
Given there was no written language, art was the medium used to convey cultural stories and customs through generations so they could preserve heritage. Art was also used to convey instructions on navigating country between waterholes connected by songlines.  Reading the symbols used in imagery was an important skill in the business of survival. TThe symbols would be interpreted and taught quite simply to children as compared to the complexity with which it was conveyed to an initiated elder. I begin to draw parallels with how we interpret and appreciate aerial photography and why we are constantly looking for symbols to keep us more engaged with an image. We call this pareidolia—the tendency for perception to impose a meaningful interpretation on a nebulous stimulus. 
Aerial photography didn’t come naturally to me. Perhaps I should spend more time absorbed in the landscape before I start recording it. As I move through the gallery, I see some pieces that look like repetitive lines on canvas. It isn’t till I read the description that I learn that these are the designs that were painted on Anmatyerr women's bodies for ceremony. It was something Kngwarray had been doing for a longtime prior to her converting it on canvas in the 90s when her style shifted. 
But what really intrigued me was her work in batik. As a child my aunty was into both batik and tie-dye. I remember watching her in fascination and treasuring the batik dresses she made for my sister and me. The museum says that batik is an ancient fabric wax-resistant dyeing tradition that originated in Java. Interestingly, Kngwarray learnt the technique of batik during a bush workshop before she started to paint on canvas. Her deep connection to Country is also very evident in her batiks where she integrates her body painting symbolism, the emus and goannas found on Country as well as cultural food. Embodied here is also the symbolism conveyed in the colours she uses to convey such as if a goanna was old or young. There is still so much to learn about this ancient tradition.
The poignant lesson here which becomes evident to me during my visit is that she didn’t become an overnight sensation in the art world by accident. She just translated her lifelong cultural art practice which depicted her connection to Country — embracing its traditions, seasons, creation spirits and ancestors — onto canvas. Because this art is so rooted in the landscape, it resonates with us at a very deep perhaps even spiritual level, even if we don’t instinctively know how to read it. Indigenous people don’t just say everything is connected. They live and breathe it everyday. Perhaps this is the biggest difference between our cultural and spiritual practices and theirs, and how they play out in the world around us.
Back to Top