Emily Kame Kngwarreye was one of the most successful and prominent artists in contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art.
Born in 1910 in the Utopia community of Australia’s Northern Territory, Kngwarreye produced an incredible spectrum of work in her own unique style despite not taking up painting in a serious way until she was nearly 80.
Like many indigenous women, her first artistic training was traditional in nature, learning and preparing designs for women’s ceremonies. Her introduction to Western techniques began with ‘batik,’ a method of wax-resist dyeing cloth to create intricate patterns, and she became a part of the Utopia Women’s Batik Group. Kngwarreye eventually gave up on this art form as she found it too labour-intensive for her liking.
When acrylic painting was introduced to Utopia in 1988-89 by the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA), she took interest and created one of 81 paintings exhibited by the association. ‘Emu Woman’ was an instant hit and she became an overnight sensation. Demand for her artwork skyrocketed, seemingly overnight.
Over the next eight years, Kngwarreye produced about 3000 paintings, roughly one per day. While her career was relatively short, she was highly prolific, with her individual style changing as she progressed as an artist.
Separate from the predominant Aboriginal style, Kngwarreye’s paintings showcase a journey from beginner to more experienced artist. Her art details strong connections to her community and country through ancestral history and law, and the kinship she shared. Kngwarreye’s art transitioned from dots to stripes, which are symbolic of rivers and terrain. Her later paintings contained larger dots, then patches of bright, bold colors and rings during her ‘colorist’ phase. Black and white paintings with thinner lines, representing yam tracks, gave some of her final pieces a more expressionist feel.
As a lifelong custodian of the women’s Dreaming sites in her country, Alhalkere, Kngwarreye maintained a deep connection to her ancestry and ceremonial traditions. ‘Yam Dreaming’ was particularly important for her, for several reasons. First, the yam was an important source of food for her people, though not always easy to find. Second, her middle name ‘Kame’ means ‘yellow yam flower.’ These personal ties are shown in her work, which Kngwarreye herself described as ‘based on all aspects of the community’s life.’
Towards the end of her life, she was pursued relentlessly by ‘carpetbaggers’ trying to cash in on her fame. She was also subject to considerable pressure by the Caucasian community to paint in a particular way when one of her styles was more popular. Regardless, her work remained an expression of her Dreamings in all the ways they manifested themselves, creating a body of art which still captivates and intrigues the world to this day.