Emily Kame Kngwarreye (or Emily Kam Ngwarray) (1910 – 3 September 1996) was an Aboriginal Australian artist from the Utopia community in the Northern Territory. She is one of the most prominent and successful artists in the history of Australian art.
Kngwarreye was born c.1910 on Alhalkere, and is a member of the Anmatyerre language group. Anmatyerre and Alywarre peoples in the eastern part of Central Australia living in 20 small Aboriginal communities form what is called Utopia, which is located about 250 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs.
Kngwarreye is from a traditional family, and is the youngest of three children. She had one brother and one sister, and no children of her own. Her brother's children are Gloria Pitjana Mills and Dolly Pitjana Mills. Her sister-in-law was Minnie Pwerle, mother of artist Barbara Weir, whom Kngwarreye partly raised.
Kngwarreye was recognised as a professional painter in her seventies, after over a decade of working in the batik medium.
Kngwarreye died in Alice Springs in September 1996.
As an elder and ancestral custodian, Kngwarreye had for decades painted for ceremonial purposes in the Utopia region. The flourishing of artists form this region is linked with the formation of the Women's Batik Group in 1977, where as a communal project no attempt was made to differentiate the individual artists.
With 20 other women, she was introduced to the methods of tie-dye, block painting and batik at adult education classes at Utopia Station. Kngwarreye was a foundational member of this group, and transitioned to acrylic in 1988. She explains this transition in her own words, stating,
Acrylic paintings were introduced to Utopia in 1988/89 by Rodney Gooch and others of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA). An exhibition of some of the paintings of these artists' work organised by CAAMA was held called "A Summer Project", where Kngwarreye's work got immediate attention from critics. The attention she received coincided with the worldwide art boom that occurred at this time.
Whereas the predominant Aboriginal style was based on the one developed with some assistance from art teacher Geoffrey Bardon at the Papunya community in 1971 of many similarly sized dots carefully lying next to each other in distinct patterns, Kngwarreye created her own original artistic style. This first style, in her paintings between 1989 and 1991, had many dots, sometimes lying on top of each other, of varying sizes and colours, as seen in Wild Potato Dreaming (1996). This style was popularised by the artists at Papunya Tula art centre, becoming known as "dot painting".
Initially Kngwarreye painted for CAAMA and the Holt family at Delmore Downs Station; by 1991 she was producing many works for the Aboriginal Gallery of Dreamings in Melbourne as well as Fred Torres of Dacou located in Adelaide.
These original paintings of different styles quickly went for high prices at auction, with a revenue for the Utopia group of painters of more than A$1 million in 1989/90. The first international solo exhibition of Kngwarreye was held at the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam in 1999 by the Aboriginal Gallery of Dreamings.
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