Emily Kame Kngwarreye is a true visionary, there’s no other way to describe her. There is a spiritual dimension within her work that seems to supersede mere humanity. Created with hundreds of years of ancestral guidance and visions, join us as we explore the incredible history and legacy of a pioneering Aboriginal artist.
One of the most prominent artists in the history of Australian art, Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s paintings examine tensions around land rights and Australia’s ongoing colonial legacies. As an Anmatyerre elder (one of the 500 different language groups of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander nations) she lived in a remote desert area named Utopia, 230 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs. Although some have compared her work to abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko, for virtually two-thirds of Emily’s life she had limited contact with the outside world and rarely left the land she grew up on. She began painting on canvases in her late seventies after decades of ritual artistic activities in her community. It wasn’t until she turned 80 that she became, almost overnight, an artist of international prominence. In her eight-year painting career, it is estimated that she produced over 3,000 paintings – an average of one painting per day.
Emily had custodianship of the women’s Dreaming sites in Utopia. Meaning that, as an elder, she was a guardian of sacred land, land that was inhabited by ancestral figures. ‘Dreamtime’ or ‘Dreaming’ for Aboriginal people represents the time when the ancestral spirits watched over the land. There’s no exact English translation to the Dreaming, but it can be interpreted as the interrelation of Aboriginal ancestral spirits, people, animals, plants and the land. Each person and their whole life are a part of the Dreaming. It is not based on chronology, in fact none of the hundreds of Aboriginal languages contain a word for ‘time’. The Dreaming is not a time at all, for time refers to the past, present, and future. The Dreaming is none of these, coming closer to the timeless concept of moving between ‘dream’ and reality. First Nation Australians have described this unique concept of time as Everywhen, and it is told through stories, art, ceremony and songs.
It was this channelling of the land and ancient knowledge that is the source of Emily’s creative power. Her painting practice was the artistic expression of her role within the land and within the history of her community, containing stories that only those who have been initiated through Anmatyerre ceremony can truly understand.
Her style is drawn from the body markings used in the Anmatyerre women’s ceremony called Awelye. During Awelye, the women paint Dreaming designs on their chests and shoulders using ground ochre, charcoal and ash – directly applying land to their bodies, playing a vital role in physically reclaiming their rights to the land.
The true beauty behind the meaning of Emily’s work feels almost untouchable as a westerner, forever elusive to those outside Emily’s culture, although it’s hard for anyone not to feel moved by the earthy tones, sandy paint strokes and the flowing yet energetic movement of her paintings.
While western domination and colonialism remains a deeply problematic issue in Australia and beyond, the success of Emily’s work on a global scale – including showing at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015 – helped to shine a light on the challenges around Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land rights, a movement that gets stronger every year.