Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Emily Kame Kngwarreye

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DOB: c.1910 - 1996
Born: Alhalkere, Soakage Bore, NT

Emily Kame Kngwarreye is considered one of Australia's most significant artists, whose art continues to inspire people around the world. Amazingly, Emily only began painting with acrylics in her late seventies and in a few short years became an artist of national and international standing.

Emily was the first female painter to emerge from a movement dominated by men and did so in a way that transformed the dominant expectations of Aboriginal painting. She had an ability to paint her beloved Country and sacred Dreamtime stories in a deeply emotional and expressive manner, employing a variety of styles over the course of her eight-year painting career.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye was born around 1910 at Alhalkere (Soakage Bore), on the edge of the Utopia pastoral station, approximately 250km north-east of Alice Springs. Alhalkere was her father's Country, and her mother's Country was Alhalpere, just to the east.

Despite being married twice, Emily had no children of her own but raised her relative Lily Sandover Kngwarreye and her niece Barbara Weir (both becoming famous artists in their own right). Being of mixed heritage, Barbara Weir was hidden from welfare patrol at a young age. Barbara has fond memories of her childhood with Emily before she was taken at the age of ten. Barbara is one of the people known in Australia as the "stolen generation". Other nieces that also became famous artists from the Utopia region include Gloria Petyarre, Kathleen Petyarre, Ada Bird Petyarre, Violet Petyarre and Nancy Petyarre.

Emily held a unique status within her community of Utopia, well before she became one of their most senior contemporary artists. Her strong personality, past employment as a stock hand on pastoral properties in the area (at a time when women were only employed for domestic duties), reveals her forceful independence and trailblazing character.

Emily's age and ceremonial status also made her a senior member of the Anmatyerre language group. She was a senior custodian of cultural sites of her father's paternal country, Alhalkere. She was considered the "Boss Woman" of the Alatyeye (pencil yam dreaming) and Kame (yam seed dreaming). For nearly two-thirds of her life she had only intermittent contact with the outside world.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye was a traditional ceremonial artist and began painting as a young woman who was beginning her cultural education. An important component of Emily's education was learning the women's ceremonies, which are associated with in-depth knowledge of the Dreamtime stories and of women's social structures. This knowledge is known as 'Awelye' in Emily's Anmatyerre language. Awelye is also the intricate designs and symbols associated with women's rituals, which are applied to the women's upper chest, breasts and arms using fingers or brushes dipped into rich desert ochres.

The use of ochres for ceremonies can explain why many Aboriginal artists initially favoured acrylic paints in earthy desert tones. Emily also started using acrylic paints in these traditional colours, but she soon expanded to brighter jewel-like colours, pinks, blues, yellows and reds.

The transference of making Aboriginal art outside of ceremonial painting began in 1977, when batik-making was introduced to women in Utopia as part of an extended government-funded education program. In 1978 Emily was a founding member of the Utopia Women's Batik Group. In 1988 the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) completed its first project with the Utopia Women's Batik Group, which became an exhibition called "Utopia - A Picture Story".

From the beginning Emily's paintings stood out from the others. Rather than filling her batiks with Aboriginal symbols, Emily preferred patterns of layered lines and dots that revealed plant, figurative forms and cell like structures. The 88 silk batiks from this first project were acquired by the Holmes a Court Collection in Perth.

In the same year the CAAMA shop initiated a project introducing the Utopia women's batik group to paint on canvas with acrylic paints, known as "The Summer Project". Among the 81 paintings completed was Emily Kame Kngwarreye's first artwork on canvas, "Emu Woman", which instantly attracted attention.

Emily moved happily into the new medium, as painting allowed her to explore techniques and vision with her artistic expression. Unlike many desert painters of her time, she didn't use stylised representations of animal tracks or symbols in her artworks. She painted a much more emotional response to Country.

Inspired by the many Dreamtime stories of which she was a custodian, Emily had an extraordinary array of works over the course of her eight-year painting career. She favoured richly layered brushstrokes with brilliant colour, and then moved to a monochromatic palette with twisted lines and stripes, creating a suite of very different approaches.

In her early works, Emily preferred the use of an earthy ochre colour palette, reflecting her experience of using natural ochres during ceremonies. Over time Emily expanded her repertoire to include a dazzling array of colours found in the desert landscape. Colours are significant in Emily's paintings. Yellow, for example, often symbolises the season when the desert earth begins to dry up and the Kame (yam seeds) are ripe.

Emily's shifting styles also reveal her self-confidence and willingness to experiment with form, pictorial space and artistic conventions. Emily Kame Kngwarreye drew creatively from the geographic landmarks that traverse her Country and the Dreaming stories that define it. Whenever Emily was asked to explain her paintings, her answer was always the same:

"Whole lot, that's the whole lot. Awelye (my Dreamings), Alatyeye (pencil yam), Arkerrthe (mountain devil lizard), Ntange (grass seed), Tingu (a Dreamtime pup), Ankerre (emu), Intekwe (a favorite food of emus, a small plant), Atnwerle (green bean), and Kame (yam seed). That's what I paint; the whole lot."

This is because Emily Kame Kngwarreye chose to present a very broad picture of the land and how it supports the Anmatyerre way of life. These images embrace the whole life story of the Dreamtime, seeds, flowers, wind, sand and 'everything'. Although her works relate to the modern art tradition, this resemblance is purely visual. The emphasis on Emily's paintings is on the spiritual meaning, based in the tradition of her people.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye is one of the most internationally recognised Australian Aboriginal artists. Her paintings continue to attract attention as more of the world discovers and appreciates Aboriginal art. Her work is featured in public, corporate and private collections around the world. In 1992 Emily travelled to Canberra to receive an Australian Artists Creative Fellowship from the prime minister, Paul Keating. It was the first time an Indigenous Australian artist had received the prestigious award.

In 1997 she represented Australia posthumously at the Venice Biennale, and in the same year the Queensland Art Gallery staged a major retrospective of her work that travelled throughout Australia. It was the first retrospective of an Aboriginal artist to tour nationally.

In 2011 a second major survey travelled from the National Museum of Australia to Osaka and Tokyo, Japan. Emily continues to inspire artists globally, and Artsy named her one of the top 20 most influential artists of 2019 alongside international superstars such as Jeff Koons and Yayoi Kusama.

Arguably the most famous Aboriginal artwork by Emily Kame Kngwarreye is the monumental "Earth's Creation" (1994). Measuring 2.7 metres high and 6.3 metres wide, it is a stunning showcase of Emily's artistic talents and dynamism.

In 2007, "Earth's Creation" made history in the art world - selling at auction for $1.064 million, the highest price at the time ever paid for a work of Australian Aboriginal art and the highest price ever paid for a female artist in Australia. The artwork broke its own record in 2017, when it sold for $2.1million.

As interest in Australian Aboriginal art grows in the United States, Emily Kame Kngwarreye continues to be celebrated. In March 2020 a solo show of Emily's art opened in High Line Nine, New York. It was the first major solo exhibition of her work in the United States. It is also believed to be her biggest collection of artworks exhibited together in the past two decades.

Fifteen paintings were for sale, ranging in price from $US18,000 to $US650,000. All except one sold prior to the show opening, purchased by private collectors. It is a signal that, internationally, Emily's work is considered significant contemporary, modern art in its own right.

During her lifetime, Emily Kame Kngwarreye also demonstrated the powerful nature of art as evidence for showing Aboriginal peoples' strong and unbroken connection to Country. In 1979 Emily and other women involved in the Utopia Land Claim performed an Awelye Dreaming ceremony before a hearing of the Land Claim Tribunal. The Anmatyerre and Alyawarr people gained freehold title to Utopia under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976.

Emily's gift as an artist has touched many people but it was her personal presence that left the greatest impact. On the 2nd of September 1996 Emily passed away. It was a great loss to the art world and to those people who knew her personally or through her paintings.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye has left an indelible mark not only in the field of Australian Aboriginal art, but in the international contemporary art scene. As the years go by, her standing only appears to increase as the rest of the world begins to appreciate Aboriginal Art, and more Australians begin to recognise its value. In all probability, Emily Kame Kngwarreye has achieved the unwavering position as our most cherished and famous Aboriginal artist.

The evolving styles of Emily Kame Kngwarreye's paintings

Emily Kame Kngwarreye started to paint in 1988. Her early style featured visible linear tracings following the tracks of the Kame (Yam Dreaming) and animal prints associated with the Emu Dreaming, with fields of fine dots partially obscuring symbolic elements. By 1992 her paintings were so densely packed with layers of dots that her symbolic underpainting was no longer visible.

Another evolution in Emily Kame Kngwarreye's painting style occurred when she began to use large brushes. Emily worked faster, more loosely and on a larger scale. Sometimes she would drag the brush while she dotted, producing lines from the sequential dots.

By the mid 1990s Emily had developed a style of Aboriginal painting referred to as "dub dub" works. They were created by using large brushes which were laden with paint and then pushed into the canvas in such a way that the bristles part and the paint is mixed on the canvas.

Emily now created wildly colourful artworks and her paintings became progressively abstracted. Different artists from Utopia have used this style to their advantage: Polly and Kathleen Ngale as they cover their canvases with the myriad colours of the spring wild flowers and bush plum, Freddy Purla as he depicts his Grandmother's Country, and Kathleen Ngale and Evelyn Pultara as they dub dub in lines to depict the bush yam Dreamtime story.

The abstracted sequential dots of colour in Emily's paintings progressed to parallel lines which were much more formally arranged. During the last two years of her life, Emily used the linear patterns found on women's ceremonial body designs as the primary source for her paintings. She had used lines earlier in her artmaking practice before gradually submerging them under layers of dots. This time, Emily created simple, bold compositions of parallel lines in strong dark colours.

Her paintings using formal parallel lines in due course gave way to looser meandering paths, which appear to trace the shapes of the grasses and the roots of the pencil yam as they forge their way through the desert sands. In Emily's early batiks, clusters of linear shapes can be seen, and in the works shortly before her death, lines re-emerge in her paintings as rapid multicoloured scribbles.

In 1996 Emily produced a body of work in which she depicted pencil yam dreaming using a rich ochre colour palette. In a final burst of energy, Emily produced a beautiful body of work known as her 'scribble' phase. In these atmospheric paintings, line and dot were replaced by flowing fields of colour.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye's Market Status Updates

November 2017 - Emily Kame Kngwarreye's artwork "Earth's Creation I" sold for $2.1 million, smashing the record for the highest price achieved at auction for an Australian female artist and cementing the artwork's position amongst the most famous Aboriginal paintings ever produced.

The previous record for a female artist was set by the same painting when it sold in 2007 for $1.064 million. The painting was sold to art dealer Tim Olsen, who recently set up a gallery in New York.

May 2019 to July 2019 - Gagosian Gallery in New York City held a ground-breaking exhibition of contemporary Australian Indigenous paintings from two significant American collections; the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia and the Collection of Steve Martin and Anne Stringfield. Emily Kame Kngwarreye's paintings were featured. The exhibition received a huge amount of media attention in America and around the world.

December 2019 - Just five months after Gagosian Gallery held their exhibition, the auction houses followed suit. Sotheby's held the first New York auction of Aboriginal contemporary art and the response from collectors was even stronger than expected.

The sale totalled $2.8 million, above the high estimate of $2.7 million. Of the 33 lots offered, 29 of them found buyers. Eight new Aboriginal artist auction records were set. The results marked "a watershed moment for Aboriginal art, and an incredible introduction to auctions of Aboriginal art of this scale in the United States," said Timothy Klingender, Sotheby's senior consultant for Australian art.

The top lot was a painting by Emily Kame Kngwarreye, titled Summer Celebration (1991). It was estimated at $300,000 to $400,000 and sold for $596,000 with premium.

March 2020 - EMILY, a solo show of Emily Kame Kngwarreye's art opened in High Line Nine Gallery, New York. Fifteen paintings were for sale, ranging in price from $US18,000 to $US650,000. All except one sold prior to the show opening, purchased by private collectors.

Copyright Kate Owen Gallery, July 2020


  • National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
  • National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
  • The Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney
  • Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
  • Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide
  • Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth
  • Museum and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory, Darwin
  • Parliament House Art Collection, Canberra
  • Museum of Victoria, Melbourne
  • ATSIC Collection, Canberra
  • Kaplan and Levi Collection, Seattle Art Museum, Seattle
  • The Araluen Centre of Arts and Entertainment, Alice Springs, NT
  • Campbelltown City Art Gallery, Sydney
  • The Holmes a Court Collection, Heytesbury
  • Powerhouse Museum, Sydney
  • Artbank, Sydney
  • Benalla Art Gallery, Victoria
  • University of New South Wales, Sydney
  • University of Sydney Union, Sydney
  • University of Wollongong Art Museum, NSW
  • University of New England, NSW
  • Victoria University of Technology, Melbourne
  • Flinders University Art Museum, Adelaide
  • Allen, Allen and Hemsley, Sydney
  • BP Australia
  • Transfield Collection, Sydney
  • Dr Peter Elliot Collection, Sydney
  • Hank Ebes Collection, Melbourne
  • Allen Allen and Hemsley, Sydney
  • Delmore Collection, Alice Springs
  • The Luczo Family Collection, USA
  • Auckland City Art Gallery, New Zealand
  • The Kasumi Co. Collection, Japan
  • Kelton Foundation, Santa Monica
  • K.L.M. Royal Dutch Airlines, Amsterdam, Holland
  • Chartwell Collection, New Zealand
  • Donald Kahn Collection, Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami, Miami
  • The Vatican Collection, Vatican City
  • Thomas Vroom Collection, The Netherlands

Awards and Recognition

2009 Top 50 Collectable Artists, Australian Art Collector Magazine
2005 Top 50 Collectable Artists, Australian Art Collector Magazine
2000 Top 50 Collectable Artists, Australian Art Collector Magazine
1992 Australian Artists Creative Fellowship


Selected Solo Exhibitions:

2020 Emily Kame Kngwarreye, High Line Nine Gallery, New York
1998-99 Major survey exhibition 'Emily Kame Kngwarreye "Alhalkere" Paintings from Utopia', Queensland Art Gallery; The Art Gallery of NSW; National Gallery of Victoria
1997 Robert Steele Gallery, New York
1997 Chapman Gallery, Canberra
1997 DACOU Aboriginal Gallery, Adelaide
1996 Chapman Gallery, Canberra
1996 Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane
1996 Niagara Galleries, Melbourne
1996 Framed Gallery, Darwin
1995 William Mora Galleries, Melbourne
1995 Parliament House, Canberra
1995 DACOU Aboriginal Gallery, Adelaide
1995 William Mora Galleries, Melbourne
1995 Hogarth Galleries, Sydney
1994 Rebecca Hossack Gallery, London
1994 Chapman Gallery, Canberra
1993 Hogarth Galleries, Sydney
1991 Eastern Desert Art, Brisbane
1991 Hogarth Galleries, Sydney
1990-97 Utopia Art Sydney
1990-93 Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi, Melbourne
1990 Coventry Gallery, Sydney
1990 First solo exhibition, Utopia Art Sydney

Selected Group Exhibitions:

2020 Know My Name - Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
2020 Important Australian Paintings, Philipp Bacon Galleries, Brisbane
2020 Still in the Desert, Fireworks Gallery, Brisbane
2020 Reflections on Emily and Papunya, High Line Nine Galleries, New York
2020 Mapa Wiya (Your Map's Not Needed): Australian Aboriginal Art from the Fondation Opale, The Menil Collection, Houston, TX, USA
2020 Knowing my Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now, Australian National Gallery, Canberra
2019 Tiempo de Sonar, Museo Nacional de las Culturas del Mundo, Mexico-City, in cooperation with Coo-ee Gallery, Sydney
2019 Beyond Time, Australian Aboriginal Art, Booker Lowe Gallery, Houston, TX, USA
2019 Sydney Contemporary, Carriageworks, Sydney
2019 Desert Painters of Australia, Larry Gagosian Gallery, New York, USA - from the Steve Martin & Anne Springfield Collections and Kluge-Ruhe Collection of the University of Virginia, USA
2018 Earth's Creation, Kate Owen Gallery, Sydney, NSW
2018 Painting on Country - Utopia Artists, Japingka Gallery, Fremantle, WA
2018 Beyond the Veil, Olsen Gruin, New York
2017 A SWEEP continues, FireWorks Gallery, Brisbane
2017 A SWEEP: Old & New Works, FireWorks Gallery, Brisbane
2011 Up Close and Personal: works from the collection of Dr Peter Elliott AM, S. H. Ervin Gallery, Sydney
2010 Desert Country, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide
2010 Minnie Pwerle & Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Kate Owen Gallery, Sydney
2009 Size Matters, Kate Owen Gallery, Sydney, NSW
2009 Mythology & Reality: Contemporary Aboriginal Art From The Gabrielle Pizzi Collection, TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville, VIC
2003 Minimal Fuss Featuring Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Tony Tuckson & Minnie Pwerle, FireWorks Gallery, Brisbane
1999 Eternal Lin Onus, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Rover Thomas & Johnathan Brown
Kumintjara, FireWorks Gallery, Brisbane
1997 Fluent, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Yvonne Koolmatrie, Judy Watson, Venice Biennale, Italy
1996 Spirit and Place, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney
1996 Eye of the Storm: Eight Contemporary Indigenous Australian Artists, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
1996 Dots, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
1995 Place and Perception: New Acquisitions, Parliament House Art Collection, Parliament House, Canberra
1994 Power of the Land: Masterpieces of Aboriginal Art, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
1993-94 travelling to numerous state and regional galleries in NSW, Queensland, Northern Territory, South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania
1993-94 Flash Pictures: by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Artists, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
1991 Through Women's Eyes, ATSIC travelling exhibition
1991 Aboriginal Women's Exhibition, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney
1990 Contemporary Aboriginal Art from the Robert Holmes a Court Collection, travelling to Boston, Minneapolis, Oregon, Missouri; Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney
1989 Mythscapes: Aboriginal Art of the Desert, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
1989 Art from Utopia, Austral Gallery, St Louis, USA
1989 Aboriginal Art from Utopia, Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi, Melbourne
1988 Contemporary Aboriginal Art, Utopia Art Sydney
1988 A hanging Relationship, SH Ervin Gallery, Sydney
1987 Utopia Women's Batik Group, in Australia and abroad