Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Emily Kame Kngwarreye is recognised as one of Australia’s most important Aboriginal artists. She began painting late in life when she was in her 70s and earlier she participated in communal art activities.

Throughout the 1970s and the early 1980s, Emily’s art-making comprised the design and production of silk batik which was a communal activity in the Utopia Women's Batik Group, engaging the women of Utopia, north-east of Alice Springs in art and craft work. Batik was introduced to the community in the 1970s by the artist and linguist, Jenny Green who worked with the Anmatyerre and Alyawarre people, recording and noting their language, which remains intact.

Batik is a labour intensive, wax resist and dying process involving the application of hot wax designs on to fabric and separate dye bathing to produce various colours. It is a slow and involved process requiring skill and patience. Batik textiles have been a part of the artistic culture of Australia’s neighbour country Indonesia for many centuries and can be traced back to Asia over hundreds of years when India and Indonesia engaged in textile exchange.

The counter-culture “hippie” movement of the 1970s saw a desire for the return of natural, earthy, folkloric design and clothing. This alternative movement filtered into Aboriginal communities and the batik textile art form was introduced to remote desert communities including Ernabella and Utopia. The women took to the communal activity and delighted in the shared experience with the opportunity to artistically express their dreamtime stories and individual totems. Despite the skill and beauty of the Utopia batiks, the art form was unfortunately not embraced widely by the broader art market however it was indeed an important prelude to an exciting painting movement.

Emily struggled to work in the medium of batik and it wasn’t until she began to paint with acrylic paint, a faster and more direct medium, that unlocked the artist’s spirit and ability to fully express her relationship with her desert country (homeland- the desert country).

This genesis of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, and many other artists of Utopia, came about from a project sponsored by the Holmes à Court Collection coordinated by curator, Anne Marie Brody and the manager of the CAAMA shop - the late Rodney Gooch (1949-2002) titled A Summer Project. In the summer of 1987-88, Ann Marie and Rodney prepared for their bush trip; they travelled 230 kilometres from Alice Springs to the Utopia communities (small camp sites), delivered 100 canvases and paints to the artists of Utopia. At the time, they had no idea what type of artworks the artists from Utopia would produce. When the project coordinators returned to the communities after two weeks and gathered 88 canvases, the artworks revealed a new body of work expressing a fresh, new approach with a vibrancy which delighted the coordinators, knowing that they had found and unlocked raw talent in the artists.

The entire body of 88 canvas artworks were subsequently exhibited in Sydney at the SH Erwin Gallery and the Holmes à Court Collection purchased the entire collection. Due to the artists’ seniority (considered the oldest member of the group); Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s work titled ‘Emu Woman’ was chosen for the cover of the exhibition catalogue. There was something very special about this painting, not only was it a beautifully balanced work with colour dotted playfully across the surface, there was also the sense of another narrative, a spiritual connection to country, symbols (women’s stories) partially concealed, a raw energy and love of colour with an immediacy that was vibrant and uncontrived.

This exhibition launched the painting careers of a number of Utopia artists including Emily Kame Kngwarreye. Angelina Pwerle Ngale, Mary Morton Kemarre, Queenie Kemarre and Lindsay Bird Petyarre on a scale they had not experienced previously. The exhibition was held shortly after the Utopia batik exhibition titled – Utopia: A Picture Story featuring 100 batik canvases. This collection was also purchased in its entirety by the Holmes à Court Collection. The exhibition was accompanied by a lavish book featuring the batiks in colour, and black and white portraits of the artists by Nicholas Adler.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s work become immediately popular and was likened to the work of the modernist or the great abstract expressionist painters such as Jackson Pollock. Art critics and connoisseurs marvelled at how this elderly woman painted such extraordinary modern artworks. Artistic expression however was not new to Emily as she had enjoyed a lifetime of ritual and artistic activity with the women drawing in sand, the desert earth and painting their bodies for awelye dance and song ceremonies. In this way, Emily’s paintings are like ceremonies, celebrating her country and her totems for which she was responsible, the yam - kame.

Over the next 8 years, Emily Kame Kngwarreye continued to paint her country and the yam - kame, after which she is named. Emily celebrated her country by painting the meandering lines of the yam roots, the changing colours of the desert landscape, her country- Alhalkere and expressed her country through colour using dotting with a full loaded brush or free-flowing lines using broad brush strokes.

In 1992 Emily Kame Kngwarreye travelled to Canberra with Rodney Gooch to receive an Australian Artist's Creative Fellowship presented to her by Prime Minister Paul Keating for her contribution to Australian art. Emily’s work was selected to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale, Italy in 1997 along with Ngyangerri artist Yvonne Koomatrie from the Coorong coastal region in South Australia and contemporary Aboriginal artist Judy Watson.

Auction records show that the works of Emily Kame Kngwarreye command high prices. Kngwarreye’s large, 6.3 metre painting titled Earth's Creation, 1995 sold for AU$1,056,000 in 2007 (Lawson-Menzies, Aboriginal Fine Art, Sydney, 23/05/2007, Lot No. 60).

In Canberra, Emily’s exuberant paintings can be found on permanent display in the Aboriginal art galleries of the National Gallery of Australia.

Gallery clients and art collectors can also arrange to see works by Emily Kame Kngwarreye at Aboriginal Dreamings Gallery, Canberra by contacting the Gallery to make a viewing appointment in advance. Paintings by Emily Kame Kngwarreye can be viewed at the Emily Kame Kngwarreye web page. (click here)


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