Queenie McKenzie was born c.1930 at the Old Texas station on the Ord River in the north west of Western Australia. As a child, her Aboriginal mother protected her from removal to an orphanage under the prevailing government policy that took Aboriginal children such as Queenie, who’s absent father was white. As a young girl she began her life of cooking for the stockmen, tending and riding horses, and journeying as they drove cattle across the vast pastoral region of the north. During these years Queenie befriended Rover Thomas who arrived at Old Texas looking for work when 14 years of age. Later, she liked to tell and paint the story of how she saved his life after a riding accident by washing his wounds and sewing him up with a darning needle. When distant political decisions forced Aboriginal workers to leave outback cattle stations, the Gidja people faced a difficult time of unemployment, dislocation, and impoverishment.
During the seventies, the establishment of the Warmun community drew her tribe together once more and it became a cultural focal point within the Kimberley area, with Queenie playing a leading role in restoring her people’s culture and working toward a secure future. Involvement in community affairs led Queenie, by this time in her fifties, to experiment with representational art as an educational tool in the local school where she taught Gidja language and cultural traditions. The two-way education given at the school (Aboriginal and European style) contributed to a resurgence of cultural identity that strengthened the community. Besides helping to maintain ancient knowledge of sacred sites and the Dreaming mythology, it provided the young with a spiritual awareness and involvement in community ceremonies. Rover Thomas, who was receiving recognition and income from his painting by this time, encouraged Queenie’s first artistic experiments.
The distinctive Kimberley style developed by Paddy Jaminji, Rover Thomas, and others spatially condensed the landscape into a profile view that draws relevant sites and events together into one visual field, with rivers or journeys often inserted from an overview. Queenie’s style embraced these elements and added figurative imagery to relate the stories of her life, her Dreaming and the historical events that constituted the living memory of the Gidja people. Mixing the traditional ochres herself, Queenie liked to create different colours, particularly soft pinks and purples, which became the recognizable hallmark of her style. Binding the ochres with bush gum provided a translucent and textured surface to her canvases. She became the first woman to gain prominence in the East Kimberley painting movement, inspiring other women to become involved and to embrace their 'women’s law business' of which she was a respected custodian.
Queenie often related that she would lie in bed each night thinking of the story that she would paint the following day. 'Every night I sleep,' she once told me, ‘I think what I want to tell em'. She never hesitated when faced with a new canvas. Often she would recreate the country of her youth. Her birthplace and its geographical location in relation to Blackfella's Creek; the large termite mound that was small when she was a child but grew bigger and bigger throughout her life; the hills of Rosewood Station where she had worked as a cook for the Aboriginal stockmen; Old Texas Station where men would collect white quartz used for spear heads; Corella, Echidna, and Bowerbird Dreaming sites and many more.
Her manner was always decisive and vigorous, reflecting her belief in the importance of maintaining her culture and recording its history. This included the brutal massacres of her people, long remembered in their oral history. In 1997, Germaine Greer’s (1997) public denunciation of the contemporary Aboriginal art movement was published just as Queenie’s exhibition opened in Sydney. Unexpectedly thrown into the limelight and called upon to respond, 84 year old Queenie did so with an air of genuine authority. Greer’s article and Queenie’s affronted response demanded attention from art critics, academics and collectors. The growing interest in and respect for the real-life artists of this emerging industry, like Queenie, forced these critics to reconcile their nostalgia for an untainted past with the ways in which Aboriginal art had changed as it interacted with the dominant culture and the global economy. While these paintings on canvas demonstrate a break from traditions they affirm an inevitable basis within those traditions and have fundamentally rekindled the heart and soul of fractured communities. At the same time, in the words of a leading critic, it has 'produced some of the most outstanding and original works in this country' (McDonald 1997).
Throughout the mature phase of her career Queenie painted for a variety of people and galleries. Besides Waringarri Arts she painted for anyone who commissioned her works at the Pensioner Unit in the community until, in 1997, the council appointed Maxine Taylor to run the self-funded Warmun Traditional Artists. Tragically Queenie passed away just as the Warmun Art Centre was in its establishment phase in 1998. During this period the majority of her major works were commissioned by entrepreneurs who visited the community from time to time. In the last two years of her life she sat each day at her table beneath the art centre building, the only woman, and equal, amongst a group of old men who included Rover Thomas, Jack Britten, Hector Jandanay, Beerbee Mungnari, and Henry Wambini. Her best period as an artist was in the mid 1990’s while she was still strong. During the last two years of her life she painted less well as the sight from her tiny eyes began to fail. Her paintings became less controlled, yet even at this stage in her career she produced some wonderful paintings such as Three Sisters 1997 and Woolwoolji Springs 1997.
One of Queenie’s best-known themes was the massacre at Mistake Creek. Three years after her death the National Museum of Australia purchased a particularly fine example from a Lawson~Menzies auction. The acquisition came shortly after Sir William Deane, then Governor General and former Chief Justice, had traveled to the site of the massacre and offered a public apology to the Aboriginal people for the incident and others like it, so re-igniting Australia’s ‘history wars’. The purchase generated further controversy, which resulted in the announcement that the painting would be stored indefinitely in the basement rather than be put on display as had been planned.
Queenie earned worldwide acclaim with her distinct and influential artworks. In an interview towards the end of her life she reminded us that the only word she had ever learnt to read and write was her own name, as it was required to sign her paintings. Yet she was, in her lifetime and is still to this day, recognized as a spiritual and cultural icon, whose commitment to art has left an indelible impact on Australian history and culture.
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#2000020 LOCATION: Bondi