Emily and Mr Bean
Half a day's drive
outside Alice Springs, in the red heart of Australia, I stayed
with Bill Partridge, a station-owner who now made more money
out of Aboriginal Art than he did out of cattle. He was lucky
enough to have, living on a settlement adjacent to his land,
the most famous Aboriginal painter of them all, Emily Kame Kngwarreye.
I had been waiting for days for her to turn up and start work
on one of her famous 'dot paintings'. A funeral ('sorry business'
as the Aboriginals call it) had delayed things further. It had
begun to look as if she might never show at all...
Emily Kame Kngwarreye
In the morning a miracle! The weather had changed. The sky was
an English blanket of grey. By the old tennis court beyond the
pool the wind-chimes jangled. The heat was muggy, thundery.
'Rain?' I asked.
'It's just teasing,' Bill replied,
holding out a hand. 'This can go on for weeks. I tell you, Mark,
the worst thing is if it builds up like this and then rains
on your neighbour's property. That's when you feel like going
out and shooting a few galahs.'
Julie appeared. 'Emily's here,' she
said. The great painter was sitting under a tree outside the
store, as tiny and old and wizened as she'd appeared in the
blown-up photos I'd seen of her in Cork Street. She was wearing
a pink T -shirt that said SATURDAY'S BLUES and a bright orange
headscarf. There were two younger women with her, and a gaggle
of screaming kids. They were all painters, but as yet none of
them was painting. 'Got to go gently,' Bill said, 'with this
Sorry Business.' None the less, Julie was set to work priming
A tiny plane flew over. 'The aeroplane's
here! The aeroplane's here!' shrieked Bill's nine-year-old,
Charlotte, running past in her latest (pink frilly) dress.
An important gallery owner from Melbourne
was arriving, and Charlotte had been sternly warned not to make
any reference to the fact that he looked rather like Rowan Atkinson's
famous comic creation Mr Bean.
Oh dear. William Mora (of the top Melbourne gallery William
Mora) did look like Mr Bean, albeit a dapper, urban sophisticate
Mr Bean. A whiff of cologne joined the pungent scent of rain
on parched earth.
We proceeded in a solemn threesome
towards the seated cluster of Aboriginals, who went silent,
then shy, one of the younger women ducking behind Emily.
'This is Emily and Lily,' said Bill,
'and Camilla's hiding.'
Mr Bean nodded and smiled. Emily just nodded briskly and carried
on chewing, not bothering with a smile.
We retreated to the living room to
consider the canvases. Mr Bean was impressed. But a lot of the
most recent ones had a clumsily scrawled 'Emily' on the bottom
left-hand corner. Mr Bean stroked his chin with his fingers.
'I think it'll look a lot better without the signature,' he
said. Bill was clearly put out. 'Good, good,' he said. 'We'd
like your opinion on that.'
Julie was beckoning at me through the sliding door. I hurried
off. Sure enough, Emily, having moved from the tree to the shelter
of a corrugated-iron-roofed shed, was - at last - painting.
She had a three-foot by four-foot canvas, primed matt black,
on the ground in front of her. To her left, five little pots
of bright acrylic paint: two orange, one yellow, one red, one
white. In her hand she clutched a half-inch camel-hair brush.
This was her technique: She dipped
the brush into the orange pot, then out onto the black canvas,
splosh, splosh, splosh in a line of orange that gradually decreased
in brightness. Then, without pausing at all, the brush would
be back in the paintpot, the yellow one this time, so as she
brought brush back to canvas the line of orange sploshes would
gradually turn yellow, till the progression was yellow with
a lingering tinge of orange. Then, not stopping for anything
as mundane as a washing of the brush, she switched to a white
pot. Jab, jab, jab, went her brush on the canvas, the yellow,
orange and white mixing haphazardly as she proceeded down the
Bill and Mr Bean had appeared, stood
quietly behind me. 'Basically,' said Mr Bean, having watched
for a while, 'it's not a hard technique to imitate - but it's
the choice of colour.'
Emily ploughed on regardless down the row, barely seeming to
notice the watching whitefellas. 'Turn 'im a bit,' she muttered
to Lily and Camilla, who were working at their own, traditional,
paintings in the background. The canvas was turned. Emily ploughed
on across the rapidly decreasing area of black.
'How does she choose her colours?' mused Mr Bean.
'She picks them out,' said Bill. 'You see, she's sick to death
of white now so she starts on red again.' He told a story about
the Australian abstract artist Melvin Ramsden; half at us, half
at Emily (who took no notice). 'You know, he reckons, between
each brushstroke, he needs to stand back for a while, have a
beer maybe, think about it. And he came out here and saw the
speed with which Emily works,' Bill chuckled and shook his head.
'He couldn't believe it.'
'My mother's an artist,' said Mr
Bean, raising his voice to attract Emily's attention. 'A very
well-known artist in Melbourne.'
'An old woman, just like you,' said Bill.
Emily barely looked up. She just raised her eyebrows fractionally
'When we were little,' said Mr Bean, 'we used to sit and watch
her, like this. I can't paint at all - wish I could.'
'Nor can I,' laughed Bill.
Behind Emily, the two other ladies
were proceeding more slowly. Having drawn in the traditional
'story' in a series of deep-red-ochre horseshoes and circles
(each horseshoe was a person, each circle a waterhole) they
were now outlining the horseshoes with tiny white dots. It was
a careful process, working with a little match-sized stick,
slightly chewed at one end. Emily had finished. She sat back,
swigging at her can of Lemon Crush Solo. An inchoate mass of
orange, yellow and white splodges lay before us.
'That's a nice little painting,'
said Mr Bean. 'You could call it, “Before the Rain”.' He turned
to me. 'It's beautiful, isn't it?'
Despite her exertions, Emily was immediately ready for another
masterpiece. A canvas was fetched. Julie and Jane had neglected
their duties and this one was only half-primed. No matter. It
was put before her. 'She obviously can't say “no”,' said Mr
'You right for paint?' Bill asked. 'You right for colours?'
Emily grunted. Away she went, marching off down the side of
the black canvas with a new row of colourful splodges.
Bill went back to the house; I sat watching with Mr Bean. 'Wonderful
activity this,' he said. 'When you think that ten years ago
they had nothing to do.'
'What would one of these fetch in Melbourne?' I asked. He shrugged.
'Oh, around $30,000.' (Later, Julie told me that Emily got a
few hundred dollars a painting.)
'It's only in the last ten or fifteen
years,' he went on, 'that Australia has discovered the incredibly
rich artistic heritage it has. When I was younger, art students
all wanted to go to Europe. Now when they leave art school they
all want to head north.'
Half an hour later Emily had all-but finished another painting.
Bill stood over us, rubbing his hands. 'This is where you start
to get nervous,' he said. 'If she goes on too long she just
'It's a beauty,' said Mr Bean. 'It's looking lovely, Emily.'
Emily wasn't listening. 'Bloody whitefella,' joked Mr Bean.
'What would he know?'
'Okay Emily,' said Bill. 'We'll go and do some shopping now.'
He led the old lady off towards the store, followed by a gaggle
of children. I was left alone with Lily and Camilla.
'How do you choose which colour to use?' I asked, as Lily filled
in the dots around the symbols. Lily chuckled. 'Just put on
anywhere,' she said. I caught Camilla's eye. 'D'you think you'll
ever paint like that?' I gestured at Emily's painting. Her glance
flicked over and back again. She covered her mouth with her
hand and laughed.
Emily was back, surrounded by happy
grandchildren. Ellory was struggling with the cellophane wrapper
of a bright orange and green CAR KILLER. Roxeanne had a doll.
Tom had a super popgun that fired yellow balls. Emily's fierce
mask of concentration had softened totally. She sat, rocking
on her backside, watching the children play, her huge lower
lip pushed out in a contented smile.
'You ladies should be as fast as Emily,' Bill joked at Lily
'Too slow!' Emily laughed. 'Too slow!'
Camilla was blacking out the whole of her painting.
'Starting again?' asked Mr Bean.
'No good,' she muttered.
'It looked all right to me.'
'No, no,' said the artist, shaking her head.
That night it rained. Proper, hard rain,
splashing off the corrugated-iron rooftops, drenching the baked
earth, making big puddles in the ruts. Bill was in the very
best of moods. William loved the paintings, and the rain, if
it persisted, would save him a million dollars.
two Aboriginal friends