Reimagining the Canon: Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Talented artists whose lives and works may not be as familiar and lauded as those in the canon because, well, you know…

Emily Kame Kngwarreye (c.1910-1996, Alhalkere, NT, Australia)


Alhalkere (also known as Utopia), located more than 200km north-east of Alice Springs in the Northern Territories of Australia, is home to an Aboriginal community. In 1977, women in the community attended an adult education workshop on the technique of batik, producing art using silks, dyes and wax. One of the attendees was 67-year-old Emily Kame Kngwarreye and she soon helped set up the Utopia Women’s Batik Group. Kngwarreye was an elder of the Anmatyerre people, whose ancestral lands made up Alhalkere. In the 1920s, when lands were annexed for pastoral leases by the colonists, she had been forced to work for the Europeans, looking after domestic animals on a cattle station, leading a camel train and even working in a mine. However, she was also active in the indigenous land rights movement and, in 1979, after the Aboriginal Land Rights Commission brought about the Northern Territory Act, the 2000 square kilometre Utopia cattle station was returned to her people. As an elder, Kngwarreye was a custodian of the women’s Dreaming sites of her people and she performed roles in many of the traditional ceremonies. The Dreaming explains the creation of land formations, the earth, animals, people and plants, with customs, knowledge and codes of conduct passed on in songs, dances, designs and rituals. Kngwarreye’s role included the painting of bodies for rituals, with designs reflecting the natural world around them, and it was many of these themes that she carried into her batik work.

In the 1980s, she had the opportunity to learn how to use acrylics on canvas and thereafter she worked prolifically. In the eight years prior to her death in 1996, aged 86, she produced around 3000 works. Her abstract pieces reflect her homeland, inspired by the physical features, weather, animals, grasses, seeds and tracks of Alhalkere. After her work was displayed in an exhibition in Sydney in 1989, she gained attention and a growing demand from collectors. Various art critics compared her work to that of Jackson Pollock, Wassily Kandinsky, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko. Today, her name may not be as familiar as those, but her paintings can still be found in galleries across Australia, as well as in New Zealand, the US, the Netherlands and Italy. In 1997, her work was posthumously exhibited at the Venice Biennale.

June 2019

Jacqueline MacDonald


University of Canberra – “Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Untitled, Awelye”,-untitled,-awelye

National Gallery of Australia – “Emily Kam Kngwarray, Alhalkere, Paintings from Utopia”

National Museum of Australia – “Emily Kame Kngwarreye”

See also:

Reclaiming History: Mary Prince

Reclaiming History: The Mercury 13

Reimagining the Canon: Edmonia Lewis

Reclaiming History: Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia

Reimagining the Canon: Dorothy Arzner

5 thoughts on “Reimagining the Canon: Emily Kame Kngwarreye

  1. Pingback: Reclaiming History: The Mercury 13 | Knothole

  2. Pingback: Reclaiming History: Mary Prince | Knothole

  3. Pingback: Reimagining the Canon: Edmonia Lewis | Knothole

  4. Pingback: Reclaiming History: Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia | Knothole

  5. Pingback: Reimagining the Canon: Dorothy Arzner | Knothole

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