World of Dreamings
Traditional and modern art of Australia

An exhibition held at the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg | 2 February - 9 April 2000

English | Selected works | Pусский | 0тобранные работы



Partners and sponsors


  • Dr Brian Kennedy, Director, National Gallery of Australia
Chapter 1
  • An introduction to Aboriginal art by Susan Jenkins and Carly Lane
Chapter 2A | B
  • The Aboriginal Memorial We have survived, by Djon Mundine
  • The Aboriginal Memorial 1987-88 A description
Chapter 3
  • John Mawurndjul The resonating land by Luke Taylor
Chapter 4
  • All the world The paintings of Nym Bandak by Kim Barber
Chapter 5
  • 'Who's that bugger who paints like me?' Rover Thomas by Wally Caruana
Chapter 6
  • The enigma of Emily Kngwarray by Jenny Green
Chapter 7
  • High art and religious intensity. A brief history of Wik sculpture by Peter Sutton
Chapter 8
  • Laced flour and tin boxes The art of Fiona Foley by Avril Quaill
Chapter 9
  • The memory theatre of Tracey Moffat by Gael Newton

Artists' biographies



Further reading on Aboriginal art

Authors' biographies



The enigma of Emily Kngwarray

Emily Kam Kngwarray is regarded as a phenomenon in Australian art. For an elderly, traditional Aboriginal woman who, it was popularly believed, started painting in her seventies, she worked with immense speed and assurance. In a brief eight-year painting career, Kngwarray produced an extraordinary number of canvases - reputed to be as many as 3000 works, an average of one canvas each day. To the art world both her output and her seemingly 'abstract' gestural style were unlike anything previously seen from an Aboriginal painter.

Kngwarray started painting in acrylic on canvas in 1988, and in 1990 had her first solo exhibitions in the state capitals of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. These were followed by her inclusion in many group exhibitions, both in Australia and overseas, and by her posthumous representation of Australia in the XLVII Venice Biennale in 1997.

She has been acclaimed as one of the major 'abstract' painters of the twentieth century, and the market has been led by comparisons of her work with that of past masters such as Matisse, Monet, Renoir, Kandinsky and de Kooning.

Her work, however, renders useless some of the terms of contemporary art discourse, and attempts by some to understand her painting by direct analogies between her work and that of Western Modernists are misleading. Kngwarray's work is at once both abstract and referential - it requires a reading that goes beyond Eurocentric projections.

Kngwarray was intensely traditional in her life and outlook, yet her work challenges pre-existing notions of the 'traditional' in Aboriginal art. This is precisely because she rarely used the familiar imagery of Western Desert paintings - motifs such as concentric circles, animal tracks and stylised implements - which allow the viewer some literal reading of a work. As her painting style evolved, such motifs became increasingly obscured. For many, the 'story' that links her art to cultural interpretations is not immediately apparent. In an art world hungry for explanation, the effect of her perceived reticence to explain has led to much speculation about the meaning of her work, and to the mystification of her persona.

Kngwarray was born around 1916 and grew up in her traditional country before significant incursions of European settlers into the region, and the development of cattle stations. The 20 or so small Aboriginal communities, now referred to collectively as Utopia, flank the Sandover River, approximately 250 kilometres north east of Alice Springs in Central Australia. These lands form a small part of the traditional country of the Eastern Anmatyerr and Alyawarr speaking peoples who, after about 50 years of pastoral occupation, reclaimed their land and converted the pastoral lease to freehold title.

Like many Aboriginal people of her generation, Kngwarray spoke little English. Her Anmatyerr syntax and grammar was barely influenced by the spread of English, with which she had little or no contact until she was in her teenage years. In the following account she describes those early days:

Mer Alhalkerel, ikwerel inngart. Kel akely anem apetyarr-alpek Utopia station-warl. Mern arlkwerremel akeng-akeng mwantyel itnyerremel, lyarnayt tyerrerretyart, tyap lyarnayt. Mern angwenh, ker kaperl arlkwerrek, ilpangkwer atwerrerl-anemel netyepeyel arlkwerrerl ... Mam atyenhel mern anatyarl itnyerremel, anaty itnyerremel, anaty, amern akeng-akeng lyarnayt, tyap alhankerarl utnherrerl-anem, arlkwerrerl-anemel. Ikwerel anerl-anemel, arlkwerrerl-anemel. Mern anaty mam atyenhel itnyerlentyakngerleng artnepartnerleng, akely-akely akenh artnelhartnelhilerrerleng mernek. Mern akely akelyek. Kel alperliwerl-alhemel mer-warl, mern ampernerrerl-anemel, atnwelarr ampernerrety-alpem ... Tent anetyakenhel, antywa arterretyart, antywer renh arterrerl-anemel, kel alelthipelthipek arterl-anem kwaty akenh atnyepatnyerleng. Arrwekeleny ra. Long time kwa.

I was born at the place called Alhalker, right there. When I was young we all came back to Utopia station. We used to eat bits and pieces of food, carefully digging out the grubs from Acacia bushes. We killed different sorts of lizards, such as geckos and blue-tongues, and ate them in our cubby houses [shelters] ... My mother used to dig up bush potatoes, and gather grubs from different sorts of Acacia bushes to eat. That's what we used to live on. My mother would keep on digging and digging the bush potatoes, while us young ones made each other cry over the food; just over a little bit of food. Then we'd all go back to camp to cook the food, the atnwelarr yams ... We didn't have any tents - we lived in shelters made of grass. When it was raining the grass was roughly thrown together for shelter. That was in the olden time, a long time ago.

Painting history

Women's traditional methods of mark-making include the use of pigments made from ochres which are applied to the body using brushes called tyepal, made from sticks bound with thread. This ceremonial body painting is central to the performance of awely - women's ceremonies - and the marks themselves symbolise the actions of ancestral beings or Dreamings. Women also tell tyepety stories while drawing in the sand with their hands - narratives of both ancestral and day-to-day significance.

Batik on silk and cotton was the first major innovation in media which provided the creative link between the traditional and the contemporary for Utopia women. Kngwarray spoke of tie-dye and batik as the beginning of her 'other' artistic life - and in her view distinctions between art and craft practice held no particular sway. Batik began at Utopia in 1977 and it was immediately popular for its recreational as well as its economic potential. For many women batik was their first experience of using brushes and painting materials and, like Kngwarray, most had almost no previous exposure to non-traditional art forms and art materials.

The Utopia women developed a distinctive, spontaneous style - 'the art of free gesture and wandering line' - of which Kngwarray's early batiks are typical. Frustrated by malfunctioning canting she worked on regardless, unperturbed by the resulting puddles of wax which she freely incorporated into her designs. This integration of the 'accidental' has become the hallmark of the work of some Utopia artists, and Kngwarray's in particular. Her disregard for convention was carried over into her acrylic work. She readily adapted brushes to her own requirements and if no brushes were at hand she would use found objects - pieces of old thongs [rubber sandals] -to apply the paint.

The acrylic style of Western Desert painting began in Papunya in the early 1970s. Although some of the men at Utopia experimented with acrylics on small boards in the early 1980s, acrylic painting did not flourish at Utopia until 1988 and 1989 when the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) commissioned 'A Summer Project' and supplied many of the women with acrylic paint and canvas. The imagery in these paintings reflected that of the batiks, but was also adapted to the new graphic possibilities of paint.

Some of the Utopia artists preferred painting to batik; it was more immediate and involved less technical processing. For Kngwarray the change from batik to acrylic painting was based on pragmatic considerations - she regarded painting as 'easier' and on other occasions gave her failing eyesight as a reason for the change:

Batik-ek-amparr atha mpwarek, kel batik-arl mpwarek-penh an ayeng akalty anem akalty anem irrek, akwet anem ayeng painting-warl irrenhek … Arntap ant anem, not angwenhakwey, ipmentyarl angwenh, clothes-an atha ipmekarl. Boilem-ilerlan-kerr. Ipmenty lazy bugger, too much hard work-kety. Hard work mpwarerlan-kerr. Sick of it anem ayeng irrek … Awetharl hard warrk mpwarerlan-kerr awetharl boilem-ileynepeynerl awetharl arrtyeparrtyel awetharl thwep akenh irriny-ilepilerl, alanh-kety ayeng ipmelhek ipmenty, an ayeng arntap-warl anem easy-warl irrenhek.. Alknga ayeng apatirrek ampwa anemarl irrekarl, too much ikwereng tha ipmek. Paint yanhey tha ipmek. Nhwelker silk one - paint ant mwerrarl atyeng.

I did batik at first, and then after doing that I learnt more and more and then I changed over to painting for good … Then it was canvas. I gave up whatsitsname, fabric, to avoid all the boiling to get the wax out. I got a bit lazy, I gave it up because it was too much hard work. I finally got sick of it. I didn't want to continue with the hard work batik required - continually boiling and boiling the fabric, and lighting the fires, and using up soap powder, over and over, that's why I gave it up and changed over to canvas, it was easier ¼ My eyes deteriorated, and because of that I gave up batik on silk - acrylic painting was better for me.

The resonances of batik style are apparent in Kngwarray's early works on canvas; the overlaying of colour and images are reminiscent of the layering of wax. Wild Orange Dreaming 1989 (plate X) in particular retains the striped border design characteristic of the batiks of the previous year.

Kngwarray always worked on the ground, sitting cross-legged, in much the same way as she would sit to prepare food, dig grubs from the earth, or tell the tyepety stories. She rarely viewed her work as a vertical surface except on infrequent occasions when she travelled to see it hung on gallery walls. She usually worked from the periphery of the canvas to the centre, although for extra large canvases she sat in the middle. Her reach extended an arm's length, augmented by her brush. The stylistic consequences of the outdoor working environment were also clear in her early batiks - the breadth of the artist's stroke with brush or canting was that of her lap, around which she wound the fabric to secure it from the wind.

Symbolism and interpretation

There have been many attempts to understand Kngwarray's work. Some commentators have interpreted the monumental black lines on white, or white on black, in her yam paintings of 1995 as statements of reconciliation between black and white Australia; and others have read into her work a world view of cosmic and transcendent proportions. The plausibility of these readings is contentious to the extent that these various cultural interpretations are attributed to Kngwarray herself, and they reflect particular problems both in understanding and reconciling artists' points of view with the perceptions of their art by the viewing public. The fact that Kngwarray spoke little English and that the majority of her interlocutors spoke even less of her Anmatyerr language adds to the problem.

According to Kngwarray, the themes of country and Dreamings remained a constant in her work, throughout the transformations of her style. This symbolism is essentially derived from the Altyerr - the creative principle which saturates the world with meaning. Popularly called 'the Dreaming', the essence of the Altyerr remains in the world today, manifesting itself in the topography of the land, in its life forms, and in the Law - codes of social behaviour by which people endeavour to live. For Kngwarray, the focus of this power lay in Alhalker country, her country of spiritual origin for which she maintained a connection inherited through her fathers and their fathers before them. The Alhalkere suite 1993 is a poetic tribute to this place.

For artists from Utopia the choice of imagery for use in contemporary art is by no means random; artists usually paint designs associated with particular country, and this reflects the very precise knowledge they have of their environment and their cultural Law. Although the nuances of difference between various species of plants and animals may seem inconsequential to the outside observer, they are of paramount significance to the custodians of these Dreamings. This does not, however, preclude experimentation, nor the use of imagery less closely tied to particular country or Dreamings.

Kngwarray's main traditional concern was with the atnwelarr (pencil yam), a creeper with bright green leaves, yellow flowers and edible roots. Kngwarray also painted other Dreamings associated with her grandfather's country of Alhalker and the closely related country, Atnangker. These include ankerr (emu), intekw (fan-flower), akatyerr (desert raisin), and tywerrk (wild fig).

Her name itself, kam, means the seeds and flowers of the pencil yam plant. The practice of naming a person after a particular feature of a Dreaming emphasises their personal connection to the Creation. This was her 'private one', of which she could say unequivocally, 'I am Kam now'.

Alhalkerarl anwenekakerrenh. Atnwelarr. Atyenh arrernek mern, mern ayengarl itniwelhek - mern annga yanh-lkwer ayengarl itniwelhekek. Kam arreyn ap ra. Kam. An amern atnwelarr-warl itniwelhek. Me Kam now. Mern atnwelarr mer nhenh-areny-kenh aylenekakenh. Atnwelarr ra. Arnkarrel ap ra antyem, arnkarr lakenh petyalperleng. Painting anem renh tha doem-ilek. Mer anem tha tyenh ulertarrp arrernepernem.

Alhalker country is ours, so is the atnwelarr yam. I paint my plant, the one I am named after, those seeds I am named after. Kam is its name. Kam. I am named after the atnwelarr plant. I am Kam now. The pencil yam grows in our country - it belongs to us - the atnwelarr yam. They are found growing in the creek banks. That's what I painted. I keep on painting the place that belongs to me.

Over and over in her imagination she recreated the underground network of roots and tubers of the pencil yam - visible as an underlying tracery in earlier works, almost entirely obscured by dots in others, and emerging in bare linear form in her later works.

The awely from Alhalker country is also a continuous theme in Kngwarray's work. Through the singing, painting and dancing of women's awely ceremonies, women celebrate their particular responsibilities towards country. The symbolism of awely, which once only found expression in ceremonial body painting, found a new form in the batik designs on silk, and in acrylic paint on canvas. The women perform awely to look after their country, promoting feelings of happiness, health and well-being in the community. They sing to ensure that bush plants continue to grow in abundance, bush animals proliferate, and to make babies healthy and fat. The younger women and girls are taught the songs and dances which have been revealed to the generations of women before them, thus ensuring continued harmony between the land and its inhabitants.

In 1994 the profuse dotting which had characterised her earlier work was replaced by more austere works of bold, often monochromatic, linear gesture. This imagery has been interpreted as signifying the markings, called arlkeny, which are the basis of the body painting for women's awely ceremonies. The comparative economy of this style may have been prompted by a decline in the artist's health, but regardless of the motivation these paintings remain breathtaking in their power.

Kngwarray was a great singer - her powerful voice began the verse, on a high note and an inhalation of breath, and descended beyond the melodic range of her co-singers. She often led the dancing and carried the ceremonial pole called kweter to where it was 'planted' in the ground. She supervised the grinding of the ochres and the application of paint and was in local terms what is known as a 'boss'. In her extraordinary and long life she experienced at first hand the consequences of the invasion of her country by Europeans, and some of the major transformations of Australian society during most of the twentieth century. Despite the increasing pressures of her latterly acquired fame, Kngwarray remained close to the country of her origin until her death in 1996. In the visual legacy of her work the strength of her voice remains with us.

Jenny Green


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