To celebrate the Gallery’s acquisition of the six-panel painting Untitled, 1994 by renowned Anmatyerre artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye for the 40th anniversary, Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Kelli Cole reflects on Kngwarreye’s life and shares highlights from the collection.
Acclaimed artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye exploded onto the Australian contemporary art scene in the early 1990s. She began painting at a time when the international art market recognised the importance of Indigenous art and the impact of her paintings was immediate, with the National Gallery collecting her work before the end of the 80s. It is estimated that Kngwarreye produced over 3000 paintings in her short eight-year career, an average of one or two per day, many as beautiful as the next. Today, her works are highly sought after and sell for record prices.
Kngwarreye was born at Alhalkere on the lands now known as Utopia, a Country that is broken into five major ancestral groups. During this period Aboriginal people could still walk their Country without the presence of the white colonists, as it wasn’t until the early 1920s that the first of the early pastoralists established their holdings at Utopia. Kngwarreye would later work at their cattle stations on her unceded homelands.
‘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 itnyerlenty-akngerleng artnepartnerleng, akely-akely akenh artnelh-artnelh-ilerrerleng 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 Alhalkere, 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 all sorts of lizards, such as geckos and blue-tongues, and ate them in our cubby houses…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.’
The origins of Kngwarreye’s paintings lie in the practice of batik, an artistic technique that was introduced to the women of Utopia in 1977 during an educational program. Kngwarreye and other significant women artists later formed the Utopia Women’s Batik Group, creating dynamic designs on silk. While Kngwarreye completed her first acrylic painting on canvas in 1988, it was not the first time she had painted. She began to paint during ceremony (awely) when her fingers first touched the rough surface of ochre, and her hand swiped across her breast.
The Alhalkere suite is one of her greatest accomplishments. The monumental installation of 22 canvases describes the land in flood, fertilised by water; the rains and storms of early spring. After the rain, brilliantly coloured wildflowers carpet the landscape, and the soft-looking spinifex bushes appear beside the desert oak trees and blossoming wattle. Kngwarreye is paying homage to the Altyerr, or the spiritual forces which are the legacy of the original ancestors who created the land and everything in it, and who laid down the codes of behaviour and law. The powers of the ancestors have imbued the land and have graced generation after generation of Kngwarreye’s people.
Kelli Cole, a Warumungu/Luritja woman, is Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at the National Gallery of Australia.
This story has been published as part of the National Gallery's 40th Anniversary. For more visit 40 Years.
 Interview recorded and transcribed by Jenny Green, ‘The Enigma of Emily Kngwarreye’, World of Dreamings.