Update: Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s Kame-Summer Awelye II sold for £309,000, or about $430,400.
What you see: Kame-Summer Awelye II, a monumental December 1991 canvas by Emily Kame Kngwarreye. Sotheby’s estimates it at £300,000 to £500,000, or $418,000 to $697,690.
Who was Emily Kame Kngwarreye? Born in 1910 in Utopia, an Aboriginal community in Australia’s northern territory, Kngwarreye [pronounced ‘no worry’] is one of the most significant and successful Aboriginal artists. She embraced painting late in life, when she was almost 80. Though her career was brief, it was exemplary. Her works started selling for six figures at Australian auctions at the turn of the century. She died in 1996 at the age of 85 or 86.
What does the name of the painting mean? “Summer ceremony,” says Tim Klingender, Aboriginal art specialist at Sotheby’s. “Awelye means ceremony. It means singing, dancing, and body painting as performed in traditional [Aboriginal] ceremonies, relating to the Dreaming of one’s totems and country.”
This is one of a group of four monumental works by Kngwarreye. Another is in a museum. Do we know where the other two are, and if they have come to auction? And is this the first of the four to go to auction? “The other two are both in private collections, and were both exhibited in the artist’s two retrospectives,” he says. “This is the first of the four to appear at auction.”
The lot notes say Kame-Summer Awelye II was painted ‘during a time of intense ceremonial activity.’ Could you explain what these ceremonies were, and how Kngwarreye participated? “Indigenous desert people meet at various times of the year to perform ceremonies, relating to rain, animals, plants, ancestors and initiations,” he says. “At such ceremonies, ancient songs and dances are performed, bodies painted, and sand mosaics are created on the ground and danced upon.”
The lot notes say that Kngwarreye might have daubed paint on the torsos of those who participated in the ceremonies. Did the paint patterns she applied to their bodies look in any way like the patterns we see in this painting? “In some cases, yes. In others, they are paintings of her country, Alhalkere,” he says. [Alhalkere is an area in central Australia that’s about 142 miles north of Alice Springs.]
In what ways does the painting reflect or represent the Northern Territory landscape? “These paintings are aerial views of ‘landscape’ from above–painterly views of landscape infused with the spiritual energy of the ancestors, or creation, or Dreamtime beings,” he says.
The lot notes also state that the painting ’emphasizes the intrinsic connection of the individual to the landscape as a form of personal expression.’ Could you say more about this? “To artists such as Emily, their inherited country and their connection to it are everything,” he says. “Her paintings are a celebration of that connection.”
Kngwarreye was in her early eighties when she made this painting. Do we know if it was difficult at all for her to make a painting of this size? How did she approach its creation? “Amazingly, she could handle large scale works with ease,” he says. “Google Big Yam Dreaming in the NGV to see a work she painted on a massive scale in the second-to-last year of her life.”
Why did she, among all of the Aboriginal artists in the Utopia community, break out and gain fame? “Because of the uniqueness and quality and development of her style,” he says. “In such a short period, she produced a phenomenal body of work–some 3,000 paintings in seven years.”
How does Kngwarreye’s personal story as an artistic late bloomer play into the demand for her paintings and affect their value? “Not particularly,” he says. “It has always been her art that has drawn attention first and foremost.”
What’s the current auction record for a Kngwarreye painting? Does she still hold the record for any Aboriginal artwork at auction? “Her auction record is AUD$2,100,000 [a sum that’s roughly the same in American dollars], for Earth’s Creation 1, sold in November 2017 at Fine Art Bourse in Sydney, Australia. That’s the second highest price for an Indigenous work, and the highest for any Australian woman artist,” he says.
How did you arrive at the estimate for this work? “Considerably smaller examples from this particular period have sold for around AUD$500,000,” he says. “A work on this scale and quality is exceptionally rare.”
Why will Kame-Summer Awelye II stick in your memory? “This grand painting is joyous, beautiful, spectacular, rare, and grounded in the oldest continuous culture on earth,” he says. “Seen firsthand, the painting’s layers of fine overlaid multi-toned yellow pigments give the painting a depth reminiscent of a golden celestial starscape, like an earthly reflection of the heavens.”
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Sotheby’s.
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