Aboriginal Artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye

One of Australia’s most interesting painters was an old Aboriginal woman that didn’t start painting until she was about 70 and wouldn’t know a Rembrandt from a Rothko, but she painted like an angel. Emily Kame Kngwarreye (1910-1996) only painted for a short time but was very prolific, pumping out around 3000 paintings in eight short years.

The genius of the old woman from the remote desert community of Utopia, in the Northern Territory of Australia is starting to be acknowledged at auction with her 1995 work “Earth’s Creation” selling for more than a million dollars in 2007.

Emily Kngwarreye Photo

“Emily Kngwarreye’s paintings are a response to the land and the spiritual forces which imbue it; the contours and formations of the landscape, climatic changes, the parched earth and flooding rains, the shapes and patterns of seeds and plants.” From a biography of Emily Kngwarreye at the National Gallery of Australia

The Exhibition “Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye” has recently been to Japan at the National Museum of Art in Osaka and The National Art Centre in Tokyo, where 120 works by Kngwarreye were on display. The exhibition will now go on show at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra until the 12th of October 2008. Which means that I might have to reward myself with a roadtrip, a few nights in a nice hotel, and a ticket to an exhibition. I may have to pop over to the National Gallery of Australia while I’m in Canberra and say hello to DeKooning’s ugly Woman V, Pollock’s big Blue Poles, an Anselm Kiefer, and Freud’s tribute to Cezanne.

Click on Kngwarreye paintings below for bigger versions..

Emily Kame Kngwarreye Painting Big Yam Dreaming
Emily Kame Kngwarreye – Big Yam Dreaming 1995
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas – Approx 291 x 801 cm

Emily Kame Kngwarreye Painting The Alhalkere Suite
Emily Kame Kngwarreye – The Alhalkere Suite 1993
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas – 22 Panels Approx 120 x 90 cm each

Emily Kame Kngwarreye Painting Earth's Creation
Emily Kame Kngwarreye – Earth’s Creation 1994
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas – 4 Panels Approx 275 x 160 cm each

About Dion

Australian artist and observer of things.. all kinds of things. I like a wide variety of art, from the weird and wonderful to the bold and beautiful.. and everything in between.


  1. Donald Frazell says:

    Interesting. Seems more design than creative art, kinda all on the surface, but like I said, I far prefer most modern design to contemporary “art”. Kinda woolly, as Cezanne said about Renoirs landscapes, in the bottom one, top more like a Tobey thana Pollock, chicken scratches taken from easter adn Pacifi Island groups. Color would have been nice to supply depth and intertwining threads, to create more levels of relationshbips. All sits there on the suface, the middle one kinda garish, but chalky. Like some Klees.

    Which I notice in most Australian art, all use copious(like that artism?) amounts of white mixed in, guess it relates the sunshine down under. Ours more Mediterranean.

    Old girl had amazing energy and focus, did she have helpers actualy do the painting? Cant see a woman that age painting that many and sizes all by herself, I bet she designed them, and others executed. Put them kids to work. Would be interesting to see in person, how do you like them in person? Always difficult to judge on line.

  2. Donald Frazell says:

    LOVE the Pollock, far better than anything we have at LACMA, rivals the great Braque Studio we have at the Norton Simon. Also the Kiefr, who though he centers things like a contemporary artist, he so works his surface as to bring the totallity of the painting forward, adn the focal point not overwhelming, but gathering steam as it comes towrad you also. VERY Modern, as braque often dentere works too that utilitzed the entire canvas to create multiple realatinships and structured environment just as important as the motif.

    If you cant see the search for God in these two paintings, well, you have no soul. arts eternal quest, to find purpose in life, and feel life throbbing through ones veins, heart, and mind.

    Like the DeKooning, but got better ones at MoMA, still excellent and true art. The Freud, well, cant see how at all it relates to Cezanne. Even in composition, cezanne never made the subject the sole focus of his paintings, but how they were absorbed in life, the whole painting, its rhythms, as with pPollocks poles, rhythmic and layered in realationships. Not sure what painting he worked from, but dont feel it at all.

    With Emily, she does use the entire surface, but lacks the depth and layered strokes and objects to create a living being, as painting should created a life form itself. Or as if a living being is in the room with you, the energy created the essence of life itself. THATS art. Very good design however.

  3. I havent seen these particular works in person Donald, but have seen some other work by her and was impressed. Theyre much more painterly than these small reproductions show.

    That’s interesting about the white and the Australian sun too.. it makes sense as the light here can be overpowering, almost to the extant that it can be color draining.

    I havent seen the big Pollock in person either as it was traveling when I last visited the gallery. It is a major work by the artist though. It was also a major controversy when the National Gallery of Australia bought the Pollock for $2 million US dollars in 1973. $2 million would be lucky to buy a Jackson Pollock poster now!

    Donald, I also thought of you when I mentioned the Freud, with the reference to Cezanne. I had a little giggle to myself and thought it might get up your nose..lol. There’s similarities with the composition of this painting by Cezanne. He was a great painter, but he created a lot of duds too.

  4. Donald Frazell says:

    Yeah, figured it must be one of his early fantasy pics, 1875 is just about when he started to find his style through disciplining himself through impressionism, though he never was an Impressionist. His early works done with a pallette knife of his uncle are excellent, earily reminiscent of fellow lunatic van gogh, but without the color. Closer to his Potato Eaters style, but more advanced.

    But still dont see any similarities, Cezanne tortured and aggressive, heavily in black, though both use heavily impastoed dead chicken skin colored flesh. Need tans and blood flow. Freuds simply too exhausted to move. And the compositions are completely different, except have two on a bed and one standing,

    Kngwarrye had to have assisstants, family, friends, neighbors, whatever. No young man could produce half that many works, let alone of that size. Others may be gullible, but I aint. She must have supervised or did small works they enlarged to her satisfaction. Even then, face it, thats over one painting a day over that time. Warhol and Hirst would be envious, now THATS a factory.

    And even though Cezane was obviously a bigginer at that paintings time, at 36, as few artist are worth a damn before 30, art is the one field where children leaving a college think they are full grown and developed. Back to the marketing of the individual. Looking for the new thing. Maturity takes time and EXPERIENCE, far away from the protective confines of academia. No one leaving with that piece of paper froom college is anything more than a beginner, college just preparing one for the workplace, learning comes on the job. Even my Annapolis son, the US Naval Academy one of the top five colleges in the world, is anything more than a novice. Yet artistes think they are fully formed and ready to stand as equals with the likes of Praixetles, Michelangelo and Gauguin? LOL!!! And people wonder why art is so messed up. Children run it. Or so it seems, the Dick Chaneys of the acadmies and the galleries and collectors run it, its a business. Artistes are just cannon fodder. Like pop singers, they come and go, easily replaceable, the producers run the game

  5. wow, that is kind of dismissive and presumptious donald. I know quite a few very very active 70′s year olds, and quite a few in their 80′s who are still producing. Not sure what grounds you have for claiming she couldn’t have possibly done them herself?

    I can see it being possible she had assistants like many male artists who prepared canvas’, cleaned brushes, kept the studio clean, ordered paints, but as far as stating she couldn’t paint them herself, do you have any proof of that?

    In this article they state “several weeks before her death she painted many canvases over a 3 day period in 1996, using a very thick brush such as in Body Paint (1996).”

  6. I think Picasso increased his output in old age. I love his really late works where he let loose and painted like a factory. A lot of people don’t like his late stuff but I think theyre wonderful. He didnt seem to censor anything, just churned them out and let the world decide their value.

    Also, a lot of aboriginal artists work in groups and coops, so I’m sure there was always a helping hand around for Kngwarreye. The 3000 paintings in 8 years could be one of them artist myths that make their way into all great artist biographies. I don’t know the details of her life, but if she started painting at 70 and lived till 86, that’s 16 years of painting, which doubles the 8 years that I got from a museum bio.

    I’m looking forward to seeing them in the flesh.

  7. Donald Frazell says:

    Not dismissive at all, jsut not a gullible artist. Nothing WRO?NG with it. The article said she was hte head of her clans arts progarams, paintings boides orginally, tehn later in batiks. She could wasily ahve apprentices, probably part of her tries way fo doing things and how she learned, being handed down through generations. Thats great, but art galleries will want to push her own hand on evrything for advertising purposes. Luckily for them, she is dead, so the works are definitive adn cant awash teh market anymore. Come on now, you know artists have always been more profitbale, to their investors than the artist in death. Someone bought all thsoe canvaes, mpreapred them, bought galleons and gallons opf paint, supplied brushes, all delivered to her home. She is an old school woman, something I respect. Probably never did anythng but her work, unlikes softyies these days who travela dn party in bad galleries for fun. She worked ahrd. But come on now, NO ONE could paint that many, NO ONE. Period.

    And again, nothinhg wrong with that. She never spoke about her art, she viewed it completely different than we do, westerners who view it as profit adn how we like to market it. It was more cultural and religious to her, part of life, and so pure. But tribes work together, and of course others painted them for her. She would be like the ehad of a designe team, and do you actually thinn Michealngelo created all thsoe scultpure by himself? No, he designed them, had assistands chip away til it was time for finishing them, under his supervision, as was accepted in ancient times. The romantic myth of the isolated artist struggling in constant turmoils is a contemporary selling point, and a lie. I see naive spoiled brats.

    She worked hard and gets props, but as a designer. Which she would have considered herself, being at the service of her peoples spiritual needs. And again, does define who they were, and their relation to god. Something the contemporary art world refuses to acknowledge, and pays for in mind numbing weakness.

    And dont like much of Picassos paintings after Guernica, even Night Fishing at Antibes doesnt do much for me. Feels sloppy and not thought and felt through. Which is why the Neo-Ex and their lack of skills modeled themselves on him. His ceramics, ink washes,a dn sculture hoiwever, whre he spent far more attention, are wonderful.

  8. Donald Frazell says:

    Of course, many could have been preparatory sketches, as well as small versions for latr enlargement, so counted twice. Things she could have meant to throw away, as Michealangelo burned much of his towards his death.

    Or she simply made things for other of herpeople in many forms, but a large painting like shown, that takes days, hell has taken me months, as i had no money and bought everything and made frames from lumberyards and stretched myself with awning duct. Takes time and energy, and I am a ball playr. No tiny woman gonna make or paint every inch of canvas that large, standing on ladders, moving constantly, bringing up buckets of acrlic. be realistic. She was.

    And do like her works, but meant for her people, others got her to do these things for their own benefit, and are so marketing her in death. Hope her people get some of the windfall, you folks treated them as bad as we did to our indigeneous peoples.

  9. I’m not an expert on the culture or the people, but generally when theyre painting with acrylic on canvas it’s for the white fellas. They might hint at dreaming stories but they like to keep their secrets. I would keep my secrets from a race like ours too.

    She probably painted them on the ground too, rather than using ladders and buckets.

    And yeah, man will never get along with man. It’s not a white, black brown, or yellow thing, its just a man thing. Man doesnt like himself, so he kills anyone that looks like him. I think white man and black man generally get along here in Australia now, but I do live a protected existance in the suburbs, so I wouldnt really know. The media tells me everything is ok, so it must be (the media wouldnt lie.. ).

  10. Donald Frazell says:

    Most people live in fear, which is why weakness is so digusting, one must work hard to become stronger, mentally, emotionally, and physically. Fear leads to distrust, leads to anger, leads to hate. Nice words dont fix anything. They are a cover to keep from dealing with reality.

    Here in the LBC(Snoop Doggs and Sublimes home)we have far fewer problems like that, though when things get tough economically, people tend to go back to their tribes. Fear of differences becomes accentuated. We got lots of little Obamas running around, a few of them my own. swirls of many cultures, we all seem more interested in making our kids sports stars than hating on race. Tiger Woods a few miles to the east, the Williams sisters a few to the north. More professional Athletes from LB Poly high school than any in the country, from Billy Jean King to more NFLers than any other city.

    Art, thats not such a high priority, though our Latin Museum of Art is great. love it, done cheap, with very nice high level of work, only Tamayo a truly great artist there, but came to like Boteros fat lil people, his light and color are actually quite amazing. Weird.

    But hope the old girl wasnt taken advantage of, some gallery contract that limited her families and peoples income from her works. They were tribal arts, ones from her peoples history that she just embodied, in a way superior to others.

    But thats the point, and again what is wrong with contemporary arts individual worhsip. Everything she did came from her peoples past, and was used to connect to god, and define who they were, to keep together and maintain the PEOPLES survival. This is something we need to get back to, and learn from. Passion, RESPONSIBILITY, knowledge, work. This leads to true creativity. The outside world, and how we fit in it, and the emotinal response to it, Relationships of person to person, to group, and to nature.

    She gets respect for filling her role in society, contributing to it in the same way the hunters, builders, warriors, chefs and clothiers do. Artists are not sepearate, different, special. We are part of the whole, threads weaving together to enrich life, and leave something for our children to build on. We have purpose, life is about finding that purpose, and fulfilling it.

  11. I like these the colours are quite uplifting.

    I know a lot of people do but I don’t believe that if you like conceptual art you shouldn’t like painterly art or art that is about being ‘realistic’. Also contemporary art is not the same as conceptual.

    I saw a major exhibition of Pollock’s work at the Tate a few years ago, it was really interesting to see his early work and how it changed in to the dribble type paintings later (not without the help of Lee Krasner I might add!).

  12. Anonymous says:

    To pay respect to those who have passed, the Aboriginal People do not wish to see photo’s of anyone deceased, it thing. Publications with pictures of any aboriginal deceased should put a warning before the article that an image may appear of someone deceased or remove the picture altogether.

    “…in some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities, hearing the names of deceased persons may cause sadness or distress, particularly to the relatives of these people.” – NSW State record (http://www.records.nsw.gov.au/archives/aboriginal_colonial_court_cases_1788-1838_4525.asp)

  13. Isn’t a matter of being gullible donald I was just rather surprised you used age as a qualifier for your statement. I just know too many very very active seniors, and so that angle doesn’t support the statement she couldn’t have done them all herself based on age. Whether she had assistance with the actual paintings, there is nothing that says she did or didn’t so I am not in a position to draw any conclusions.

  14. Donald Frazell says:

    I understand, sorry to be so gruff. But did you look at the SIZE of the paintings listed? They are huge. And simply keeping the line even and consistent as was shown in the first oene would take sometime. And old folks do get sick. Hell, us young ones do too, look at Dion right now.

    Now, she does use the same groups of symbols over and over, and may have been many smnall ones, and include drawings and batiks and small paintings, and even sand or rocks or whatever aboriginal artists use, as their concerns are far different than ours. though young ones may have been corrupted by us, she is too old and ouwld do it the old school way.

    Just cant see anyone putting out more than one a day, including ones that are absolutely huge, thirty feet wide in groups, unlesss each panel is counted as one. but you know how gallery types are, nevere exactly known for their understatements. hyperbole runs the day, look at Hirst. Its not the old girls fault, she did not put out this silly publicity stuff. Shes dead. But spmeones making money off her. Hope here was a trust fund set up for ehr works. But knowing white folks, I doubt it. Possibly a small one as a front, but bet someones pocket is being lined.

  15. Cough, cough.. so close to spring too. I thought I missed all the winter flu floating around down here.

    And yeah, I know some old people that almost have to work hard everyday. Work seems to keep them going. It’s like they can hear the clock ticking so they work harder.

    It must be frustrating for painters to get old as theyre probably just starting to pick up a few tricks from a lifetime of painting, then the life clock starts ticking, reminding you that painting time is almost over.

  16. Re Don: Before leaving a comment and dismissing her art as design, I think you should go and look at the exhibition yourself and see the videos of how she painted those huge paintings. There is documentation of it, and it only took her two days to do the Big Yam Dreaming. You shouldn’t make conclusions from your own experience.


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