Queenie McKenzie was born at Old Texas Downs on the Ord River to the south-east of Turkey Creek. She grew up among Gija people and speaks Gija as her first language.
McKenzie was the first woman painter to gain prominence in the East Kimberley school of painting. A close and long-time friend of Rover Thomas, she worked with him on the Texan Downs cattle station. As a young woman, McKenzie was a camp cook for the stockmen on the cattle station. She fondly remembered an incident that occurred about 1954, when she saved Rover’s life. He had been thrown from a horse and had scalped himself. She sewed his scalp back on so expertly that, even though she had never done such a thing before, doctors were later amazed. In time, the incident became the subject of a number of her paintings.
Her mother was a Malgin/Guridji woman and her father a white man. Her father wanted to take her away but her mother said, ”You’re not taking my baby away. I keep her here. She’s my baby not yours.” Some people say that her mother rubbed her with charcoal so that her white blood would not be so obvious. When they moved to the New Texas Downs site, the police came and tried to take Queenie away as was the general policy for half-castes. They must have put up a good argument because Queenie was not taken. All the others who were taken never came back and people still wonder what happened to them. Those who were taken grew up in homes often having no knowledge of their families. It was only because Queenie’s mother was very strong that she was not taken. Both parents passed away in the first half of 1991.
McKenzie and her husband moved to Warmun in the 1970s. Although never having children of her own, she nevertheless “grew up” lots of other children, whose mothers were unable to look after them.
When Rover Thomas began painting for the public domain, his work inspired McKenzie to take up painting herself. She preferred using natural pigments and included distinctive powdery pink and pale violet colors made from ochres that she mined herself. As she said, these colors appealed to her sense of beauty. In her compositions, she usually placed images of geographic features in rows against monochrome grounds, and she combined plan and profile views to render the rugged landscape. Her paintings allowed her to teach others – black and white – the narratives associated with her traditional country. Late in life she was introduced to printmaking.
McKenzie participated in many group exhibitions and her work is found in several public collections including the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth, and the Berndt Museum of Anthropology of the University of Western Australia.
McKenzie was a woman of strong convictions and indomitable spirit, with a firm belief in the significance of her culture. She was lauded as an artist, and in 1998, the Government of Western Australia declared her a State Living Treasure for her contribution to the arts and to the teaching of the Gija language.
Biography courtesy of Japingka Gallery, Fremantle, Australia
friend of and influenced by Rover Thomas
collaborated with Theo Tremblay
Living Treasure Award, Western Australian State, Perth, Australia (1998)
Female Elder of the Year Award, National Aboriginal and Islanders Day Observance Committee Awards, Broome, Australia (1998)