The following essay was written to accompany Billy Kenda: The First Solo Exhibition held at Mossenson Galleries, Subiaco, Western Australia, April 13- May 9, 2009
A truck screams across the desert. The heat belting down upon the asphalt makes it glow a deep, languid blue. The driver has his eyes fixed forward upon the road as it stretches out onto the horizon. His face bears a wobbly smile, as though absorbed in the rhythms of the latest catchy tune blaring on his car radio. Around him, the desert rises in glorious majesty; purple mountains ascend into a crimson sky that beams down upon the desert’s gleaming yellow sands. But the driver does not note this grandeur for he is transfixed by his journey, his eyes planted firmly on the highway as it speeds him to his destination.
For Billy Kenda, the desert landscape is a place of Arcadian splendour. His depictions of country are the sanguine songs of a contented heart; prelapsarian odes to his beloved desert idyll. Rolling hills recede into the picture plain, enveloping the viewer and drawing the eye inwards in a transitory recession. Born in 1972, Kenda began painting in 2004 through the auspices of Mwerre Anthurre Artists (Bindi Inc) in Alice Springs. His father was a Ngaatjatjarr man from Docker River, but Kenda’s paintings are dominated by his mother’s country near Jay Creek in the West MacDonnell Ranges. This is the country where Kenda was raised in the shadow of the purple hills made famous by Albert Namatjira, and in many ways, Kenda’s paintings continue the halcyon vision of his artistic forebear.
And yet, increasingly, Kenda’s landscapes have become dominated by motor vehicles. Cars and trucks speed across the landscape, blocking it, and drawing the viewer to the foreground of the image. At times, these vehicles dominate the picture, and the landscape becomes little more than a hurried, unfocussed blur at the edge of the canvas. In Kenda’s paintings, the motor vehicle becomes a metonym for the encroachment of western modernity upon the Indigenous cultural landscape, offering a subtle, but powerful critique of western vision and our reluctance to embrace or acknowledge an Indigenous view of the land.
It is in this sense that the comparison between Kenda and Namatjira is perhaps most apt, for it was in the works of Namatjira that western audiences were first exposed to an Indigenous vision of the landscape. In his depictions of country, Namatjira appropriated the western tradition of landscape painting as a means of empowering Indigenous perspective. As Ian Burn has noted, “The Arrente style may be interpreted as a strategy to control what is secret and what is sacred, while still expressing to a white audience an Aboriginal relationship to the land,” in order, as Galarrwuy Yunipingu continues “to demonstrate our continuing link with our country and our rights and responsibilities we have to it.” Namatjira’s paintings present a defiant call to see the landscape from an Indigenous viewpoint. In doing so, he helped inaugurate the Indigenous art movement which has gone on to be one of the dominant frontiers upon which Indigenous peopl e have engaged with modernity and shown their culture to be relevant, contemporary and strong.
Despite their apparent joviality, the work of Billy Kenda sits at a forceful critical intersection of this visual engagement with the hegemony of western vision. As western society spread into the heart of the nation, highways were built across the desert – Kenda’s traditional homeland. But highways are built upon the principle of fastest movement between origin and destination; upon the assumption that what lies between is unimportant. Margaret Morse has theorised that the car becomes the de-realised ‘non-space’ that allows us to negotiate this distance. In the interior of the motor vehicle the traveller is insulated from the outside world, achieving what Morse calls a ‘mobile privatisation’ that serves to displace or separate us from our surroundings. This contrasts severely with an Indigenous cosmology, in which it is songlines and not highways that run across the country connecting all places, people and things. In this worldview, travel becomes a process deeply connected to the landscape; a process of continuity, identity creation and placedness.
But the songlines of the highway are insular; disconnected. This is how Kenda depicts his drivers, absorbed in the detached world of their mobile cabin, bopping along in ignorant bliss to the enveloping beauty of the world around them. When cars are absent from Kenda’s landscapes, the landscape recedes into the picture plain, inviting the viewer to travel across Kenda’s country, to footwalk his hot sands, to taste the desert air and feel the heat upon one’s brow. The inclusion of cars refuses this engagement, pulling the landscape up flat and disallowing travel into the picture plain. Here we find the metaphor of Kenda’s paintings. They are a call to return to the landscape, to escape western vision and to actively see and engage with the world around us. Kenda’s paintings are a challenge to look beyond our assumptions; to see our blindness to the beauty of the world just beyond our frame of reference. For it is here, in the Arcadian splendour of the landscape that the real joy of Kenda’s paintings can be found and from which stems their unique vision and joyful contentment.