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Emily Kame Kngwarreye: a deep-dive into the dreamtime & praising the yam queen in context

‘Kame [yam seed], that’s me.’

This was said as Kngwarreye cupped her hands together

in the manner of intekwe, the pod that holds the kame seeds.

- Christopher Hodges, artist and director of Utopia Art, Sydney

Emily Kame Kngwarreye emerged as the most celebrated artist of the Central Desert, and perhaps the whole of Australia, through a short but prolific career in painting.

To fully appreciate and comprehend the power of her art, we must be informed of the socio-cultural changes of the Aboriginal people imposed by the devastating colonial history that seethes beneath the surface of contemporary Australia.

Before We Begin; A Note

This blog post is based on a university essay I wrote ten years ago, aiming to place Emily within the realms of modernism whilst maintaining her roots in traditions. I was studying Oceanic Art under the esteemed Dr Peter Brunt. It was an extraordinary journey that changed my outlook on life and is largely responsible for my worldview. Exploring the art and culture of Pacific people, particularly the insights of the Aboriginal Australian peoples, have rearranged and reformulated the bedrock on which I approach almost everything. Their connection, not only with the world around us. but the world in which this world exists, has brought me great peace. To breathe life, above and below and in between all at once, brings me disembroiled comfort. I - in contradiction to the traditional Aboriginal experience - have had little understanding of home in relation to place. However, I do comprehend my life in a similar mapping and what has been characterised as the Dreamtime, the Everywhen, is the bloodstream and the colour of my own existence too. Although the story of it is, perhaps, diluted with my own retelling and interpretations, I hope you can see it is not within my intentions to cheapen sacred knowledge or misinform. I hold great reverence for the beliefs that have shaped and given confidence to my own. I am forever grateful it has been part of my path to study and love the work of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, and the culture and philosophy of life she has gifted to us through its creation.

Some Initial General Context

Initially deemed ‘primitive’, it is only fairly recently that the recognition of the sophistication and skill involved within Aboriginal art has been considered. Over a casual two-hundred years or so of oppression, it was largely disregarded or ethnographically misplaced; classified as curios and flung into museums, representing the primal beginning of man and allowing for gross stereotypes to set in.

Yet the startling electricity of Emily’s work confronts many Western viewers in its modernity and in her innovative departure from the generic concentric circle composition.

In the 1930s, the nation was in the process of searching for a developed art form that was completely Australian through and through. This would take the greatest aspects from the Australian School of Landscape Painters, European Modernism and Aboriginal art.

Australia failed to realize the timeless originality of their indigenous peoples until trendy art centres such as New York and Paris began to take interest in them.

French philosopher, Ricoeur understood traditional practices could not remain static but should acknowledge the past in order for invention to arise within the current climate of globalization; “civilizations confronting each other more and more with what is most living and creative in them” will reveal “human truth”.

When considered in this context, the acculturation that acrylic desert painting displays allows it to be described in terms of the global arena, as opposed to merely the locality of place.

Know your Roots, Know your Yams

The Anmatyerre language group is located in a remote area of the Simpson Desert known as Utopia. Emily’s paintings were, and are, contingent on her position as an Anmatyerre elder, combined with her experience of Dreaming over the course of her entire life, which came to a close in 1996.

Her birth country of Alhalkere had no contact with the white man until she was ten years old in the 1920’s. However, she did not pick up a paintbrush until a ripe age of around eighty.

Instantaneously, she received attention from critics, collectors and other artists. Her style has been compared to the Abstract Expressionists, perhaps in the palpitating resonance that flows through the paintings and the permeating mood that is suggested in her pigments. But with such sporadic visits from Europeans and oblivious to the existence of Pollock, this demands a goddamn logical Western explanation.

To understand Emily’s art, and any Aboriginal painting, is to understand the cultural context, their traditions and worldview.

Dreamtime: a Glimpse into the Otherworld via the Aboriginal Mindscape

From a typical, canonical European perspective or maybe just on a superficial level, the art of the desert appears abstract and schematic in the various shapes, dots and lines. Yet it is a complex and meaningful representation of the landscape that simultaneously expresses their intimate and unconditional relationship with it.

Big Yam, 1996, acrylic on canvas, collection of the National Gallery of Victoria

However, the full force of their artworks effects only initiated members of the clan that produced it. Adults, in particular those who have participated substantially in religious life, gain the deepest reading of Dreaming paintings.

For Emily, her Dreaming is the source of her creative drive and the knowledge she translates upon the canvas. Alhalkere is the inspiration for virtually all her work but the truth of her paintings stretches much further than this because of the elaborate explanation for Aboriginal topophilia, which is related to the Dreamtime. This photograph from 2007 captures a particularly striking shot of an arch formation of the Ancestor Rock at Alhalkere.

Elders such as Emily have access to the most secret spheres of sacred knowledge; which has been transferred across generations for thousands of years. How is that for esoteric? Much Aboriginal artwork remained undiscovered for an extended period of time due to this exclusivity and the ephemeral nature of its traditional forms. The first settlers of the nineteenth century regarded them as a society that created no art at all, when in fact they possess the oldest, perpetuating art practice known to humankind.

example of contemporary Aboriginal Rock Art; the famous Lightning Man’ at Nourlangie Rock, Kakadu, attributed to known artist, ’Barramundi Charlie’ Najombfolmi, during the 1963-1964 monsoon season

Traditionally, creating art is woven into the fabric of daily life; from telling stories to the children whilst tracing symbols into the sand, to body painting with natural ochre associated with spiritual activity. Thus, it provides harmony and order through the various stages of revelation, allowing the elders an element of control over the young.

From an early age, all are encouraged to draw, paint or weave and although only some of them will pursue these paths, they are all learned in the codified graphs of their clan, making their art a type of visual literacy. The largest amount of art is made for ceremonial occasions and generally most Aboriginal art reflects the Ancestral Realm, or Dreaming as it is now understood globally.

The term Dreaming is an inaccurate translation that suggests Aboriginal people float around in a fantasy world like infants but their religious systems and sense of spirituality are far from primitive.

The Dreamtime refers to the dawn of time and the shaping of the earth’s face by the Ancestors who hail from a subterranean spirit world. But Dreaming is not a time that has merely passed but coexists with reality. It is an existence and it simultaneously sustains life, bestowing energy to all plants, animals and humans.

Aboriginal spirituality is centred on this Lifeforce and through the commemorative rituals, the people are able to generate it and cultivate it. The rituals themselves last no more than two minutes but require six hours of preparation recreating designs and objects of ancestors to the sounds of sacred songs.

Governing life in the desert, Dreamtime presents the indigenous with a profound philosophy, and gives reason for their deep connection with the earth and their topophilic relationship with certain locations.

Traditionally hunter-gatherers, without buildings and other permanent structures, the location of certain events accumulates a sense of historical significance whether it be personal or clan related. Thinking in this mind-frame means a person’s life is mapped onto the landscape, which is correspondingly an objectification of themselves.

Emu Woman & Beyond; Reading Aboriginal Art, Traditional to Contemporary

Aboriginal art is religious in its purpose, motifs and practice. Emily’s contemporary forms can be considered within the European market and are hung in galleries. They are still traditionally derivative but approach the new mediums of acrylic paint and canvas with a fresh and creative manner. With most modern Aboriginal art, myths and access to the Dreamtime provide the artist with an insurmountable array of symbols and imagery seen in many of their paintings.

Emu Woman, 1988–89, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 92.0 cm x 61.0 cm (The Holmes à Court Collection, Heytesbury)

Emily’s first painting, Emu Woman, reflects much of her artistic practices and was the work that thrust her into the limelight of international fame. After a lifetime of creating traditional Aboriginal art, her cultural narratives found a new mode of expression in the fluidity of wax in batik which was introduced by Jenny Green to the women of Utopia, easing the transition to painting.

The Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) delivered to Utopia one hundred blank canvases in 1988 as part of a community-wide painting project and thus Emu Woman was discovered. It proved to be a captivating combination of tradition and innovation in the new medium. Challenged with the confines of working within a rectangle, Emily adapted to the surface and began with linear patterns that evoke ritual designs and the formations made by root systems of plants.

Many Aboriginal paintings serve as mnemonic maps, arranged as if from a bird’s eye view looking down from the heavens and, almost topographically, into the land itself. The Dutch artists of the seventeenth century also found an affinity between maps and painting. Both demonstrate a revelation of knowledge and pose the metaphor for one’s life journey.

However, Emu Woman mainly depicts graph designs that emulate the lines and contours of body painting for women’s ceremonies, praising the Emu ancestor. Aware of the public gaze, she protects the sacred information by pushing abstraction and instead presents the Ancestral Realm through rhythmic, gestural movements in a thick impasto. She also communicates through an aesthetic arrangement of dots over the surface, perhaps visualizing seeds or the sand on which she would have created ceremonial ground paintings countless times. Emu Woman illustrated to a global audience that Aborigines are more than capable of creating a dialogue with the West.

Papunya Tula Changing the Game

As Aboriginal communities have faced the dispossession of their land, and the deprivation of their cultural identity due to colonisation and the rigid limitations of eurocentricity, they also faced changes in aesthetics. The Northern Territory Land Rights Act of 1976 brought forth the outstation movement that saw Aboriginal people return to their lands.

However, repercussions of prior injustice, which included inadvertent genocide of the Stolen Generation; children who were assimilated into Western society, are deeds that are difficult to undo. Yet, there are several efforts made to reconcile the past.

Geoffrey Bardon’s post as an art teacher at Papunya School i