Emily Kame Kngwarreye

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Even though she has become an important artist in the contemporary Australian art world, Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s life, work and art practice made it difficult for the Western art world to categorise her.  This artist lived and worked in a remote region of central Australia. It was hot, dusty, plagued with flies and the campdogs whose footprints often appear on the surface of some of her paintings.  She worked on the ground under the shade of a corrugated iron or bough shelter, dipping her brushes into discarded food tins filled with paint.   She was not surrounded by art books, did not go to art school and rarely visited an art gallery. Yet, her works have repeatedly been compared to the works of Monet, Matisse, De Kooning, Kandinsky and many other international masters whose names she had never heard of and whose works she had never seen.  

Despite the popularity of her work, Emily Kame Kngwarreye  was unaffected by outside artistic influence. For every painting there was only  one story, it was all about her country, her Dreaming. Whenever she was asked about her work, her response was always the same, “its whole lot, everything”. 

The person

Emily Kame Kngwarreye was born in her country, Alhalkere, around 1910 and died September 1996. She grew up in this remote desert community surrounded by her Amatyerre people and attended to the matters for which women were responsible. It was not until the late 1980’s that she began to paint on canvas, something she continued to do passionately until her death.  


Whole lot

Irrespective of the formal differences that can be identified in her work, Emily Kame Kngwarreye did not depart from the main story of her Dreaming. There was instead, a sense of moving from one part of a song cycle or story to another.  Everything was part of the same story, part of the continuous thread that linked every work to her place, the ‘whole lot’ was present in each and every painting. Her paintings showed a complete view of existence from the atmospheric space above the ground, to the life forces of hidden roots and tubers under the surface of the ground. Many works from present a holistic vision of the world, simultaneously viewed from above and below the skin of the earth.  


The land is the important subject or in indigenous art. The land or ‘country’

is viewed by indigenous peoples as a record of ancestral activity. This activity may have taken place in the Dreamtime, a time when the ancestors rose from beneath the earth and through their travels produced the landscape as we know it today. However the Dreaming or Dreamtime is not static and continues on a daily basis through events such as regeneration, conception and the basic elements of daily survival. 

The presence of ancestors is continually acknowledged through song, dance and visual images. The Dreaming is both past and present, representing the time of Creation as well as  everyday existence. Individuals are born into the land and obtain their own sense of belonging through spiritual association with a Dreaming totem - usually an animal or plant from their area. 

Knowledge of country is also important from a practical point of view. To survive in such country, individuals must understand its changing moods. The telling and painting of stories  help individuals memorise places and important geographical features. These stories may involve a totemic or ancestral being engaged in a  particular activity at a specific place. 


Irrespective of the materials used, the paintings produced by Aboriginal peoples of Central Australia almost always involve stories or ideas about country or land. Their paintings of the land use a flat, map-like approach where sacred places and events from the time of the Ancestral Beings are identified.Emily Kame Kngwarreye took the landscape as her prime source of inspiration. As an older member of her group Emily had, throughout her lifetime, acquired vast cultural knowledge. With this knowledge came responsibilities that included caring for aspects of the country. Over decades of caring for her country through ceremony, Emily developed an intimate relationship with its various faces and moods.  

Alhalkere refers to the artist’s father’s and grandfather’s country.  Anmatyerre owners have access to Alhalkere through the provision of an Aboriginal land excision in the area. It is an area of land adjacent to what is now called Utopia Pastoral Lease. Utopia lies in the traditional land of the Alyawarre and Anmatyerre peoples, 234 kms north-East of Alice Springs. It is desert country and dissected by the Sandover River and Sandover Highway.  

Alhalkere is “whole lot” and Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s paintings can be seen as paying homage to this wholeness - as prayers for this country. Through the act of painting Emily Kame Kngwarreye provided a visual reference to her country. 

The tracking or grid like structure often found in Emily’s paintings can also be read as a map that links all things together to complete the whole lot. The lines found in earlier paintings often referred to animal tracks, however in later works they were covered with fine dotting. Perhaps these dots represent seeds, fruits or flowers encountered by the ancestors during their travels.

Tracking and mapping country

Tracking country remains an important skill amongst desert dwellers and the information passed down through generations by song, dance and painting is vital to the basic survival of individuals. Recognition of important landmarks is intricately linked to spiritual knowledge and Dreamtime stories provide a strategy for helping to remember a network of complex data. Memory is survival. The concept of an individual tracking the land once traveled by the Ancestors, can be perceived as the same journey - the Ancestors ever present. Through tracking country, either physically or through ceremony, the country is ‘opened up’ and the ancestors asked to provide their power to assist in the process of regeneration. 

The routes taken by the Ancestors are often called Dreaming tracks or songlines. The latter term makes reference to ‘singing’ the songs sung by the Ancestors as they travelled across the land  is often referred to as ‘singing the country’. Although significant in itself, each song is only complete within a wider story or series of songs. Individuals may sing their stories or dreamings in isolation, but a greater understanding of their importance emerges when groups with different songs come together for ceremony.


The body painting designs referred to by Emily Kame Kngwarreye in her paintings are called Awelye. These designs are usually applied to the shoulders, breasts and upper arms of women in preparation for ceremony. Their meaning is related to the business of women within society and their role in the continuity of the species. Emily used these designs in her first batiks and then later she painted them on boards. They can be recognised by their breast like shape. 

The word Awelye is multi-leveled in its meaning and links all aspects of life. While it is an Anmatyerre word for women’s ceremonies, it also refers to the actual paint applied to the body as part of a ceremony celebrating Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s country, Alhalkere. Awelye is always present in the layers of meaning contained in her painted marks and encompasses the intertwining essence of all things. For indigenous Australians, much body decoration is linked to ceremony, dance and song. Designs and decorations vary according to the event and can involve body painting and the wearing of special items.  The decoration of the body transforms the individual and changes their everyday identity. Ochres are often used to paint the body and in many parts of Australia they are considered to have magical powers. 

By decorating their bodies, individuals and cultural groups identify particular aspects of their personalities or place within a society. Sometimes these decorations are used to bond individuals together as a group eg the wearing of 100% Mambo tee-shirts within the surfing community.  


The growth pattern of the wild yam, was a recurring element in the works of Emily Kame Kngwarreye. Emily’s middle name Kame is taken from the yam Dreaming site at Alhalkere

Emily’s yam story can be found in the energetic marks of her batiks and in later paintings as an underlying lacy grid.  Although there are paintings in which the yam motif is not obvious, it lies below the surface in them all. The ‘hidden life’ of the yam is a fine analogy for the life and work of the artist. Forever changing direction to suit prevailing conditions, its determination to continue despite the ravishes of fire and wild country remind us of the artist, who in a span of eight short years produced an amazing body of diverse paintings.

As with many indigenous societies throughout the world the Aboriginal people of central Australia rely on carbohydrate rich plant tubers as staple foods. The wild yams that grow in the area can be compared to the Taro plant cultivated by many South Sea Islander peoples.There are two important yam plants that grow in central Australia. The Desert Yam or  Bush potato is a remarkable plant. Because of the high moisture content found in its edible tubers, it is seen as a survival plant providing both water and nutriment in times of drought. The desert yam has an aggressive and inventive growth pattern sending out creepers on the surface in all directions, while producing three types of tubers underground. Much effort is expended in the harvest of this valuable food and often large areas are mined in search of its rich treasures.

The pencil yam is a trailing herb which sometimes grows over large tracks of land  and although it has bright green foliage and yellowish flowers on the surface, its importance relates to a subterranean ‘other’ life. It is the swollen roots and their pod-like attachments which provide its worth. However the unorthodox growth patterns make harvest difficult and specialised.   “Considerable skill is required to locate the underground portions of the plant at this stage, and involves both a knowledge of the specific habitat of the plant and an ability to recognise the remaining dry stems and leaves”

Bushfires and bushtucker: Aboriginal plant use in Central Australia Peter Latz p296


Seeds had a special significance for Emily as the name Kame refers to the yam seed.

During 1989/90 she produced a group of strongly dotted paintings using the four classic traditional colours, red, black, yellow and white. These works boldly indicated the importance of seeds to the artist and represented the link between her country, ceremony, life, death and regeneration. Although seeds themselves are often as small as grains of sand, they and their plants are important totemic elements in the mythologies of the area. As with many of the artist’s works, there is a multi-layered interpretation in these works. By referring to seeds, the artist was identifying country 

Seeds are an important element in the daily lives of Aboriginal peoples in Central Australia. Seeds such as the Mulga seed are protected by a hard outer covering which allows them to lie dormant (in their little vacuum sealed containers) for sometime, allowing local peoples a long period for collection. When collected, the cleaned seeds can be roasted and ground in to Mulga seed paste (a central Australian version of peanut paste which is very nutritious). 



In all cultures there are innovative individuals. Even within the strict cultural boundaries that determined the life of this artist, there was room for individuality. She was able to construct paintings using her vast knowledge of country and law. Throughout her short painting career, Emily continued to reinvent her treatment of what might be understood as a single subject. Her ability to proceed in this way related to a lifetime of image making. The paintings exhibit the joy the artist obviously felt in the actual process of painting. She utilised all that was at her disposal, whether it be dots, lines, brushes, canvas, paper, ochres or the full colour spectrum - she tried them all. 

Various phases of the artist’s innovation can be found in her paintings. All show an ability to adapt and change with the circumstances at hand. 

1990 -   Clouds of dotting which created a sensation of energy

            Sublime, celestial, floating veils of dots

1991 -   Double dipping created dots within dots, multicoloured dots and lines

1991 -   Hollow dots evolved from adaptation of brushes

            Return to the ‘hot’ colours such as pink that had been used in the earliest             works. But now there is no subtlety

1992 -             Colourist phase where wild colour combinations were used and dots merged to             produce forms rather than lines  

Emily was comfortable with her innovative approach to painting and she continued to tell her story in her own personal way. Emily’s conviction can be linked to the confidence she had in her own knowledge.

Dots and lines

Emily created the space of her country through the layers she placed on her canvases.

These layers were constructed with lines or dots, each used in  a particular  way to identify

elements of the story. From the first batiks to her last works, Emily built up an extraordinary range of work using these traditional marks. They can be found in every image - at times standing out boldly but in other works almost invisible. 

In the early batik work and paintings, lines were used to trace a network of emu tracks, yam roots and body painting designs. Gradually they were covered with masses of dots that appeared to hover above the surface. In later works either would take prominence, paintings were covered with multicoloured dots strung together like a string of beads or in contrast, barely marked with single lines of colour. 

Emily’s use of dots was quite distinctive and did not conform to the more  familiar style of ‘dot painting ‘ used by other Central Australian artists. The early use of delicate layers of dots was transformed on the discovery of the large brush  which allowed for a paring back of detail and an emphasis on gesture. At certain stages she dragged the dots in a particular direction until they appeared to tumble onto each other. In some of her later works she took her brush on journeys of discovery over vast areas of untouched canvas. This action may refer to the constant journeys taken by women to collect food but are also reminiscent of the marks left in the desert sand by dancing women. 


Many of Emily’s later works identify her personality through the character of the brushwork. One of the most dramatic changes in the artist’s style occurred during 1992/3 when she began to use larger brushes. These allowed faster production while consuming less energy - important for an artist of Emily’s age. With these larger brushes she fused dots together into undulating lines or solid blocks of colour. Not only did Emily choose the size of her brushes to suit her mood and production needs, but she also altered brushes to suit a particular requirement. Some brushes were cut short to establish a blunt edge so that a hollow dot resulted. Hollow dots were used to great effect in works produced in the early 1990s when she produced surfaces covered with floral like patterning.


Emily produced batik fabric works for twelve years before she began to use paint and canvas.  She was one of the original members of the Utopia Women’s Batik Group which began in the late 1970s. Her approach to the process was quite individual and her work stood out from the work of other batik artists in the group. Emily’s batiks reveal the beginnings of her mark making style, which persisted in various ways throughout the following eight years of her painting career.  The line work evident around the edges of the silk fabric could relate to spinifex grasses, the rectilinear grids associated with tracking and the wriggling lines - tendrils of the wild yam. Some works also show the body paint designs applied to women’s breasts for ceremonies.


Elisabeth Bates, Queensland Art Gallery, 1999. 

visit: http://www.qag.qld.gov.au/


Emily slept around her paintings, when cold, she rapped the linnen around her.      

(Courtesy: Henk Ebes Collection)

Emily Links


Emily kame Kngwarreye


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Dots and Lines
De hand van Emily aan het werk








Awelye 1989/90, Emily Kame Kngwarreye
Photograph courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria








Untitled, (Alhalkere) 1996, Emily Kame Kngwarreye
Photograph courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria










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