Featured Image: Detail from Wild Yam V 1995

Emily Kam Kngwarray Painter, 1914-1996

In Travel, Australia, Art by tony1 Comment

Featured Image: Detail from Wild Yam V 1995, Hassall Collection Sydney, 153 x 243 cm

ORT_Logo   Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony,  1 March 2024

When I was at school (a very long time ago) the corridors were festooned with dark dusty copies of impressionists and probably even a Vermeer. When I first went to Paris, I was gobsmacked by the Impressionists in the Jeu de Paume, and similarly with Vermeer in Amsterdam and Den Haag. They were a revelation.

In my own art career towards the end of ten years, I was influenced by Rennaissance painting, in particular Hieronymus Bosch among others, to use as a mirror for our own times (see Moral Ambiguities).

Hence my series on painters mirrors this and more recent exhibitions, in a completely idiosyncratic way. The articles in order are 1 Hieronymus Bosch Painter (1450-1516), 2 Bosch 500th Centenary Exhibition, The Prado 2016, 3 Johannes Vermeer Paintings (1632-1675), 4 Clarice Beckett Australian Painter (1887-1935), 5 Emily Kam Kngwarray Painter (~1914 to September 1996).

My own art career reached a hiatus in 2011 after around ten years of driven intensity and satisfaction (see for example Tag 2005). I continue to make art but in a new way, a more desultory but still focused manner.

Emily Kam Kngwarray Painter (~1914 to September 1996)

Main Points

  • Introduction
  • Two Major Emily Kam Kngwarray Exhibitions 2008 and 2024
  • Welcome to Country
  • Language and Skin Names
  • Pre-Artistic Biography
  • A Summer Project
  • Art Background
  • The Work
  • Last Word
  • Comment

1 Introduction

Appreciation of art is subjective. Over time certain artists are recognised as above most others of their age. Vermeer or Picasso would raise few objections these days. Although, there were plenty of contemporaries who were also wonderful.

In Australia some rate Sidney Nolan and Brett Whiteley as the stars of their generations. Others would disagree vehemently.

Indigenous art in Australia is ancient. Collectible indigenous art in the form of bark paintings in the early 20th century and conventional paintings later has been a 20th century phenomenon.

From 1934 Albert Namatjira became the first widely known aboriginal artist by name for his watercolours.

Indigenous art in Australia received a huge boost in 1971-72 when art teacher Geoffrey Bardon provided aboriginal male artists from Papunya northwest of Alice Springs with materials and their dreamtime stories, custodianship, culture and heritage poured out of them onto wood and canvas. Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri was one of the famous artists to emerge from this movement. The artists established their own company the Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd.

Anwerlyarr—My Story 1991, McMahon Family Collection

Anwerlyarr—My Story 1991, McMahon Family Collection, Room 1

The rest is history. Indigenous Australian art became very collectible and spread to the rest of the world. Problems and exploitation emerged but the fame and prices continued to rise.

Two names emerged from many as leading artists, Rover Thomas at Turkey Creek in the 1980s and Emily Kam Kngwarray from Utopia in the late 1980s and the 1990s.

Emily or Kam’s life journey is fascinating and her brief artistic career extraordinary. She is the type of painter recognised as a genius, and almost universally acknowledged as such.

2 Two Exhibitions

I’ve seen two exhibitions of Emily Kam Kngwarray (current spelling by the NGA). There have been others, but perhaps not as comprehensive. These are:

2.1 Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye 2008 (National Museum)

The first was at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra entitled Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye. It was developed by the National Museum in partnership with Japan’s largest newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun. It was shown at the museum in 2008 and toured nationally. Before being shown in Japan, at the National Museum of Art in Osaka from 26 February to 13 April 2008 and at the National Art Center in Tokyo from 28 May to 28 July 2008.

NHK TV in Japan produced a high quality 45-min documentary on Kngwarray based on the exhibition and Canberra-based Ronin Productions by Andrew and Harriet Pike followed the development of the exhibition for two and a half years, producing a film Emily in Japan: the making of an exhibition (82-min) that was aired in 2009.

The Exhibition showcased 120 works drawn from some 60 private, public and corporate collections around the world.

I was excited and blown away by the works at this exhibition and never questioned the title genius.

Guide and participants, Room 5, Awely

Guide and participants, Room 5, Awely (women’s ceremonies)

2.2 Emily Kam Kngwarray 2024 (NGA)

The current major exhibition Emily Kam Kngwarray at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) 2 Dec 2023 – 28 Apr 2024 is a comprehensive retrospective. The exhibition batik textiles, paintings and works on paper are drawn from national and international collections. Many never before seen works from private collections are included.

The exhibition features more than 80 paintings, batiks and works on paper, according NGA Director Nick Mitzevich. The paintings are mainly large to very large. Key figures in mounting the exhibition in close consultation with indigenous women from the Utopia region were Kelli Cole and Hetti Perkins.

The exhibition will tour to the Tate Modern in London in 2025.

Denise and I purchased season passes, which meant we could go as many times as we liked to the exhibition. It helped us gain a more detailed appreciation of Emily Kam Kngwarray’s work.

The remainder of this article concerns the 2024 Exhibition at the NGA. Because of the marvels of modern technology I used my iphone to take pictures of the artworks. The text below follows closely the curators and others involved, except where I make clear my own personal opinions.

Emily Kam Kngwarray 1994, Photo by Greg Weight ©, per NGA

Emily Kam Kngwarray 1994, Photo by Greg Weight ©, per NGA

Emily Kam Kngwarray Exhibition 2024

3 Welcome

You are all welcome to come and look at … old woman Kam Kngwarray’s paintings. Our Alhalker Country is really important for all of us. It will always be alive.           

… Listen to the stories she tells, and the women’s songs she sings.

Jedda Kngwarray Purvis, June 2023

Map of Country

Map of Country, Central Northern Territory, Australia

4 Language and Skin Names

Anmatyerr is one of many Aboriginal languages from the central parts of the Northern Territory. The Anmatyerr that Emily Kam Kngwarray spoke … shares many words and grammatical features with Alyawarr, a neighbouring language.

In Anmatyerr society all people have, in addition to their personal names, one of eight skin names. Skin names are an important part of the kinship system, and they reflect relationships between people to each other and to their Country.

Skin names are determined by family context. A person’s skin name is the same as that of their siblings and some of their grandparents. A person has a different skin name to their children and to their own parents. Emily Kam’s skin name was Kngwarray.

5 Pre-artistic Biography

Emily Kam Kngwarray (~1914 to September 1996) was born at Alhalkere (Soakage Bore), on the edge of the Utopia pastoral station, about 250km northeast of Alice Springs. Alhalkere was her father’s Country, and her mother’s Country was Alhalpere, just to the east.

Spirit—my Country 1990, McMahon Family Collection

Spirit—my Country 1990, McMahon Family Collection, Room 1

Utopia is now one of the minority of communities created by autonomous activism in the early phase of the land rights movement and outstation movement in the early 1970s and 1980s.

Despite being married twice, Emily Kam Kngwarray had no children of her own but raised her relative Lily Sandover Kngwarreye and her niece Barbara Weir. Both, became well-known artists in their own right. Other nieces who also became well-known artists include Gloria Petyarre, Kathleen Petyarre, Ada Bird Petyarre, Violet Petyarre and Nancy Petyarre.

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

Her 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 country. She was considered the Boss Woman of the Alatyeye (pencil yam dreaming) and Kame (yam seed dreaming).

Emily started as a traditional ceremonial artist, beginning painting as a young woman as part of her cultural education. An important component of this education was learning the women’s ceremonies, which are associated with in-depth knowledge of the Dreamtime stories and of women’s social structures.

6 A Summer Project

A Summer Project, 1988-89

A Summer Project, 1988-89

A Summer Project from the Janet Holmes à Court Collection is the first major collection of paintings from Utopia and the Sandover region in Central Australia. Painted between 1988-89, it includes 81 paintings, commissioned from women (with one male artist) who had been involved in the batik project for ten years and was designed to introduce them to painting. Emily was in her mid- to late 70s at the time. This is the first time the collection has been displayed in its entirety since 1989 — an important event culturally and historically. It is so wonderful to see such a range and diversity of talent at the beginning of their painting careers.


Emu Woman, A Summer Project ,1998-89

Emu Woman, A Summer Project ,1998-89

Emily’s painting is to the right hand side of the large spread in a Summer Project and is different from all the rest. She stood out from the start. Some of the other women in the Summer Project have subsequently become major indigenous artists in their own right with paintings displayed in the NGA.

The NGAs audio transcript says:

Emu Woman features a repetition of branch-like forms. Central to the composition are the shallow curves, which were identified by Kngwarray’s family as representing the correct butchering and cooking of the bird.

Emus have their own lore and preparation of emu for consumption is governed by the cultural code. Secreted in an array of ribs and neck icon are feet and tracks camouflaged by red, black, yellow and white dotting. The fat of the emu is signified by the yellow and half-cooked meat is red. The subsequent coloration related to the emu cycle begins with the darker shades and concludes with the lighter colours of old age.

On hearing this from the guide my thought was ‘butcher’s shop and how to cut up and prepare your emu for cooking’, which is what it is. Embedded within ceremony — such instructions are a natural part of hunter gathering life. They are perhaps not for the squeamish Western palate.

Similarly, in the exhibition catalogue is a photograph of Emily preparing two echidnas for cooking. A perfectly natural thing. Despite I am sure being constrained throughout her life by white society, Emily Kam Kngwarray lived a very traditional life.

Perhaps, this is something that someone who is used to plastic wrapped meat from Coles supermarket and has never been inside an abattoir or on the business side of a butcher’s shop or never contemplated killing something to eat, might find horribly confronting. If you look this painting up online, most representations from previous exhibitions show the painting in landscape mode, with no mention of butchering or cooking — some mention seeds.

This particular painting represents another aspect of indigenous art that is amazingly powerful — it is almost unfiltered by Western culture. Emily Kam lived on country all her life. She didn’t begin painting until she was in her mid-seventies. She was unaware of Jackson Pollack (or abstract expressionism), she was unaware of impressionism, she was unaware of Western art or any other international form of art. Think of this as you look at her work!

7 Art Background

Emily Kam Kngwarray’s art is grounded in her knowledge of Country and of women’s awely (songs and ceremonies) and other cultural practices originating there. Kngwarray’s work is inspired by detailed knowledge of the desert ecosystems of the places where she lived throughout her life. Of special significance to Kngwarray are ankerr (emus) and anwerlarr (pencil yams). She was named after kam, the seeds and seedpods of the pencil yam.

Large Batik and Works, Room 2

Large Batik and Works, Room 2

Emily Kam Kngwarray was in a group of Anmatyerr and Alyawarr women who learnt to make batik at Utopia in 1977 facilitated by Jennifer Green. A decade or so later, they began to paint on canvas. A Summer Project marked the transition.

Making batik was hard work. The women had to balance hot wax cloths on their knees. After ten years Emily found painting much easier and complained how hard batik was.

Ten years is a long time. I suspect that batik and hot wax was akin to the ‘supposed’ ten-thousand-hour rule popularised by Malcolm Gladwell (necessary for mastery in any endeavour, search Gladwell in International Peasant Foods for details) a profound learning process. I also suspect that it made Emily very quick at painting.

Although, her true mastery was probably more powerfully gained from ceremony, lore and culture, which she practised throughout her life.

Emily was in her mid- to late seventies when she began to paint in 1989 to 1996. It is estimate she produced over 3000 paintings in the course of her remarkable eight year painting career.

8 The Work

Five batiks are shown in the first room. A very large batik is shown in the second room and five in Room 4.

The paintings shown are over a metre in most cases. Many are much larger. Big Yam Dreaming 1995 (NGV) is 291 x 802 cm, for example. Untitled Aweley 1994 is 274 x 185 cm (Chartwell Collection, Auckland). Most of the paintings are synthetic polymer on canvas but some works are on paper. By my reckoning — not counting multi-panel paintings, but including the 22 paintings in the Alhalker suite — the exhibition comprises 81 acrylic paintings on canvas and 22 works on paper. 114 works in total.

Room 1

Ntang Dreaming 1989 NGA

Ntang Dreaming 1989, NGA, 122 x 128 cm

Ntang is an Anmatyerr word for seed. The two other portrait paintings above from 1990 and 1991 are also in room 1. Some other paintings in Room 1 are shown above.

Room 2

Kam 1991, NGV

Kam 1991, NGV, 138 x 303 cm


Song of Emu 1991, Steve Martin and Anne Stringfield, New York

Song of Emu 1991, Steve Martin and Anne Stringfield, New York, 213 x 122 cm

The stippled paintings that Kam made between 1991 and 1992 are much larger than her earlier works.

Room 3

The Alhalker Suite 1993, NGA

The Alhalker Suite 1993, NGA

The 22 paintings in the NGAs Alhalker Suite represent Kam broadening the colour spectrum and techniques she used in later years.  The Alhalker Suite is a kaleidoscopic view of Alhalker Country.

Many friends who visited the exhibition commented on Kngwarray’s extraordinary use of colour.  I personally see it differently. I think it is Kngwarray’s sense of colour that is different. She uses her colours and the placement of colours together in a sophisticated way. But, it is also the colours that she draws out of the landscape that are new. It is as if she invented a new form of impressionism, but embedded in the traditions of her culture. I don’t think any other indigenous artist has approached colour in this way.

The Alhalker Suite is not my favourite work in the exhibition, but I can certainly see why the NGA acquired it. The Alhalker Suite is pivotal to understanding how Kam sees colour.

Alhalker Country 1994, Private Collection

Alhalker Country 1994, Private Collection

One of my favourite paintings in the exhibition is Alhalker Country 1994. One needs the Alhalker Suite to explain the extraordinary use of colour in Alhalker Country.

Summer Storm 1992, Newcastle Art Gallery, NSW

Summer Storm 1992, Newcastle Art Gallery, NSW

Similarly, Summer Storm is exceptional in Kam’s use of colour.

Room 4

Suddenly Kam begins another phase of art.

Wild Yam V 1995, Hassall Collection Sydney, 153 x 243 cm

Wild Yam V 1995, Hassall Collection Sydney, 153 x 243 cm

This is an amazing painting. A good start to the final brilliant series of paintings shown in Room 6. One must perhaps speculate that in 1995 or 1996 Emily Kam Kngwarray was in a hurry!

Room 5

Body Markings I-IV, 1994, Chartwell Collection, Auckland

Body Markings I-IV, 1994, Chartwell Collection, Auckland

I found this room the most hard to comprehend. Not surprisingly, I think because Awerley (women’s ceremonies) and body painting are probably as far from my comprehension as Kam’s work is likely to get. Nevertheless, I am perhaps kidding myself that my understanding of the works and Kngwarray’s intentions ever overlap.

Room 6

This room is the climax.

Anwerlarr Anganenty (Big Yam Dreaming) 1995, NGV

Anwerlarr Anganenty (Big Yam Dreaming) 1995, NGV, 291 x 801 cm

Big Yam Dreaming is extraordinary! It is just hard to take in. It is hard to understand the overall vision encompassed.

Big Yam Dreaming was created over two days in July and Yam Awely on one day in August 1995.

One has trouble taking in the scope of Big Yam Dreaming in one viewing. The detail helps perhaps but not entirely.

Big Yam Dreaming 1995, Detail

Big Yam Dreaming 1995, Detail

In the 2008 National Museum exhibition:

Japanese viewers remarked on the calligraphic character of the brushstrokes that stop and start in a measured yet organic style. …

The lines bear a resemblance to the arterial roots of the yam below the ground, which mirror the crazed pattern of cracked earth above, caused by tubers when they ripen and expand. People locate the food by digging down through the cracks.

National Museum of Australia


Yam Awely, 1995, NGA, 152 x 490 cm

Yam Awely, 1995, NGA, 152 x 490 cm


Yam Awely 1995, Detail

Yam Awely 1995, Detail

Both paintings above are amazing in their complexity. Similarly, the smaller works too below are amazing as late works of Kam.


Untitled (Yam),1996, Private Collection, 151 x 123 cm

Untitled (Yam), 1996, Private Collection, 151 x 123 cm


Untitled (Yam) 1996, Detail

Untitled (Yam) 1996, Detail

Simply white on black and black on white but what power of expression.


Anwerlarr III (Wild Yam Dreaming) 1995, Private Collection, 210 x 120

Anwerlarr III (Wild Yam Dreaming) 1995, Private Collection, 210 x 120 cm

9 Last Word

If you close your eyes and imagine the paintings in your mind’s eye, you will see them transform. They are real—what Kngwarray painted is alive and true. The paintings are dynamic and keep on changing, and you can see how realistic they are. You might wonder, ‘Hey, how come these paintings are changing form?’ That powerful Country changes colour,  just like the paintings do. The Country transforms itself, and those paintings do as well. That’s why the old woman is famous.

Jedda Kngwarray Purvis and Josie Petyarr Kunoth, June 2023

10 Comment

I think that this exhibition and the one at the National Museum that preceded it are excellent examples of collaborations with the indigenous communities involved with the history and in producing the art and the respect for country that is at the centre of aboriginal art. I think all those involved in the Anmatyerr community, particularly the women and their collaborators, especially curators Kelli Cole and Hetti Perkins have proudly done justice to the memory of Emily Kam Kngwarray.

Sensitive engagement with first nations is a worldwide phenomenon. Australia has been extremely backward in this as shown in the recent contested referendum, politics triumphing over simple decency. But the art world leads and has led the way in recognition and respect for aboriginal culture and in genuine collaboration with indigenous Australians.

I claim no other expertise than as an admirer of art. Anything else is the work of others. But, if I can in a small way convince anyone that they must see this exhibition in Canberra or  in London, or create an interest in the genius of Emily Kam Kngwarray, I will be happy.

Key Words: Emily Kam Kngwarray, Utopia, genius, art, painting, paintings, painter, acrylic, batik, indigenous art, Australian indigenous art, aboriginal, welcome to country, Country, collectible, exploitation, Sidney Nolan, Brett Whiteley, bark paintings, paintings, Albert Namatjira, watercolours, Geoffrey Bardon, Papunya, Papunya Tula Artists, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Rover Thomas, Turkey Creek, National Museum of Australia, Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan, National Museum of Art Osaka, National Art Center Tokyo, NHK TV in Japan, Ronin Productions, Andrew Pike, Harriet Pike, National Gallery of Australia, NGA, NGV, Nick Mitzevich, Kelli Cole, Hetti Perkins, Tate Modern, London, Greg Weight photographer, Jedda Kngwarray Purvis, Alhalker Country, Anmatyerr, Alyawarr, language, skin names, Soakage Bore, Utopia pastoral station, Alhalkere, Alhalpere, outstation movement, Lily Sandover Kngwarreye, Barbara Weir, Gloria Petyarre, Kathleen Petyarre, Ada Bird Petyarre, Violet Petyarre, Nancy Petyarre, Boss Woman, Alatyeye, pencil yam dreaming, Kame, yam seed dreaming, ceremonial artist, cultural education, women’s ceremonies, Dreamtime stories, women’s social structures, A Summer Project, Janet Holmes à Court Collection, McMahon Family Collection, Emu Woman, traditional life, on country, Jackson Pollack, abstract expressionism, impressionism, Western art, international art, awely, songs and ceremonies, desert ecosystems, ankerr, emus, anwerlarr, pencil yams, Jennifer Green, Chartwell Collection Auckland, Ntang, seed, Steve Martin and Anne Stringfield New York, stippled paintings, Alhalker Suite, Summer Storm, Newcastle Art Gallery NSW, Hassall Collection Sydney, Body Markings, Anwerlarr Anganenty, Big Yam Dreaming, Josie Petyarr Kunoth

Published in Canberra



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