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Emily Kame KNGWARREYE (b.1910; d.1996)

Emily Kame Kngwarreye was an Anmatyerre woman and came from the country of the yam and the emu. Later in life, as a senior respected elder, she was a co-caretaker of many of the sacred places in her country, and, as an artist, these are embedded in her paintings.

Emily was often called, “ boss woman, yam”. She painted the giant bird tracks, the bush potato or anatye, the yam, altnulare, and the flowers of the plant. It is remarkable that, although Emily did not begin to paint until her late seventies, she rapidly became one of Australia’s most sought after and collectible artists.

Kngwarreye grew up in an extremely remote area – in European settlement terms what is called the Northern Territory – 250 kilometres north east of Alice Springs on the Barkly Tableland. She was nine years old before she saw a white person. As a young woman, she worked as a stock hand at a cattle station on tribal lands, but Emily was educated in the sacred tribal traditions and became a highly-respected tribal elder.

Emily arrived at Macdonald Downs in 1934, a station in the Utopia region. Utopia was a name given to the area by German settlers in the early 1920s. It covers about 5,000 square kilometres of country and is home to around 2000 aboriginal people. The Chalmers family sold the lease of Utopia as a going concern to the Aboriginal Land Fund in 1976. The cattle enterprise had largely lapsed by the time the two land claims were settled in 1978 and 1980.  In the 1970s, Emily Kngwarreye spent much time living at Utopia where she joined a batik-making program for a local women’s group.

“I did batik at first, and then after doing that I learned more and more and then I changed over to painting for good...Then it was canvas. I gave up on...fabric to avoid all the boiling to get the wax out. I got a bit lazy – I gave it up because it was too much hard work. 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. That's why I gave up batik and changed over to canvas – it was easier. 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.” *

Her talent quickly emerged in the way she worked with colour and in 1988 – 89, Emily took up acrylics, integrating her country and myths into the subject matter.

Kngwarreye held two one-woman shows in 1990 and she received an Australian Artist's Creative Fellowship from the Australia Council in 1992.

By 1993, her work had been shown in more than 50 exhibitions throughout the world. That same year, Emily began painting in patches of colours applying paint in dots like rings. She used a shaving brush, the technique called her ‘dump dump’ style using very bright colour.

In 1995, she moved to painting lines or ‘yam tracks’ expressing the importance of the yam plant in her own history and that of the desert landscape. Some critics compared her developing style to abstract expressionism yet Emily herself remained firmly attached to her traditional lands and indigenous spirit. She strove to maintain her individual identity in the face of enormous success and worldwide recognition.

Emily Kngwarreye’s work continued to be sought by both collectors and galleries and she made much money. She shared her wealth with her kinspeople and resisted attempts by critics to paint in one particular ‘popularist’ style.

As an illustration of her commercial success, eight Kngwarreye works were sold by Sotheby’s in their Winter 2000 auction for more than $500,000 in total.  That same year, Kngwarreye's work was shown as one of eight individual and collaborative groups of indigenous Australian artists in the Hermitage Museum Russia and it was noted by a critic at the time that, “No one, other than the Aborigines of Australia, has succeeded in exhibiting such art at the Hermitage.” **

Emily’s masterpiece Earth's Creation 1 was sold at auction in November 2017 for a record $$2.1 million. The same year, Qantas also unveiled an Emily Kngwarreye-inspired livery on one of its Dreamliner’s.

Over the twentieth century, Utopia seeded a remarkable number of successful artists. Emily herself, as well as her sister in law, Minnie Pwerle, mother of Barbara Weir, who was partly raised by Kngwarreye. Kngwarreye was painting until the end of her life. She died aged 86 in Alice Springs in 1996.

Emily Kngwarreye’s works are held in many public and private collections across the world including National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney; Art Gallery of SA, Adelaide; Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane; Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, Melbourne;  Seattle Art Museum Seattle USA; Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, University of Virginia, Charlottesville USA.

* Green, Jenny (2007). "Holding the country: art from Utopia and the Sandover". In Hetti Perkins & Margie West. One Sun One Moon: Aboriginal Art in Australia. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales.

** Grishin, Sasha (15 April 2000). "Aboriginal art makes it to the top". The Canberra Times.

by Wordmakers 2018.


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