Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Emily Kame Kngwarreye (or Emily Kam Ngwarray) (1910 – 3 September 1996) was an Aboriginal Australian artist from the Utopia community in the Northern Territory. She is one of the most prominent and successful artists in the history of contemporary Indigenous Australian art.[1]

Emily Kame Kngwarreye
Photo of Emily Kame Kngwarreye.jpg
Born1910 (1910)
Died3 September 1996 (aged 85–86)
Other namesEmily Kam Ngwarray, Kngwarreye, Emily Kame Kngarreye
Known forPainting, contemporary indigenous Australian art

Life and familyEdit

VH-ZND Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, Qantas aircraft is named Emily Kame Kngwarreye and painted in a special livery based on her work Yam Dreaming

Knwarreye was born c.1910 on Alhalkere, a member of the Anmatyerre language group. Knwarreye lived at the Utopia community, which was established in 1978, about 250 kilometres (160 mi) northeast of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory of Australia. Emily had one brother and one sister, and no children of her own. Her brother's children are Gloria Pitjana Mills and Dolly Pitjana Mills.[2] Her sister-in-law was Minnie Pwerle, mother of artist Barbara Weir, whom Kngwarreye partly raised.

Kngwarreye did not take up painting seriously until she was nearly 80, after over a decade of working in the batik medium.

Kngwarreye died in Alice Springs in September 1996.

Early artEdit

Kngwarreye's initial artistic training was as a traditional Aboriginal woman, preparing and using designs for women's ceremonies. Her training in western techniques began, along with that of the rest of the Utopia community, with batik. Her first batik cloth works were created in 1980.[3]

Later she moved from batik to painting on canvas:

I did batik at first, and then after doing that I learned more and more and then I changed over to painting for good...Then it was canvas. I gave up on...fabric to avoid all the boiling to get the wax out. I got a bit lazy – I gave it up because it was too much hard work. I finally got sick of it ... I didn't want to continue with the hard work batik required – boiling the fabric over and over, lighting fires, and using up all the soap powder, over and over. That's why I gave up batik and changed over to canvas – it was easier. My eyesight deteriorated as I got older, and because of that I gave up batik on silk – it was better for me to just paint.[4]

Acrylic paintings were introduced to Utopia in 1988/89 by Rodney Gooch and others of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA). An exhibition of some of the paintings of these artists' work organised by CAAMA was held called "A Summer Project", where Kngwarreye's work got immediate attention from critics. The attention she received coincided with the worldwide art boom that occurred at this time.

Whereas the predominant Aboriginal style was based on the one developed with some assistance from art teacher Geoffrey Bardon at the Papunya community in 1971 of many similarly sized dots carefully lying next to each other in distinct patterns, Kngwarreye created her own original artistic style. This first style, in her paintings between 1989 and 1991, had many dots, sometimes lying on top of each other, of varying sizes and colours, as seen in Wild Potato Dreaming (1996).

Initially Kngwarreye painted for CAAMA and the Holt family at Delmore Downs Station; by 1991 she was producing many works for the Aboriginal Gallery of Dreamings in Melbourne as well as Fred Torres of Dacou located in Adelaide.

These original paintings of different styles quickly went for high prices at auction, with a revenue for the Utopia group of painters of more than A$1 million in 1989/90. The first international solo exhibition of Kngwarreye was held at the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam in 1999 by the Aboriginal Gallery of Dreamings.


Kngwarreye went through many different individual styles in her short career as a professional painter. In 1992, she began to join the dots into lines with parallel horizontal and vertical stripes, representing rivers and terrain, in many different colours. She began using larger brushes than previously. Her later paintings were based on much larger dots than the finer, more intricate work which she did when she started.

In 1993 she began painting patches of colour along with many dots, which were like rings that were clear in the middle as seen in Alaqura Profusion (1993). This was made with a shaving brush that was called her 'dump dump' style, which used very bright colours. The same style of rings of colour are also seen in My Mothers Country and Emu Country (1994).

In 1995 she ended what critics called her 'colourist' phase and began painting with plain stripes that crossed the canvas. The originally thick stripes often represented the lines of yam tracks, as in Yam Dreaming (1994) and Bush Yam (1995). She expressed the strange growth patterns of the yam, a plant which was critical for human survival in the desert, but was very difficult to find.

Later in 1995 her paintings started to resemble in some ways the American abstract expressionist paintings of Jackson Pollock, with many thinner lines that criss-crossed the canvas. Her main theme continued to be yams, as in Yam Dreaming Awelye (1995) and also in black-and-white Yam Dreaming paintings. Several weeks before her death, Kngwarreye painted many canvases over a 3-day period in 1996, using a very thick brush, as in Body Paint (1996).

Yam dreamingEdit

Kngwarreye particularly featured yam tracks in her works. The yam plant was an important source of food for the Aboriginal people of the desert. She painted many works on this theme; often her first actions at the start of a painting were to put down the yam tracking lines. This plant was especially significant for her: her middle name, Kame, means the yellow flower of the yam that grows above the ground. She described her paintings as having meaning based on all the aspects of the community's life, including the yam plants.


The success and demand for Kngwarreye's paintings caused her many problems within the community as she tried to maintain her individual identity. The myth of the woman in her 80s who had never been outside the central desert becoming a great painter was one reason for her popularity. She had in fact, been to Perth, Adelaide, Sydney and Canberra, though this was only after she had become famous. There was much pressure from the white community for her to paint in a certain way, when they believed that one of her styles was more successful than others.[citation needed]

Eight paintings by Kngwarreye in the Sotheby's winter auction of 2000 put together were sold for A$507,550, with Awelye (1989) selling for A$156,500. Also in 2000, Kngwarreye's work was amongst that of eight individual and collaborative groups of Indigenous Australian artists shown in the prestigious Nicholas Hall at the Hermitage Museum in Russia. The exhibition received a positive reception from Russian critics, one of whom wrote:

This is an exhibition of contemporary art, not in the sense that it was done recently, but in that it is cased in the mentality, technology and philosophy of radical art of the most recent times. No one, other than the Aborigines of Australia, has succeeded in exhibiting such art at the Hermitage.[5]

On 23 May 2007, her 1994 painting Earth's Creation was purchased by Tim Jennings of Mbantua Gallery & Cultural Museum for A$1,056,000 at a Deutscher-Menzies' Sydney auction, setting a new record for an Aboriginal artwork.[6]


With success came unwanted attention. Many other inexperienced art dealers would go to her community to try to get a piece of the action, Kngwarreye once describing to a friend how she had "escaped from five or six carloads of 'wannabe' art dealers at Utopia".[This quote needs a citation]

According to Sotheby's Tim Klingender, Kngwarreye was "an example of an Aboriginal artist who was relentlessly pursued by carpetbaggers towards the end of her career and produced a large but inconsistent body of work."[7]

Exhibitions and gallery holdingsEdit

Kngwarreye's first solo exhibition was at Utopia Art Sydney in April 1990.

There have been retrospectives at the National Museum of Australia, the Niagara Galleries, and the Adelaide Festival Centre.[8]

In 2013 the Emily Museum,[9] the first museum featuring a single Aboriginal artist, opened in Cheltenham, Victoria.


See alsoEdit



  1. ^ Phaidon Editors (2019). Great Women Artists. Phaidon Press. p. 218. ISBN 0714878774.
  2. ^ "Emily in Japan Part 1". Message Stick. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 26 July 2009. Archived from the original on 19 September 2010. Retrieved 13 July 2010.
  3. ^ Ryan 2008, pp. 16–17.
  4. ^ Green 2007, p. 205.
  5. ^ Grishin, Sasha (15 April 2000). "Aboriginal art makes it to the top". The Canberra Times.
  6. ^ Bibby, Paul (24 May 2007). "$1.05m painting of 'the lot' breaks record". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 14 July 2010.
  7. ^ Coslovich, Gabriella (20 September 2003). "Aboriginal works and artful dodgers". The Age. Retrieved 28 November 2010.
  8. ^ "Emily Kame Kngwarreye". National Museum of Women in the Arts. Retrieved 26 December 2019.
  9. ^ "The Emily Museum". Archived from the original on 24 July 2018. Retrieved 4 February 2016.
  10. ^ "Emily Kame Kngwarreye". National Museum of Australia. Retrieved 26 December 2019.
  11. ^ "Victorian Honour Roll of Women" (PDF).


Further readingEdit

  • Butler, Rex (1997), The Impossible Painter, Australian Art Collector magazine, issue 2, October – December 1997
  • Coster, Peter (18 September 2009). "Watching the price of spirituality". Herald Sun. Melbourne. Retrieved 20 March 2020.
  • Hart, D. (1995), Emily Kame Kngwarreye: Paintings from 1989–1995, Parliament House, Canberra
  • Isaacs, J., Smith, T., Ryan, J., Holt, D., Holt, J. (1998), Emily Kngwarreye Paintings, Craftsman House, Smith, T. (Ed.). North Ryde, Sydney.
  • McDonald, Gay; Fisher, Laura (June 2015). "Emily KameKngwarreye in Japan". Artlink. 35 (2): 48–51.
  • Neale, M. (1998), Emily Kame Kngwarreye: Paintings from Utopia, Macmillan Publishers, South Yarra, Victoria.
  • Neale, M. (2008), Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, National Museum of Australia Press, Canberra.
  • Thomas, D. (1988), Earth's Creation: The Paintings of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Malakoff Fine Art Press, North Caulfield, Victoria.

External linksEdit