Emily Kame Kngwarreye
Few contemporary artists have so captured the public’s imagination as the late Emily Kame Kngwarreye (sometimes spelled Emily Kam Ngwarray). Born in about 1910 at Alhalkere near Utopia in Central Australia, Emily Kngwarreye first saw white people at the age of about nine. She worked as a stock hand on pastoral properties at a time when Aboriginal women were usually only employed as domestics on the stations and was a respected Eastern Anmatyerre senior Law woman. It is a testament to Emily’s extraordinary spirit and character that in the eight years before her death in 1996, she painted a remarkable 3000 paintings on canvas with an undiminished energy that belied her years. In a meteoric rise to fame she came to be internationally acclaimed as Australia’s most eminent female artist.
Her pleasure in her late career was evident to all who witnessed her painting. She loved using exuberantly rich and vibrant colours, and her compositions of expressive dots and animated lines were always energetic and exciting. She worked in many different styles but her spirited gestures always reflected some aspect of her Dreamings and Alhalkere country for which she was a custodian. Many of her paintings are simply entitled ‘My Country’, her response when asked what they were about:
She dipped that one brush into all different colours. She had one brush, then she’d put it into another colour, then dip that same brush to another colour and it all came out like this. She alternated hands in a single painting, first her left hand, then the right. Her left hand was the strongest. She often sung to the painting while painting it, depending on how she felt when she was painting, who was there, whether she had an interest (Barbara Weir, interview, Utopia, 2000).
Emily Kngwarreye sometimes sang soft rhythmic songs while painting or while being driven around Utopia to hunt in cars paid for by money she earned through her paintings. The songs she sang were handed down from generation to generation. ‘Singing up’ country is an aspect of awelye women’s ceremonies to ensure the proliferation of bush tucker, in Emily’s case, the yam. Her name Kame means yam seed, akam, and yam was her Dreaming, passed down through her paternal lineage. The perennial atnwelarr yam plant has bright green creeping leaves, yellow flowers and white seeds, and the underground tuber is a staple food that the women still dig for and collect at Utopia.
Emily had an all-encompassing knowledge of the atnwelarr yam and its growth cycle because it was her Dreaming, and she painted all the different aspects of the yam, including its tiny seeds, leaves and flowers. With great innovative fair she would fll her brushes with acrylic paint as Barbara described, and then with a virtuoso flourish of her wrist made distinctive dots that magically turned into flowers on the canvas. With dynamic gestures she painted the winding underground growth of the yam tubers, as well as the women’s journeys as they search for the characteristic cracking of the hard earth that reveals the presence of this staple food. One can sense in her paintings the repeated arm motions of the women as they systematically break the compacted ground with digging sticks or crowbars to gather the perennial yams. Precise knowledge of the availability and location of plant foods is passed down from generation to generation as Utopia artist Anna Petyarre described to me:
That is what Emily passed down to her nieces: atnwelarr [yam] and akam [yam seed]. When she painted she used a lot of white because it was white seed. Emily taught me her awelye [women’s ceremonies] long, long time ago when I was young. Emily started us, taught us awelye and dance for atnwelarr and for that special thing that emu eats, intekwe. Emily taught us the Akweranty song [where red ochre is found] and Law. Atnwelarr was Emily’s main story and she gave it to us mob to carry on. That was the main thing she painted. Atnwelarr belongs to me, like Emily (Anna Petyarre, interview, Utopia, 1998).
Above article taken from the book- Emily Kame Kngwarreye: the Person and her Paintings currently retailing for $60.00.
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