Emily Kame Kngwarreye was a prominent leader of women’s art and ritual among the Aboriginal Anmatyerr people, who celebrate ancestral songs, stories, painting, and dance rooted in the landforms of their home country. Aboriginal people have lived in the remote north-central area of Australia for more than 40,000 years. The desert landscape of their homelands, Alhalkere, has long been known for its distinctive arched rock formations and as the sacred site of Yam Dreaming, a story about the growth pattern of a wild yam that is central to Kngwarreye’s development as an artist.
Kngwarreye was an Anmatyerr elder when she transitioned from ceremonial painting in the desert sand and on women’s bodies to painting on canvas as a contemporary artist—for which she quickly earned international acclaim. Kngwarreye is part of a generation of Aboriginal contemporary artists who resisted the Australian government’s assimilation policies. Refusing to adopt the British colonial culture, Aboriginal artists instead fortified their autonomy and ensured the passage of ancestral knowledge by translating traditional iconography into Western-style paintings. The art world took notice of the Aboriginal art movement in the 1970s, and by the 1980s hundreds of these paintings were sold and exhibited in galleries and exhibitions. Kngwarreye’s painting Emu woman (1988– 1989), for example, was featured on the cover of a catalogue for the S.H. Ervin Gallery in Sydney. In 1990, Utopia Art Sydney organized Kngwarreye’s first solo exhibition. Today she is remembered as one of Australia’s most significant contemporary artists.
Kngwarreye’s paintings are innovative and exuberant. She shifted the expectation that Aboriginal art must remain bound to traditional iconography and instead began to explore the open fields of abstraction. Her gestural strokes are fluid and wandering, without reference to a specific rock or plant, yet her movements are unquestionably guided by the ancestral knowledge of her homeland, its structural patterns and spiritual forces. Earth’s Creation (1994), on view at the 56th Biennale di Venezia, is an ambitious work comprising four floor-to-ceiling panels that represent the north-central desert region of Alhalkere after the rains. Kngwarreye called it “green time.” Based on a bright palette of primary yellow, blue, and red, the painting invokes a vibrant field of moisture with pools and dots of paint. Her canvases attest to an unshakable connection between body and country, one that evades iconography yet demands to be felt.