Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Aboriginal Australian Batik Artist and Painter

Born: 1910
Alhalkere, Utopia Station, Northern Territory, Australia
Died: September 3, 1996
Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia

Summary of Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Emily Kame Kngwarreye is one of Australia’s most important Indigenous artists (some historians and curators have preferred to refer to her as an “Aboriginal” or “First Nations” artist). Living her whole life in the remote central desert region of Utopia, Kngwarreye had very little contact with the Western world before her mid-seventies when she emerged as an artist of the highest standing almost overnight. Her commercial art career lasted just eight years, but in that time, Kngwarreye managed to produce over 3,000 paintings. Both her early batik fabric art, and her more famous canvas paintings, were an extension of the unbreakable cultural connection with her community and ancestral history. Her paintings were, for many Australians, their first introduction to the power of Indigenous art, while internationally, her work succeeded in bridging the cultural chasm between Western abstract art, and Aboriginal culture and tradition.


The Life of Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Curator Deborah Edwards writes, “Kngwarreye developed a painting technique that literally embodied her sense of the explosive, yet ordered, rhythms of the natural world: she energetically worked her canvas with fluid dots or blobs of colour that formed a pulsing layer over the ‘mapped-out’ underpinnings of her paintings”.

Progression of Art


Untitled (Silk Batik)

This is an example of a late Kngwarreye batik work, that is, a textile technique that she and other women in her community had been involved in producing since the mid-1970s, and which became an important part of her people’s economy. Very few specific batiks from the Utopia Women’s Batik Group can be attributed to Kngwarreye (or any other individual artist) as each piece was presented as a product of the collective group. But this work carries hallmarks of a unique Kngwarreye work. Batik is a cloth-dying technique of Indonesian origin that involves drawing patterns onto fabric, usually cotton or silk, with wax. The fabric is then dyed, and the wax removed in hot water, leaving the drawn patterns on the undyed fabric. Often, the process is repeated to include more colors and more complex patterns. However, this example only went through a single dying process, resulting in a tightly-packed system of scribble-like white and brown lines.

Kngwarreye held a prominent position in the Utopia Women’s Batik Group. But whereas the group’s earlier batiks tended to present more perceptible plant and animal forms, this work is much more expressionistic. It features a contemporary abstract aesthetic, but with the roots of the patterning directly reflecting local traditions and the local environment. Kngwarreye represents the “Dreaming maps” of sites of community importance, as well as the patterns used in sand painting and women’s striped body painting. As one of her last batiks before she transitioned to painting on canvas, it prefigures the sorts of abstract patterns that would come to define her paintings.

Batik on silk - Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, Australia


Emu Woman

In her role as custodian of the women’s Dreaming sites in Alhalkere, Kngwarreye produced many works with a black background as a way of referencing the ritual of painting directly onto the black bodies of Alhalkere members. In this, one of Kngwarreye’s first paintings on canvas, dots of black, orange, and red paints are placed over white, black, yellow, and blue lines. The lines represent Emu tracks. In Indigenous Australian astrology, a particular constellation in the night sky is considered to be the “emu in the sky”, and these creatures are central to much local mythology, as well as ceremonies featuring art making. As art historian Allison Young writes, works such as these derive their form “ceremonial sand paintings inspired by her ritual ‘dreamings,’ as well as [the] decorative motifs [painted] on women’s bodies as part of a ceremony called Awelye”. Body and sand painting was an intrinsic aspect of the Awelye ceremony, and Kngwarreye would have undertaken these acts of mark-making in her role as community elder.

Australian art historian and curator Tamsin Hong explains, “[Kngwarreye’s] painting practice was the artistic expression of this role, containing stories that only those who have been initiated through Anmatyerre ceremony can know [the Anmatyerre is the collective name given to people living in Australia’s Northern Territory who speak one of the Aboriginal Upper Arrernte languages]. […] Each person and his or her life is part of the Dreaming. It is not based on a chronology but is continuous and ever-present – being created now and incorporating the future. First Nation Australians have described this unique concept of time as ‘Everywhen’. The Dreaming is told through language, art, ceremony and songs and speaks to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders' history, which reaches back at least 65,000 years”. The Awelye ceremony was particularly important to Kngwarreye’s people in the 1970s when they were starting to reclaim the rights to their territory, which had been annexed by pastoral leases in the 1920s.

Synthetic polymer paint on canvas - The Holmes à Court Collection


Kame-Summer Awelye

In this large painting Kngwarreye presented her version of the Aboriginal “dot painting” technique she had learned from Geoffrey Bardon at the Papunya Tula Art Centre. However, whereas Aboriginal dot painting generally uses similar-sized and regularly spaced dots arranged in patterns depicting geometric shapes or organic flora/fauna forms, Kngwarreye varied and overlapped her dots. In this work, for example, she uses densely-packed reddish-orange, yellow, and to a lesser extent, white, dots to represent the tracks of the kame (yam) plant as seen from an aerial perspective (another hallmark of much of her work, meant to indicate the “spiritual eye” point-of-view commonly used by Indigenous artists of the region). As curator Deborah Edwards notes, Kngwarreye’s painting technique at this point was fully abstracted, and “literally embodied her sense of the explosive, yet ordered, rhythms of the natural world: she energetically worked her canvas with fluid dots or blobs of colour that formed a pulsing layer over the ‘mapped-out’ underpinnings of her paintings”.

The yam plant was highly significant, both to the local population as a food source, and also to Kngwarreye, who adopted “Kame” as her middle name. In her paintings, certain colors are meant to symbolize particular seasons, for instance, with yellow representing the time of year when the desert earth starts to dry up and the yam seeds have ripened. All of the earthy tones were inspired by the desert landscape in which she lived, as well as the natural ochre hues used in women’s body painting during local ceremonies. Indeed, her homeland of Alhalkere, and the kinship relations she held with both the land and the people, served as the foundational inspiration for her entire body of work.

Synthetic polymer paint on Belgian linen - Private collection


Earth’s Creation

In the mid-1990s, Kngwarreye pioneered a new style of painting on canvas. It involved loading paint onto a brush that is then aggressively pushed onto the canvas, causing the bristles to part and the paint to mix directly on the canvas. This style of painting was termed “dub dub” painting, a name derived from the sound made by the brush on canvas. The technique was adopted by other artists from her clan, including Freddy Purla, Kathleen Ngale, and Evelyn Pultara. Kngwarreye’s dub dub paintings, such as Earth's Creation, blended bold colors to create an abstract composition. Art historian Allison Young says of this work, “Patches of bold yellows, greens, reds and blues seem to bloom like lush vegetation over the large canvas. Comprised of gestural, viscous marks, each swath of color traces the movement of the artist’s hands and body over the canvas, which would have been laid horizontally as she painted, seated on (or beside) and intimately connected to her art“.

Earth’s Creation, one of twenty-two panels known as the Alkahere Suite, which Young calls “the most virtuosic of Kngwarreye’s immense and prolific artistic output”, belongs to what many scholars describe as her “high colorist” phase. It symbolizes the fertile time of year that follows the rainy season. Kngwarreye’s friend, linguist Jenny Green, explained that the artist believed that the painting had helped to protect the land from outside threats like Uranium mining, and that “by exercising this right to make images related to that place, perhaps in the same way as you would sing the songs or do the ceremonies, that was being a good citizen in her country terms – being a good custodian”. Gallerist and art dealer Adrian Newstead called this piece “a masterpiece, a cacophony of colour [and] a grand gestural painting with incredible movement and energy and verve”. In 2007, it became the first work by a female Australian artist, and the first Aboriginal artwork period, to be sold for over one million dollars.

Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, four panels - Private collection



This piece is typical of Kngwarreye’s paintings between 1994-95, at which point she had simplified her compositions, producing works with wide, parallel, horizontal, or strident vertical bands of bright and dark color. They are inspired by the lines used in body painting during Awelye ceremonies, as well as the straight cut marks made on the upper arm during these ceremonies (representing sorrow over loss of land). Curator Franchesca Cubillo states that we can ”almost gain a sense of the body paint being applied to the women prior to ceremony. It is as though we can feel the gravitas of the reverberating symbolism during ritual, and hear the faint whisper of the rhythm of the ritual songs at dusk”. fellow curator Judith Ryan adds, "These lines were not scrambled or jumbled together but were left to stand unadorned on the bare surface: audacious arte povera [improvised art]”.

Art historian Roger Benjamin said of the work, “[it] fed directly into the most cherished Euro-American concepts of the artist as genius, and of modernist formalist heroics” and, like her Alkahere Suite (also 1994), drew comparisons to the Impressionist work of Claude Monet. Benjamin says that “This was a kind of painting curiously familiar to the non-Aboriginal art world—a manner of composing it admired in the abstract expressionist drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, certain large De Koonings, the colour field canvases of Jules Olitski and their Australian counterparts of the later 1960s”. Neale observes that “Successive non-Indigenous Australian curators and academics have come to the same position, including Daniel Thomas who considers that it is ‘patronising, even racist [to] always imprison cultural product inside its particular cultural context’. To confine Kngwarreye’s work to a local context [Neale adds] would be to deny it the global exposure it deserves and demands, contributing to the lack of critical attention”. On seeing Sol LeWitt’s minimalist striped works, indeed, Kngwarreye asked, “Why do those fellas paint like me?”. (The American, LeWitt, did in fact own some Kngwarreye paintings and readily acknowledged her as an influence.)

Synthetic polymer on Belgian linen - Delmore Gallery, Utopia Station, Northern Territory, Australia


Wild Yam 2

By 1995, Kngwarreye had returned to meandering lines in earthy and ochre tones, representing the roots that yams forge in the desert earth. But here she has completely dispensed with the dots that partially, or sometimes completely, obscured the linear patterns of her early yams works. This period has been referred to as her “scribble phase”. Curator Judith Ryan explains that “When the yam is in full growth, a green leaf spreads over the country. As the vegetable tuber ripens and is ready to eat, the leaf declines and cracks appear in the ground, revealing the nature of the long-tubered plant and its pattern of growth”.

Many scholars, including art historian Sasha Grishin, view Kngwarreye’s works from this late period as a sort of solidification of the key driving forces behind the artist’s entire oeuvre. Says Grishin, these works are “the rhythmic human scale of performance in her linear mark making”. Indeed, much more than yam roots, they reference the ancestral roots that tie Kngwarreye to her land, her people, and her ancestors (with whom she was soon to be reunited). When asked about the inspiration for her painting Kngwarreye offered this fractured (to English speakers), but oft-cited, quote: “Whole lot, that’s whole lot, Awelye [my Dreaming], arlatyeye [pencil yam], arkerrthe [mountain devil lizard], ntange [grass seed], tingu [Dreamtime pup], hankerer [emu], intekwe [favourite small plant food of emus], atnwerle [green bean], and kame [yam seed]. That’s what I paint, whole lot”.

Synthetic polymer paint on canvas - Private collection


Final Series - My Country

As its title indicates, this work comes from the last Kngwarreye series. One month before she died, and with her health rapidly declining, Kngwarreye summoned her great-nephew, and Director of the DACOU Aboriginal Gallery in Utopia, Fred Torres, instructing him to bring her canvas and acrylic paints. As he was helping her lay out her canvas and paints, he realized he had only brought one brush, the broad gesso brush that the artist had previously used to apply the first coat of black paint that underlaid almost all her works. Undeterred, Kngwarreye picked up the large brush and began to paint large areas of her canvas in single brightly colored blocks. She finished the first work rapidly, and immediately asked for another canvas (and then another, and another) until she had completed a twenty-four painting series in a matter of days. While she worked, Kngwarreye gestured to her land with chants its name: “Alhalkere”. Torres was quick to recognize he was witnessing an important moment in Australian art history and documented Kngwarreye at work with his camera.

Arts writer Victoria King argues that with these paintings “[Kngwarreye] filled canvases with broad sweeps of her brush to create fields of light, space and exuberant colour, dispensing with dots and lines altogether. With crimsons, scarlets, rich purple-mauves, and red-browns, she juxtaposed high key variations of the red sandy earth of Alhalkere [and thereby] merged self and country in a dissolution of form”. Curator Judith Ryan suggested that with her Final Series, Kngwarreye had effectively “re-invented” herself just weeks before her passing. However, curator Kelli Cole identified a clear lineage between this series and Kngwarreye’s Alhalkere Suite series from three years earlier, in which she paid “homage to the Altyerr [Alhalkere], or the spiritual forces which are the legacy of the original ancestors who created the land and everything in it, and who laid down the codes of behaviour and law”.

Acrylic on canvas - Pwerle Gallery, Adelaide, Australia

Biography of Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Childhood and Early Life

Kngwarreye was born and raised in Alhalkere, a community adjoining Utopia (which was reportedly named by pastoralists in the 1920s when they discovered that the land was home to an over-abundance of easy-to-catch rabbits), an area some 230 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs, Australia’s third-largest settlement (a sparsely populated area of land managed and populated by members of a particular community). Alhalkere consists of five communities – Alhalpere, Rreltye, Thelye, Atarrkete and Ingutanka – created autonomously by Aboriginal Australians, who had successfully claimed their land in the early phase of the land rights movement (before being designated as a reserve by the Australian government). Alhalkere, the name place with which Kngwarreye’s name is inextricably linked, is not, then, a single location but refers rather to the “Country” name given to the grouping of the five communities (all linked by the Anmatyerre language).

Kngwarreye was the adopted daughter of Jacob Jones, a respected man of law who worked in Alyawarre, an area of land attached to the Utopia settlement. She had an older brother and sister, and the family was part of the Anmatyerre language group who were also engaged in local traditions such as Awelye painting. Kngwarreye didn’t see a white person until she was nine years old. Kngwarreye said of her childhood, “We used to eat bits and pieces of food, carefully digging out the grubs from Acacia bushes. We killed all sorts of lizards, such as geckos and blue-tongues, and ate them in our cubby houses […] My mother used to dig up bush potatoes and gather grubs from different sorts of Acacia bushes to eat. That’s what we used to live on. My mother would keep on digging and digging the bush potatoes, while us young ones made each other cry over the food — just over a little bit of food. Then we’d all go back to camp to cook the food, the atnwelarr yams […] We didn’t have any tents — we lived in shelters made of grass. When it was raining the grass was roughly thrown together for shelter. That was in the olden time, a long time ago”.

Those who knew Kngwarreye on a personal level described her as periodically “bossy” and “fiery” individual who spent most of her life working as a stockhand on nearby cattle ranches, and as a camel handler (or “cameleer”), in an era when most aboriginal woman worked as domestic helpers. She married twice, and when she was with her second husband, she lived with him at Wood Green cattle station, an area of land that stretched across two Aboriginal groups: the Anmatyerre and Alyawarre. Although she never had children of her own, she played an important maternal role in helping to raise her brother’s children, Gloria Pitjana Mills, Dolly Pitjana Mills, and Barbara Weir (Weir, like her aunt, went on to become a renowned Alyawarre artist).

There is little further biographical detail on Kngwarreye’s life predating her meteoric rise to national and international fame in the last decade of her life. However, The National Museum of Australia (NMA) offered the following summation: “[Alhalkere] was the source of her paintings – her genius loci [in classical Roman art, genius loci was the name used to describe a protective spirit of a place and was often symbolized through religious iconography]. Even physically, Emily’s pierced nose bore homage to the ancestor Alhalkere, a pierced rock standing on the Country of the same name. The enactment of these strong cultural connections to her community and Country through kinship ties, ancestral history and law was an everyday practice that informed her art, making her life and art inseparable”.

Education and Early Training

Kngwarreye career as an internationally-recognized artist started towards the end of her long life. In the late 1970s, she participated, with twenty other women, in government-sponsored workshops in Alyawarre (then called Utopia Station). The group was introduced to traditional art forms including tie-dye, block painting, and batik, a method (originating in Indonesia) of producing colored designs on textiles by dyeing them, having first applied wax to the parts to be left undyed.

In 1977, Kngwarreye led the Woman’s Batik Group, which functioned as a communal project, with no single artist receiving recognition for their work. The batik artists produced colored patterned designs on textiles by dyeing them, having first dripped melted wax onto the areas of the fabric they wanted to remain untouched by the dye. The Woman’s Batik Group developed a distinctive style characterized by what curator Judith Terry identifies as, “free gesture”, a “wandering line”, and a preference for “the accidental”. The batiks produced by the group were first exhibited in 1980 at the Araluen Arts Centre in Alice Springs. The following year those same works were chosen by Adelaide’s Tandanya Aboriginal Cultural Institute to be shown at Adelaide Arts Festival.

Don Holt, a third-generation pastoralist, and who had known Kngwarreye since she was a child, had attended the Araluen exhibition. He and his wife, Janet, the art coordinator at Papunya, a small indigenous community adjacent to Utopia, purchased the first of hundreds of silk batiks by Kngwarreye. (As future champions of Kngwarreye and the Aboriginal Art Movement, The Holts established the Delmore Gallery in 1989, in Delmore Downs Station, a former cattle station on the border with Utopia.) Several other private collectors and public galleries acquired her batiks, earning her the title: “Queen of the Woman’s Batik Group”. In 1981 (at the age of 71), Kngwarreye travelled to Adelaide for the first time, with the batik exhibition Floating Forests of Silk.

In 1988, the Woman’s Batik Group was commissioned to produce 88 batiks for the opening exhibition of the Tandanya Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide, which was titled Utopia - A Picture Story. The exhibition also toured internationally, giving many of the participating artists the opportunity to venture beyond their state borders for the first time in their lives. It was also in 1988 that Kngwarreye began working with acrylic painting, a medium introduced to the local community by Rodney Gooch, a member of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA). As Kngwarreye explained, “I did batik at first, and then after doing that I learned more and more and then I changed over to painting for good. […] I got a bit lazy […] 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. […] 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”.

Within the year, CAAMA organized an exhibition of 81 paintings by the Utopia artists, titled Summer Project 1988/89, at the S. H. Ervin Gallery in Sydney. Every single work was purchased by South African-born Australian entrepreneur, and Australia’s first billionaire, Robert Holmes à Court, who had also made a number of purchases at the earlier Araluen show. Later in 1989, artist Christopher Hodges opened the Utopia Art Gallery in Sydney where he showcased the works of the Utopia artists. By now, their works were gaining national recognition, and CAAMA donated over one million dollars to the group. Kngwarreye also held her first solo exhibition at Utopia Art Sydney in April 1990, where Holmes à Court again purchased every work. Sadly, however, he died suddenly (of heart failure) at the age of just 53, marking the loss of one of the most important early supporters of Indigenous Australian artists. Nevertheless, as gallerist and art dealer Adrian Newstead notes, “Holmes à Court [had by then] ensured that [Kngwarreye] and the Utopia movement gained immediate and enduring recognition”.

Mature Period

In 1971, Kngwarreye was introduced to the predominant Aboriginal style of painting, “dot painting”, at the Papunya Tula Art Centre by arts educator Geoffrey Bardon. This style, pioneered by Aboriginal painter Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, was characterized by dots of equal size placed next to one another in particular patterns to produce shimmering effects. However, Kngwarreye developed her own style by varying the size and color of her dots, and then often overlapping them. By 1991, Kngwarreye was receiving commissions from the Aboriginal Gallery of Dreamings in Melbourne, and the DACOU Aboriginal Gallery in Adelaide (among others). Many of her works sold for very high prices at auction.

As Newstead explains, "As it turned out, she was to prove far too prolific and elusive for any one dealer, and any attempt to monopolize her output proved futile. Nevertheless, the Holts purchased around 1,500 of her paintings over the following seven years and amassed a formidable personal collection. They cultivated relationships with selected galleries in Sydney and Melbourne, later expanding to include Chapman Gallery in Canberra. Due to their strategic placement of Emily’s works outside Alice Springs, her paintings did not appear in any quantity in the town until the early 1990s. This kept Emily out of the tourist galleries and shops at a vital early stage of her career, thereby establishing an aura of collectability and exclusivity around her name”.

Late Period and Death

Newstead notes that Kngwarreye’s “reputation soared as dealer after dealer beat their way to her camp, and such was Emily’s energy and output that no-one will ever know just how many other people she painted for”. Indeed, she completed at least one painting per day, culminating in the production of over 3000 paintings in just eight years. Kngwarreye prospered financially to the extent that she was able to purchase luxuries, such as cars, for her extended family. Indeed, she was, for a time, ranked the highest-earning woman in the country. Newstead writes, "[her art] gave rise to a number of seismic shifts in the Australian art world [including] the ascendance of women’s art in the Eastern and Central deserts; the opportunity for galleries to source high-quality art from outside the art centre system; and the emergence of entrepreneurial and prolific artists capable of gaining unprecedented earnings”.

In her final years, Kngwarreye became an honored Anmatyerre elder custodian of the women’s Dreaming sites in her homeland of Alhalkere. She learned little English, always preferring to speak in her native Anmatyerre tongue. In addition to being a ceremonial leader, Kngwarreye was an active leader in the land rights movement, playing a central role in the 1979 return of Alhalkere (formally Utopia Station) to her people. In 1992, she was awarded an Australian Artist's Creative Fellowship by the Australia Council, making her the first Indigenous Australian artist to receive the country’s highest cultural honor.

Kngwarreye passed away in Alice Springs in 1996. In 1997, her works, as well as those of Yvonne Koolmatrie and Judy Watson, were selected to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale. In 1998, a Major retrospective followed, Emily Kame Kngwarreye: Alhalkere - Paintings from Utopia, at the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane, and her first international solo exhibition (organized by the Aboriginal Gallery of Dreamings) at the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam took place in 1999. When her work was included in a 2000 exhibition of Indigenous Australian artists at the Nicholas Hall of the Hermitage Museum in Russia, one local critic wrote that “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”. In 2013, the Emily Museum, dedicated to her work, was opened in Cheltenham, Victoria. It was the first museum in the country devoted to the work of a single Aboriginal artist.

The Legacy of Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Kngwarreye was a trailblazer whose achievements were important for their influence on subsequent Indigenous painters, including Barbara Weir, Ada Bird Petyarre, Polly Ngal, Lilly Sandover Kngwarreye, and Gloria Petyarre. Her art also played a part in bringing Australian Indigenous art into the view of an international audience (including Minimalist Sol LeWitt, who owned at least one of her works and was said to have been directly influenced by her). Curator Deborah Edwards writes “[with her] magnificent canvases […] she appears to have aimed for essentialist visions of the multiplicities and connectedness of her country [and] to expand beyond, her clan codes, in abstractions of ceremonial markings and imagery of her country’s flora and fauna”.

Kngwarreye’s art has also rekindled debates (dating back to early modernism) within the contemporary artworld by those who were sensitive to the accusation that Western art markets appropriated indigenous art, and in so doing, stripped away its very essence. Neale, for instance, wrote, “… how can we produce […] great contemporary Australian art that is not marginalised through cultural difference? We need to create an environment where [Kngwarreye’s] paintings function simultaneously as cultural narratives without becoming objects of anthropological scrutiny, and as works of modernist abstract art without being sanitised of their cultural content”. Kngwarreye’s cross-over was a seen as a more progressive development by indigenous art curator Margo Neale who wrote, “No artist has painted their country the way she has, inflecting it with her personal vision and innovative style. Her ability to penetrate the soul of this land and capture the hearts, minds and imagination of the Australian audience is beyond art. […] Hers is not a view of the land, but rather its voice. She re-scaled the landscape with a cosmic dimension akin to a landscape of the Aboriginal mind, and this perspective is being written into the global imagination”.

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