Woman Kngwarreye, Emily Kame (1910 - 1996)

Utopia Station, Alhalkere, Northern Territory, Australia

Written by Dorothy Erickson, Independent Scholar

Emily Kame Kngwarreye was a leading Indigenous Australian artist. An Aboriginal woman from central Australia, she was born in 1910 on Utopia Station where she worked as a stockman and became a senior figure. "Tradition demanded reciprocal rights and obligations in all matters concerning the group or clan" ( Caruana,1999)." Nonetheless, within the communal whole, each individual had an inherited place, one that was enhanced through ritual and personal attainments"(Caruana, 1999). "[She] emerged as one of Australia's leading painters of modern times [yet] started painting in the public arena only when she was in her eighties" (Caruana, 1999). Her work became recognised nationally and internationally and is included in major public and private collections in Australia and overseas. The work is distinctive for its expressive abstract style. "Kngwarreye's prominence [was] no overnight sensation; it [founds] its roots in a lifetime of ritual and artistic activity" (Caruana, 1999), on decades of making art for private purposes, of drawing in the soft earth, of painting on "people's bodies in ritual" (Caruana, 1999) situations.

"Kngwarreye was a founding member of the Utopia Women's Batik Group which commenced operations in 1977. This communal project operated on an egalitarian basis [and] no one artist was singled out" (Caruana, 1999). "It is the early batik work [that] holds the clues to her development as a painter. The technique of batik is unforgiving; each mark, each stroke of the canting is recorded, layer upon layer" (Caruana, 1999). "The work reveals an exuberance of gesture and a sureness of hand. Here are found the elements [that recurred] in Kngwarreye's later paintings" (Caruana, 1999). "[She uses] the lexicon of marks as a springboard, constantly varying, reinterpreting and creating anew" (Caruana, 1999). "Her energetic paintings were a response to the land of her birth, Alhalkere, north of Alice Springs: the contours of the landscape, the cycles of seasons, the parched land, the flow of flooding waters and sweeping rains, the patterns of seeds and the shape of plants, and the spiritual forces which imbue the country. Kngwarreye's vision of the land was unique; her paintings challenge the way we look at art by Aboriginal Australians" (Caruana, 1999).

"[Kngwarreye]began to attract attention partly due to the prominence gained in 1989 by the reproduction of her first canvas, Emu woman 1988-89 on the cover of The Summer Project catalogue for the exhibition at the S.H. Ervin Gallery in Sydney" (Caruana, 1999). "The work was selected as a mark of respect to the artist's seniority" (Caruana, 1999). "Suddenly, public interest in Kngwarreye's paintings created a great demand. Within a short space of time her earnings were substantial but would be, according to custom, distributed amongst kin. From this grew a level of expectation and the pressure to produce work, from family members and dealers alike" (Caruana, 1999). She had forty-eight group exhibitions in a three-year period. In 1989 she was awarded a Holmes à Court Scholarship and "in 1992 she received an Australian Artist's Creative Fellowship. Kngwarreye regarded the award as recognition of her past efforts and the means to retire; it was time to pass on the mantle of senior artist to others" (Caruana, 1999). Up until her death in 1996, however, she continued her work.

Published Resources

Online Resources

See also