Welcome to the latest installment in my series of Letters to Dead Artists. Today, I’ll be writing to Australian Aboriginal artist, Queenie McKenzie (circa 1915-1998) from Warnum in the Kimberly region of Western Australia, where there is a thriving Aboriginal Arts Centre.
The music I’ve chosen to accompany Queenie McKenzie is Yothu Yindi’s – Timeless Land
Queenie McKenzie was one of the most prominent painters of the Warmun (Turkey Creek) community, and was born at Texas Downs Station on the Ord River. The daughter of an Aboriginal woman and a gardiya (white-fella) father, in her youth McKenzie was at the centre of a series of tense encounters between her mother and local government authorities, who sought to take her from her family, in line with assimilation policies of the time. On each occasion, McKenzie’s mother strongly resisted, even rubbing charcoal on the young girl in an attempt to conceal her lighter skin. As a young woman, McKenzie worked as a goatherd and later as a cook in the cattle mustering camps of Texas Downs. In her later years she moved to Warmun, where she became one of the most senior figures in Gija women’s law and ceremony. After witnessing the success of the male Warmun artists, and with the encouragement of Rover Thomas, in 1987 McKenzie was the first woman to begin painting in her community.
In little more than a decade of active painting, Queenie McKenzie emerged as a prominent and compelling commentator on the Aboriginal experience. Participating in numerous solo and group exhibitions, she created works that range in scope from the creation of the world, through the violent encounters of the colonial era, to the present day. Many of McKenzie’s paintings are autobiographical: depicting episodes from her life with her own people and with gardiya, on the remote cattle stations of the East Kimberley. McKenzie created a remarkable visual history of a life spent in two worlds: the sacred landscape of the Ngarrangkarni, and her working life on Texas Downs Station 1.
“Every rock, every hill, every water, I know that place backwards and forwards, up and down, inside out. It’s my country and I got names for every place.”
Her painting followed Rover Thomas’ style, mapping country in natural ochers, blending landscape with witnessed or remembered events, family anecdotes and mythological information. Her landscapes are very distinctive, particularly her rendition of the Kimberleys. She used dots to delineate her simple forms, not as a form of intuitive primitivism, but as a link to the traditional work of the Turkey Creek movement. She became an active printmaker after producing her first prints in 1995 in collaboration with printmaker, Theo Tremblay. Her work has been widely exhibited since 1991. It was included in the exhibitions ‘Power of the Land, Masterpieces of Aboriginal Art’ at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1992, and she also had a solo exhibition in Melbourne in 1997. 2.
I wanted to incorporate an Aboriginal artist in this series, because Australians owe such much to the rich, Aboriginal heritage we have inherited as the Australian nation. I’m not sure that “inherited” is quite the world. Indeed, I’m struggling to find the right words for any of this and feel quite intimated as a white woman discussing the works of an Aborigingal woman. I shouldn’t because I should just be able to discuss the works of any artist and how they have impacted on me without judgement. Sure, people might say I’ve omitted some of the facts, or got my facts wrong, but you can’t stop anyone from looking at a painting and having an emotional response.
However, when it came to approaching Queenie McKenzie’s work, I had two hands tied behind my back and couldn’t get close enough to form my own assessment. I was shut out.
When I was able to find some of her works online, I couldn’t understand what I saw. You see, despite being a middle-aged Australian, I virtually have no understanding of Aboriginal art. This is hardly surprising because we didn’t learn anything about Aboriginal culture at school, although Aboriginal dancers did come to our school when I was about seven years old. That was it. By the time I was at university, Aboriginal History was an option, although I pursued Australian Women’s History instead. My uncle is an Aboriginal man and my aunt has written the national history of the stolen generation so I’ve had more exposure to Aboriginal culture than most Australians of my generation. Fortunately, my kids have been more fortunate and Aboriginal culture and history is much more part of the curriculum now, than it used to be.
So, I pretty much have to approach Aboriginal Art the same way I would a very abstract piece with no overt meaning. That’s a real headache for me. I feel I should be seeing something that I can see, and it’s very intimidating, even humiliating. It doesn’t encourage me to spend more time there, get to know it better, unless there are more obvious features like the use of animal totems like the kangaroo, dolphin etc. This is possibly because I have a real respect for this culture, as I do for every culture, and I don’t want to get it wrong. It’s a bit like not talking to a friend who is dying or has been diagnosed with cancer, because you don’t know what to say.
Of course, I could find out more about Aboriginal Art and by this I mean the real traditional Aboriginal art. Indeed, to this end, I actually tried to find Queenie McKenzie’s works at the Art Gallery of NSW yesterday. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any. I had intended to spent the afternoon there. However, I ended up having lunch with my mother and daughter at Barangaroo on Sydney Harbour, which only left me a few hours. Once I arrived at the gallery, I must admit I became rather distracted by both old friends and new. I also did a fleeting run through The Lady & the Unicorn Exhibition.
However, I did come across works by Munggurrawuy Yunapingu (1907-79).
However, perseverance and persistence paid off and I managed to find this online:
The Horso Creek Massacre has been described as one of the most horrific and defining events in Aboriginal/White relations in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. The story of how a group of Gija people were shot and killed by white men for driving off bullocks has been passed down through the generations by word of mouth and Queenie learned of the story from her grandfather, Paddy Rattigan. Paddy’s father had killed a bullock and the white men were brutal in seeking their retribution. One old woman, not understanding what they were, is said to have given the men a bullet she found, which they then shot her with. The victims’ bodies were later burnt to hide the evidence. One boy managed to escape by hiding in the dead body of the animal and was later found by his mother. He was the sole survivor of the massacre 3.
When I was a kid, we learned nothing at all about such massacres. We were taught that Captain Cook “discovered” Australia in 1770. The trouble was that Australia was never lost, at least not to its own people and surrounding regions. It had its own people with their own history, culture and laws which was all written off when the country was described as “Terra nullus” and was in effect seen as a blank slate. A blank piece of white paper where the English could write their own story and do whatever they wanted…and they did. When the First Fleet arrived on January 26th, 1788 they began what is now considered an “invasion”. That is what’s now being taught in our schools. That is what my children are learning and I am also being educated along the way.
Anyway, unfortunately I don’t have the time at the moment to really do Queenie McKenzie or her people justice. So, now I’ll get moving a write my letter to Queenie McKenzie.
A Letter to Queen McKenzie
My name’s Rowena and I live way over the other side of Australia on the New South Central Coast, just North of Sydney. It’s such a long way from Warmun and your way of life…your art. I know the sea, and although I’ve been across the Nullarbor several times travelling between Sydney and Perth, I know nothing about the desert and its way. However, perhaps being aware of this ignorance and reaching out across the geographical and experiential gap, is the beginning of something new. We’ll have to wait and see.
I guess that’s what they call reconciliation, but it seems like such a big word for just getting on with the job. Why is acceptance and mutual respect such a big deal? Isn’t that just how you’re meant to treat people…the Golden Rule?
As a person living with a disability, I have seen that you can’t take these values for granted. That even when a parking spot is designated for disabled people, they’ll still think it’s their ordained right to park there. Or’ they expect people with disabilities to fly to gain access to a building, because they can’t make it up the stairs. We live in a world with warped values. What more can I say?
Anyway, I’m making a commitment to come back for a longer visit after this A-Z Challenge is over. I certainly couldn’t hope to get to know you in only one day.
A Letter From Queenie McKenzie
Thank you very much for your letter and your efforts to try to understand my people, my country, our history and our art.
While much is said about getting to know someone by climbing into their skin or walking in their shoes, this is not so easy. You can not be me. I can not be you. I am a Gija woman. I spent my entire life in the Kimberleys, a place you have never been, and I have never walked along your beach. Yet, for me, it all boils down to how you treat somebody. When you take the time to listen to someone’s stories and show respect for their ways, that is what matters.
Family is very important to me and love. When the Police were coming around and stealing our children, my mother painted me with charcoal so they wouldn’t take me away. Don’t ever take your family for granted and defend your people to the death, if that’s what it takes. Nothing is more important than your people.
Finally, what’s all this business of technology and screens. I knew my country like the back of my hands.
These children don’t even know their hands, let alone what’s going on around them. They need to wake up and get back down to earth. Feel the earth under foot at at the heart of their being for now they are floating like kites who have broken free from the earth and have no home. They have not only lost any sense of community. They have also lost themselves.
Map: Derivative of File:Northern Territory locator-MJC.png based on File:Kimberley_region_of_western_australia.JPG and File:Regions_of_western_australia_nine_plus_perth.png., CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14102655