Abstract: Anmatyerre elder and artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye (1910–1996) of the Utopia community, Northern Territory, Australia, featured the growth patterns of the pencil yam (Vigna lanceolata) prominently in works such as Untitled (Yam) (1981), Anooralya – Wild Yam (1989) and Yam Dreaming (1996) as well as a number of black-and-white renderings. Through the yam-art of Kngwarreye, this article considers human-vegetal entanglements in Aboriginal Australian societies. Integral to appreciating Kngwarreye’s paintings, the plant-poiesis-people conjunction calls prominence to ancestral—or Dreaming—knowledge of yams not only as providores of material sustenance but also as agential beings-in-themselves who culture humankind across space and time.
Keywords: Aboriginal Australian art, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, human-vegetal relations, intermediation, wild yam
I first became aware of Aboriginal Australians’ cultivation of wild yams through archaeologist Sylvia Hallam’s classic Fire and Hearth, published in 1975. Interested in the histories of human-plant relations in the Southwest region of Western Australia, I learned that Noongar subsistence in the botanically-rich kwongan heathlands south of Geraldton, WA, centred on root crops and, in particular, wild yam (Dioscorea hastifolia). In the late 1830s, for instance, British writer-explorer George Grey characterised wild yam, or warren, as ‘a favourite article of food’ among Noongar people (12). Images of yams permeated my imagination—of convoluted roots, each distinct in shape and size from the others; of warren grounds where people would convene seasonally for ceremonies, festivals and feasts; of cultivators bending downward to extract knobby, bulbous figures from the earth; and of sacred land-plant-people interactions originating in Noongar cosmology. Years later, while reading Gaagudju Elder Bill Neidjie’s poignant Story About Feeling, a similar sensation overcame me. I could feel the ancestral respect Gaagudju people have for plants and their habitats in lines such as ‘because this earth, this ground / this piece of ground e grow you’ (Neidjie 30). Wanting to know more about Aboriginal understandings of wild yams, I came across the mesmerising paintings of Elder Emily Kame Kngwarreye.
Created in 1995, Kngwarreye’s Anwerlarr Anganenty (Big Yam Dreaming) is a large-scale monochrome rendering of human-vegetal entanglement. Measuring three-by-eight metres, the monumental artwork consists of thin interwoven white lines painted over the course of two days as the artist sat cross-legged on, and beside, the canvas (National Gallery of Victoria). The sinuous composition is mimetic of the subterranean growth habit of anooralya, the pencil yam or Maloga bean (Vigna lanceolata), a culturally and spiritually resonant plant for the Anmatyerre of the Northern Territory (Isaacs 15–16). Also known by the names arlatyety, arleyteye and anwerlarr, the yam is linked ancestrally to Alhalkere, Utopia Station, the soakage (or wetland area) where the artist lived and worked. The pronounced rhythmic alternation of the piece—from elongated curves and abrupt twists to dense knots, convoluted junctions, and zones of parallel lineation—traces the emergence of the edible tubers within fissures that open in the dry earth in synchrony with the yam’s ripening. At the same time, the painting’s emphasis on interconnected lines rather than the dot patterns associated prominently with, for instance, the Papunya artists of the 1970s and ’80s underscores the significance of awelye, the striped body paintings worn by Anmatyerre women during ceremonies (Bardon and Bardon). While denoting the paintings, the term awelye in the Anmatyerre language also, more broadly, signifies dialogical interrelations between humans, other beings, land, and the spirit world (McLean 26). (Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s Anwerlarr Anganenty can be viewed here).
Resisting singular interpretation and vast in its temporal reach, Big Yam Dreaming presents a visual poetics of the complex imbrications between people, plants and place in Aboriginal societies (Pascoe 13–67). Throughout her brief artistic career, Kngwarreye featured the species in paintings such as Untitled (Yam) (1981), Anooralya – Wild Yam (1989), and Yam Dreaming (1996) as well as a number of black-and-white works. Through a focus on the evolution of Kngwarreye’s yam paintings created between 1981 and 1996—from her first colorful batik to her final monochrome abstractions—this article considers human-vegetal entanglement vis-à-vis the traditional plant ontologies of the Central Desert Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory. More than a two-dimensional graphic representation of the biocultural convergence between plant life and humankind, Kngwarreye’s work partakes in—becomes a living substrate within—the deep Anmatyerre mesh of plant-kin and Country. More precisely, Kngwarreye’s multi-dimensional imagining of the yam marks a shift away from vegetal representation (in which visual language constructs a botanical object in the world and thus risks reinscribing human-plant binarisms) toward intermediation (in which language proffers a living medium for dialogue between human and more-than-human subjects). Accordingly, her paintings index the material, spatial and temporal articulations specific to yams—and to those who procure and protect them—across seasons and within the constraints of desert habitats. Integral to appreciating Kngwarreye’s paintings, the plant-poiesis-people conjunction calls attention to prominent ancestral—or Dreaming—knowledge of yams not only as providores of physical sustenance but also as agents culturing the human across space and time.
A phytographical perspective on Kngwarreye’s work discloses her filiation with anooralya and other wild yam, or potato, species. Here, the term phytography characterises an approach to apprehending human and vegetal lives that attempts to reveal—or, at least, refuses to obfuscate—the inextricable entanglement of both (Ryan). In brief, phytography examines plant-non-plant biographies through a conception of poiesis as shared making, collective bringing-forth and multispecies becoming. In this context, Kngwarreye was born in 1910 at Alhalkere (Alalgura) soakage near the Utopia (Uturupa) community in Anmatyerre Country, approximately three-hundred-and-fifty kilometres north-east of Alice Springs. Utopia straddles the transition zone between the Anmatyerre (Anmatjirra) and Alyawarra (Iliaura) language groups. Lying in a dry creek bed between sand hills, Alhalkere is buffered from pastoral development by virtue of its designation as traditional Anmatyerre Country via the Utopia Land Claim of 1978 (Toohey). As a young girl digging for yams at her family’s soakage, Emily first encountered a whitefella—a policeman on horseback following the creek bed with a second horse carrying an Aboriginal man in chains (Brody 76). Before turning to art in her late 70s, she also worked as a cameleer—a role usually reserved for men, which enabled her to impart physical strength and boldness to her strokes (Neale, ‘Emily Kame Kngwarreye’). Her memories of working the land show that yams and other plant species figured into her identity as their beingness interlaced with hers. To be certain, Kngwarreye’s middle name ‘Kame’ denotes the seed of V. lanceolata and, therefore, encodes her Yam Dreaming—the intergenerational stories of the pencil yam’s genesis that, as cultural custodian, she was entitled to narrate through her work (Holt 200). Up to her death in 1996 at the age of 86, the anooralya of Alhalkere remained Emily’s principal story. Through her concerted attention to the wild yam, Kngwarreye came to embody the plant’s Altyerre, the creation or Dreaming being connected to the species.
For Anmatyerre and Alyawarra people, anooralya and anatye (bush yam, Ipomoea costata) are the two primary edible tubers (Isaacs 15). Populating watercourses and swamps throughout Australia, anooralya is a perennial legume with a deep taproot, slender tubers and yellow flowers (Lawn and Holland). The juicy, though bland-tasting, tubers have served a prominent role as a staple food in the traditional economies of the Aboriginal people of the Central Desert. Available throughout most of the year, the storage organs—comparable to potatoes—are either eaten raw or cooked in hot ashes or sand. Resembling small white peanuts, the buried seed pods, when available, are also consumed. About one month after the end of heavy downpours, the plant’s aerial portions die back, signaling that the starchy tubers have ripened below. Harvesting the nutritive underground parts, however, requires intimate knowledge of its habitat as well as skill in recognising the desiccated leaves and stems (Latz 296–97). What’s more, a very rare yam known as antjulkinah (giant sweet potato, or Ipomoea polpha subsp. latzii) is endemic to Anmatyerre country. Similar to I. costata but with broader leaves, the highly drought-tolerant species bears large purple flowers and stems that sprawl across the ground. Averaging about two kilograms—but occasionally growing as large as a human head—the chestnut-like tubers are ingested in their raw form or after roasting (Crase et al.). According to ethnobotanist Peter Latz, antjulkinah is the most prized yam among the Anmatyerre who locate the tubers by listening attentively for hollow reverberations made by striking the earth with digging sticks (Latz 217).
To facilitate the emergence of antjulkinah, Anmatyerre people perform special songs and dances as part of ‘increase’ ceremonies (Soos and Latz). Among Aboriginal people across Australia, the term Country—often capitalised—comprises ancestral homelands, totemic systems and longstanding vegetal-cultural relations. As a living being entreating reciprocal obligations, Country is a place of belonging, where Dreaming narratives—such as those summoned in and by Kngwarreye’s yam paintings—centralise the activities of ancestral entities manifested in plants, animals, rocks, fire, stars and other phenomena. The expressions ‘singing country’ and ‘singing up country’ denote in situ, or land-based, recitations of song poetry. In reference to research conducted with Yanyuwa communities in the Gulf of Carpentaria, Northern Territory, linguist John Bradley explains that the act of ‘singing up’ proffers a vital means of sustaining country, strengthening kinship ties, replenishing species and encouraging the land’s productivity over the seasons (Bradley with Yanyuwa families). Moreover, in The Australian Aborigines, first published in 1938, anthropologist Peter Elkin contended astutely that the ritual of increase evident throughout the island continent does not constitute ‘an attempt to control nature by magical means, but is a method of expressing [human] needs, especially [the] need that the normal order of nature should be maintained; it is a way of co-operating with nature at just those seasons when the increase of particular species or the rain should occur’ (195). Elkin further elaborated that the cooperative natural-cultural ritualistic system fulfils economic, social, psychological and spiritual functions.*
Approached from the perspectives of vegetal totemism and care for Country, Kngwarreye’s art can be understood as a human-plant enactment of singing up the Alhalkere pencil yam. Consequently, her paintings are not simply two-dimensional graphic representations of a culturally reverberative species; to the contrary, her renderings actively mediate human, vegetal and metaphysical domains. The perspective I am adopting here—one predicated on the interwoven agencies of flora and art—situates Kngwarreye’s work within a Dreaming ecology of Central Desert people that recognises plants as percipient kin. In this regard, Alyawarra ‘increase’ songs encourage yams to generate the miasmic pathways, as expressed in the following verse and analogously conveyed through Kngwarreye’s paintings:
aghiltjaya nantiyirrima ampirrkima
Let the cracks open and become jagged, lest there be no source of food.
(Moyle and Morton 74)
Whereas some Alyawarra invocations communicate traditional biocultural knowledge concerning the harvesting of yams, others celebrate—in gustatory fashion—the nourishment afforded by the rhizomatous plants as a staple crop in the Central Desert landscape:
kurranpiyma anpiymana yakwiliranga
Yams growing in small gullies and fissures climb up the trunks of nearby trees during the wet season;
(Moyle and Morton 108)
kwularnya awarrulpa intapiyta kwularnaya
Pieces of bark are used to dig up the young tubers;
(Moyle and Morton 107)
walupalu pakiytjurtu waralara pakiytjurtu
There is moisture, juice in the flesh of the yam.
(Moyle and Morton 117)
Such song-poems address Country directly as a dialogical subject as a method of ensuring the appearance of yams in cracks in the earth while also imparting practical information about the seasonal habits of the plant along with the most effective techniques of procuring it.
Kngwarreye’s art coalesces experiential, intergenerational and biocultural knowledge of the pencil yam’s intricate poiesis—its development of roots, formation of tubers, bursting open of seed pods, shrivelling of leaves, withering of stems, emergence in cracks in the ground and other phases in the life cycle of the species within its ecological milieu. In particular, Kngwarreye’s early paintings from the 1980s attend to the poietic articulations of the yam vis-à-vis the tracks of faunal wildlife—typically kangaroos and emus—feeding on its seeds and flowers. Her work thus presents what can be termed a hetero-temporalised consciousness of vegetal life synchronised to the metamorphosis of the yam across space and time. By ‘hetero-temporalised’, I mean the capacity to inhabit multiple times, moments or occasions at once. This term refers to the ability of plants to remain coordinated wholes despite their different parts (seeds, buds, flowers, stems, roots) undergoing various stages of development. Some parts of a plant may be dying while others are coming into being; some parts can be nibbled or pruned to allow others to flourish. This is plant hetero-temporality: the manifestation of times’ passage in the body of the plant.
From this perspective, Kngwarreye’s art functions within the field of différance defined by Derrida as ‘the systematic game of differences, or traces of differences, of spacing by which the elements enter into relation with one another’ (25). Michael Marder regards plant-time as hetero-temporal. For Marder, plants ‘spatially express time, illustrating the deconstructive temporalization of space and spatialization of time’ (96). The plant represents time’s passage as a unity of ‘multiple temporalities of growth—some of its parts sprouting faster, others slower, still others decaying and rotting’ (Marder 104). Marder describes this relation between plant-time and plant-space in terms of différance: ‘[…] vegetal temporality, untranslatable into the intervals of duration familiar to human consciousness, dissolves into vegetal spatiality’ (104). Along these lines, Kngwarreye’s work makes perceptible the elusive ‘pulsations’ of yam-time that otherwise might remain concealed (Marder 103). Her paintings powerfully counter the homogenising temporal order imposed on Aboriginal people and their plant-kin networks by Australian settler society since the late-eighteenth century (Donaldson).
From the standpoint of human-vegetal entanglement, Kngwarreye’s yam paintings disclose the biocultural role of her art within an Anmatyerre spiritual ecology. Critical preoccupation, however, with the position of her work vis-à-vis global modernist trends tends to occlude the nuanced botanical, topographical, corporeal and mnemonic particularities of her Dreaming. Engrossed in the representational dimensions of her work, the dominant critical perspective risks reducing plant life to a motif or trope, disregarding what I have outlined previously in this article as the intermediary function of yam-art in an Aboriginal context. To this effect, Kngwarreye has been characterised by critics narrowly as an ‘accidental modernist’ (Green) and ‘impossible modernist’ (Neale, ‘Emily Kame Kngwarreye’; Tatehata)—her work typecast as modern though ‘oblivious to Western modernism’ (McLean 23) and, even, analogous to the abstract expressionism of American painter Jackson Pollock. As a case in point, curator Akira Tatehata elevates Kngwarreye as one of the most significant abstract painters of the twentieth century. While Tatehata acknowledges explicitly that dislocating Kngwarreye’s work from its ecological context inscribes ‘another form of cultural colonialism’ (31), he nevertheless unremittingly pursues the modernist comparison. His essay asserts that ‘Emily’s works have a strong relation to modernist painterly spaces’ and that, unvaryingly, she can be best understood as ‘an impossible modernist’ (35). Critic Ian McLean, furthermore, approaches Kngwarreye’s art as ‘the consummation of a long post-contact Aboriginal history’ in order to legitimise its overarching resonance with Western modernism (23). From McLean’s point of view, ‘Aboriginal modernism’ entails knowledge of traditional cosmologies and their aesthetics as well as opportunities for interaction with modernity—both of which Kngwarreye had. My intention here is not to demean the artist’s crucial relationship to modernity but to delineate an alternative framework that more fully emphasises the embeddedness of her botanical imagination in the pencil yam Dreaming and everyday interactions with the species based on notions of ‘increase’.
Kngwarreye’s earliest rendering of a yam using methods and materials introduced from outside the Central Desert area is Untitled (Yam) (1981), a vibrantly coloured batik-on-cotton. Composed in various hues of purple, the batik evokes/invokes a field profuse in plump yams with textured skin enclosed in a meshwork of twisting rhizomes and twining stems (Neale, ‘Origins’ 65). Marking an initial phase of her artistic articulation of anooralya Dreaming, the audacious phytograms would never recur in her oeuvre. Instead, her pictorial style evolved towards less naturalistic visualisations employing intricate brushstrokes to elicit the subterranean circuitries of the pencil yam. Presenting an aerial view of a yam site in a state of effusive fecundity, the batik integrates the dot patterns typical of the Papunya Tula School of Painters with the elaborate lineation characteristic of her later yam-art. However, unlike the distinctive rhythmic variation of Big Yam Dreaming (1995)—alternating between slow curves and sudden flexures—the early batik is a relatively even and balanced composition. After a lifetime of painting on sand and bodies, Kngwarreye turned towards batik in the late 1970s as a medium for expressing traditional Anmatyerre Dreaming narratives (Museums Victoria). Originating in Indonesia, batik is a textile-making process that involves the application of hot wax to create aesthetic patterns by regulating the flow of dye on cloth. In 1977, in a series of government-sponsored workshops, educator Jenny Green started teaching batik techniques to Anmatyerre and Alyawarra women, leading to the formation of the Utopia Women’s Batik Group about a year later. In fact, proceeds from the sale of the group’s batiks helped to fund the historic Utopia Land Claim. In 1988, Kngwarreye’s batiks appeared as part of the international exhibition Utopia – A Picture Story. Around the same time, her transition from batik to canvas was catalysed by Emu Woman (1988–89), a painting that features the wild seeds ground to produce a damper for women’s ceremonies (Neale, ‘Origins’ 60–61).
Following her transition to canvas, the pencil yam, or anooralya, continued to dominate Kngwarreye’s subject matter. Anooralya – Wild Yam (1989) is one of several works during this transformational phase in the artist’s phytopoetics that narrates the ancestral entanglement between the yam and the emu (Kngwarreye, ‘Anooralya IV’). An array of dots overlays a gridwork of lines, slashes and arcs, generating a temporally textured narrative. The painting’s substratum delineates sacred places and significant sites—soakages, outcrops, stones, trees and tuber grounds—along the Dreaming track of Anooralya Altyerre, the wild yam creation being. Rather than a modernist abstraction, à la Pollock and other expressionists, the artwork is a schematisation of the passageways—interlinked human and more-than-human movements between locales and sites, from yam to yam—across Anmatyerre country. The elaborate and dense configuration of dots invokes the dispersal of yam seeds across the landscape in conjunction with the footprints of emus in search of them. Materialised by a palimpsestic arrangement of forms, the hetero-temporality of the work interleaves the specific time modalities of yams, emus, humans, ancestors and the Dreaming. A visual phytopoetics of hetero-temporality factors into other paintings of this period, including Arlatyeye – Wild Yam (1991) (Kngwarreye, ‘Arlatyeye – Wild Yam’), with its dot-seed field superimposed over a mesh of linear traces, and Yam Dreaming (1991) (Kngwarreye, “Yam Dreaming”) with its pattern of larger dabs arranged within a latticework that evokes the microscopic vein and stomatal structure of leaves. Furthermore, composed in engrossing yellow hues but lacking the underlying structures characteristic of the previous paintings, Kame (1991) calls forth the pencil yam seeds vital to Kngwarreye’s Dreaming (Kngwarreye, ‘Kame’).
To engage dialogically with yam-time, to become entangled within it, in resistance to totalising colonialist constructions—as I suggest that Kngwarreye’s paintings do—is to link to heterogeneous temporal modes of the vegetal world. Kngwarreye’s yam-art constitutes such an interface, an opening that intervenes in the negation of vegetal différance—of yam poiesis. In this context, ecocritic Alfred Siewers employs the neologism time-plexity to denote the entwining of chronos and kairos—of human and more-than-human modes of time. A term derived from cognitive linguistics, plexity denotes a conceptual category predicated on the articulation of multiple elements. For Siewers, time-plexity signifies the co-passage of beings through occasions of timing, timeliness and timelessness, towards the possibility of non-time consciousness (Siewers 109). Kngwarreye’s Dreaming narratives bring attention to the intricacies of time-plex human interchanges with vegetal nature by denying reductionistic conceptions of time and countering predeterminations of its relationship to space. Philosopher David Wood similarly articulates the plexity—or entangled nature—of temporal scales that he identifies as foundational to phenomenological experience of the environment (Wood 213–17). As a ‘locus of resistance’, in Marder’s terms, the plexity of plant-time destabilises the hyper-capitalist logic of modernity by refusing the conversion of plant différance into sameness (103). To be certain, the temporal order of Aboriginal societies across Australia is premised on the heterogeneity of time as times or timelinesses encompassing country, spirit, celestial transactions and supernatural forces. As signified by Kngwarreye’s yam-art, the Dreaming of Aboriginal cultures sustains—indeed, mediates and enacts—temporally complex intersections between vegetal ancestors and human communities.
The mid-1990s brought about an intensification of Kngwarreye’s yam poetics, specifically the heightening of the spatiotemporal vigour evident in Anwerlarr Anganenty (Big Yam Dreaming) (1995), discussed at the essay’s opening. During these two intensive years, just prior to her death in 1996, Kngwarreye produced a number of series—a proliferation of artworks that parallels, and provokes, the flourishing of the pencil yam in its habitat and within the artist’s consciousness. The series Anooralya (1995), for instance, epitomises her evolution towards tendrilous traces painted against white, gray or black fields. The emergence of seeds and plants at the interstices of profuse stems and rhizomes communicates the function of the paintings as mediators of vegetal ‘increase’. One work in the series, Anooralya IV (1995), consists of ghostly, opaque white lines against a black background (Kngwarreye, ‘Anooralya IV’). Whereas some lines run parallel to each other, others converge and entwine. Notably at the viewer’s top left, zones of dense brushwork contrast sharply to a relatively scarce middle area centred on a lone vertical stroke. At the right side, a knot of tendrils impinges on the emptiness of the painting’s mid-section. Summoning yet also encouraging the lively poiesis of the yam, Anooralya IV interposes between human and vegetal domains—and, indeed, timeframes—through its hetero-temporal orientation. In contrast to Anooralya, the Wild Yam (1995) series makes use of multi-coloured lineation to cultivate a dense tracery mimetic of yam poiesis in the earth. Wild Yam V (1995) in particular implements rapid—nearly frenetic—brushstrokes with impulsive orientations to arouse the florescence of yam being-in-the-world (Kngwarreye, ‘Wild Yam V’).
As seen in Anwerlarr Anganenty (1995), the yam paintings Kngwarreye created in her final years became physically larger and more encompassing. As an example, Big Yam (1996) comprises four panels and measures about three-by-four meters in total (Kngwarreye, ‘Big Yam’). The impenetrable tangle of vibrantly hued brushstrokes divulges only the faintest glimpses of the black background. Crowded, meandering lines invoke the poiesis of the yam within its habitat but also within the artist’s Dreaming. Understood as expansively intermediatory rather than narrowly representational, the painting issues a direct appeal to the plant to continue to flourish in order to sustain subsequent generations of Anmatyerre people and the community of life on which they will depend. Yet, notwithstanding the pervasiveness of the pencil yam in Kngwarreye’s oeuvre, her work calls to prominence multispecies relationality, biocultural knowledge and the interstitiality of the human subject. The yam is but one node within a network of beings—of land and Dreaming, of the natural and otherworldly. When asked about her paintings, Kngwarreye responded in terms of the all-embracing totality of Awelye Dreaming and Anmatyerre country: ‘Whole lot, that’s whole lot. Awelye (my Dreaming), Arlatyeye (pencil yam), Arkerrthe (mountain devil lizard), Ntange (grass seed), Tingu (Dreamtime pup), Ankerre (emu), Intekwe (favourite food of emus, a small plant), Atnwerle (green bean), and Kame (yam seed). That’s what I paint, whole lot’ (Neale, ‘Marks of Meaning’ 232). While remaining attuned to the temporal cadences of vegetal life and, above all, the pencil yam, Kngwarreye’s paintings call forth the multiple temporalities that ebb and flow within Country. In other words, her yam-art shifts from evocation to invocation—from botanical representation to human-plant intermediation. (Kngwarreye’s Big Yam can be viewed here).
Reducible to neither an artefact nor an object, her paintings are agential things-in-themselves, like the plants they engage. Kngwarreye’s wild yam Dreaming is entrained to the hetero-temporality of the plant within its biocultural network. Moving outside the constraints of two-dimensional aesthetic imagery, her art invokes the poiesis of the yam—its making, bringing-forth and becoming in the world, its opening to the other in synchrony with the artist’s opening in response to it. In Through Vegetal Being, Michael Marder comments, ‘Living at the rhythm of the seasons means respecting the time of plants and, along with them, successively opening oneself to various elements’ (in Irigaray and Marder 144). To exist out of season, for Marder, is ‘to exist out of tune with the milestones of vegetal time: germination, growth, blossoming, and fruition’ (in Irigaray and Marder 143). To be certain, Kngwarreye’s paintings of anooralya exist in tune respectfully with the landmarks of yam temporality. Her work moreover coalesces the multifarious temporal pulsations of Anmatyerre Country within which the time of the yam is nested. In a climate-disturbed era marked by the escalating technologisation of flora, humans and time, Kngwarreye’s yam renderings remind us of the vital—and vitalising—interstices between plants, people and places within, and beyond, Alhalkere Country.