RESEARCH: Emily Kame Kngwarreye

RESEARCH: Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Emily creating

Emily creating

Born at the beginning of the twentieth century and grew up in Utopia, a remote desert area, 230 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs. She began to paint late in life and it is estimated that she produced over 3000 paintings during  eight years of her painting career. For two-thirds of her life she had very rare contact with the outside world. Her cultural life as an Anmatyerre elder inspired her remarkable work. She was also a lifelong custodian of the women’s Dreaming sites. She died in 1996.

Kngwarreye - Emu Woman

Kngwarreye – Emu Woman

Emily Kame Kngwarreye - Spring Celebration

Emily Kame Kngwarreye – Spring Celebration


Dots are an element of contemporary desert life and also appear in ritual body painting and ground designs. Emily’s dots vary from fine to course, from single to triple and the rhythm of dancing and the life of nature as seeds, scattered by the wind, can be seen in these shapes. The Yam series of paintings were created in mid 1989 and were her first attempt at painting in a series. While they appear abstract, the countless dots or red, black and white also represent the planting seeds in the desert region where she lived.


“She was profoundly influenced by the colours in the landscape and worked the lushness of the land into many of her paintings.”           Christopher Hodges, artist

Kngwarreye - Munyeroo Seeds

Kngwarreye – Munyeroo Seeds

In the next phase of her work the dots begin merging, separating and assembling in different configurations. This fusing together creates other shapes and planes of colour. Her palette was determined by the changing seasons. Dusty browns are used during the dry season and greens appear after the rains in what Emily calls the ‘green time’. When wild flowers appear so does yellow appear in her work. Emily’s only subject throughout her life was her ancestral home of Alhalkere and yet the selection and use of her colours recall the work of French colourists, Sonia and Robert Delaunay or even Claude Monet, of whom she knew nothing.




When Emily began working on paper, the use of dots and linear patterns gave way to bold minimal stripes. These multi-coloured stripes conjure up  the raw and earthy character of body painting. Here began a body of work mostly in a series of panels where she explores linear forms and ladder and grid shaped elements which appeared earlier in batik designs. This is a new expression of mark making.



The pencil yam is an edible tuber that grows beneath the ground and is visible above the ground as a creeper. The interconnecting lines of the painting entitled ‘Big Yam 1996’  reflect the crazed pattern of cracked earth on the surface of the ground where the yams grow and mirror the root systems under the ground reaching down deep to the underground water of the dry desert sands. These lines also have their origin in the ancestral connections that have been passed down through the Dreaming. Emily had a deep identification with Kame, the Yam story, which is also part of her name and this is evident in the intensity of this painting. There is also here evidence of her ability as an abstract expressionist in the layering and overlapping and in the sheer scale of the painting.

Emily painted on black replicating the familiar surface of black skin in body painting.


In the works about sacred grasses one can feel the movement and energy of the grasses as they release their seeds that are ground to make seed cakes for ceremonies and every day food.. The lines are scribbly in nature and the tangled mass is scrawled across the surface, sometimes translucent and at other times thick and textural. These spikey angular lines contrast with the loose meandering marks of the yam series and show  an artist who is totally at easy with her materials and work.

The last series

Kngwarreye - My Country

Kngwarreye – My Country

Her last series are 24 small paintings done over the three days before she died. All the previous mark making disappear and the surface is filled with lush slabs of vibrant colours. Every movement of the brush can be seen. One of these paintings is nearly devoid of colour, resonating with Kazimir Malevich’s ‘White on White’ in which he said to have painted himself out of the picture. Perhaps it was as if she was indeed signing off.


About pbfarrar

I am an Australian living permanently in England. I have recently retired from the position of Principal of an independent school and have taken up the study of Fine Art with the OCA.
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