Emily Kame Kngwarreye, an elder of the Alhalkere tribe in Australia, is considered to be the most accomplished painter of Indigenous Australia. She painted dots, swirls, and lines that evoked organic shapes, topographical maps, and the Australian night sky to reveal the cultural lore of her people. She is regarded by the National Museum of Australia as one of the country’s greatest artists.
Kngwarreye’s career was brief – less than a decade – but prolific. She was from the Utopia Community in the Northern Territory and did not begin to make art until she was in her late seventies. She produced some 3,000 paintings over an eight year period of time. She first created cotton and silk batiks but got tired of all the labor they involved. She then moved from batik to painting on canvas.
In 1988, she showed her acrylic paintings for the first time. As in traditional indigenous art, Kngwarreye used dots of varying sizes and colors, massed together or even lying on top of one another in distinct patterns. These paintings were smaller versions of the large ground paintings associated with women’s ceremonies.
Her artwork came to defy indigenous Australian painting because she created her own artistic style. She went through many different styles as she began to join dots into lines in 1991 and then to add color into her paintings in 1993. She depicted her country as thick nets of red and pink lines as in her “Kame Yam Awelye.” Her “Wild Yam and Emu Food” contains cellular shapes filled with dots of color to show yams, the most important food source for Australia’s indigenous people.
In 1995, she ended her color phase and painted with plain stripes that crossed the canvas. These stripes referenced not just yams but yam tracks. One painting, “Yam Story III,” is a vertical web of thin white lines over a flat black ground; it stands some 7 1/2 feet tall. Her paintings began to resemble American abstract expressionist works as more and more thinner lines criss-crossed her canvases.
She was included in the National Pavilion in the 1997 Venice Biennial. In 2019, her work was exhibited in “Desert Painters of Australia” at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills.