This week is Naidoc Week and I so I wanted to share with you one of my favourite paintings: It is called Amwerlarr Anganenty (Big Yam Dreaming), painted by Emily Kame Kngawarreye, an Anmatyerre woman from Utopia community, 250 kms north-east of Alice Springs. It is a massive painting 3m x 8m, taking up one whole wall of the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, so it is difficult to capture the majesty of the painting in such a little photo. However, I have been fortunate enough to sit in the gallery on several occasions and meditate up on this deeply spiritually moving image and if you live in Victoria, I highly recommend you visit Emily’s painting.
On the surface the image is a representation of Emily’s Country, Alhalker, and her Dreaming, which is the amwerlarr (pencil yam), and suggests the lines of the roots of the pencil yam as it covers the earth. Emily painted this all in the course of two days, sitting on the canvas, laid out on the red desert earth, and covering it with thick white lines, all the time singing her Dreaming story as she painted. Emily started painting when she was 80 years old and to me this reveals the greatest significance of her work: her profound wisdom. In her paintings she re-creates the wisdom of countless generations passed on to her by teachings from her Elders over many decades. When Emily was asked what her painting was about, Emily simply replied “Whole lot, that’s whole lot… That’s what I paint, whole lot.” That is, although this painting looks like the roots of the yam, in fact there is a much deeper significance to her work: it is a visual representation of the whole cosmos, in the same way that the great Buddhist mandalas reveal the Truth that underlies our superficial understanding of reality. Within the lines of the painting there is a profound and mystical teaching that, even if we can’t understand it intellectually, we can receive by quietly meditating on the image. This is the same as the Buddhist practice of meditating on a mandala.
In a Buddhist mandala the image might be of a particular deity or set of symbols, but that is only the superficial meaning of the painting. Underlying the lines of the painted work is a deeper teaching that has come from the vision of an enlightened person – the one who first painted that mandala, who had a deep experiential understanding of Reality – which is then copied over periods of centuries by monks who then use the image as an object of meditation. Using your eyes as your instrument of practice, meditate upon the mandala and allow the teaching that is inherent within it to connect to your own deep innate wisdom.
Emily’s wisdom pours forth from her entire being as she sings her painting into life, through the medium of paint and brush, as an extension of herself not separate from the land, onto the canvas. Within the painting there is a story about Country that relates to the way people have an inherent interconnection with the land around them – the land that contains and includes the self, or self as a microcosm of the land itself, inseparable. Although the superficial meaning of the painting is the roots of the yam, within the lines and, far more importantly, between the spaces are revealed deep teachings of a cosmic Truth that can be apprehended not with the mind but with whole body simply being in its presence and meditating upon the lines in quiet stillness – allowing the message to seep into your own being via your eyes.
And this is exactly what Emily Kame Kgnwarreye is offering us in her mesmerising paintings – mandalas that offer us profound spiritual teachings that connect to our own deep wisdom. This is the sacred offering that the ancestors of this land have to share with all of us, regardless of our colour or background – how to recognise and apprehend our inseparable, ineffable spiritual connection with the land. So I encourage you to sit quietly and meditate upon the works of the Elders.
Happy NAIDOC Week 🙂