Emily Kngwarreye and the Utopia Art Movement

Emily Kngwarreye (Emily Kame Kngwarreye – c.1910 – 3 September, 1996) was born at Alhalkere in the Northern Territory, Australia. She was an Australian aboriginal artist from the Utopia community, and considered the most innovative artist of the Utopia Art Movement.

Emily was brought up in the remote desert area of Utopia, 230 km north-east of Alice Springs. She did not discover art until much later in her life, in her late 80s. She was initiated into it when batik – a wax-resist technique of dyeing used on textile -was introduced in the Utopia community. Emily began applying traditional designs to silk and joined the Utopia Women’s Batik Group in 1978. Her designs were already characterized by a freer approach, a sign of brushing off convention.

But her imagination was really set free when she began applying acrylic on canvas in the late 1980s. When the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) held an exhibition called “A Summer Project” displaying the paintings of new aboriginal artists, Emily’s works were instantly noticed for the original style that was different from regular and conventional aboriginal painting. It attracted critical attention, with all the Utopia paintings in the exhibition going for great prices in 1989-90, exceeding $1 million overall.

During the eight years of her active art career, she created close to 3000 paintings. These were the years of experimenting with different styles. In the early stages of her art career, her paintings featured many dots, some overlying the others in different sizes and colors. An example of this is “Wild Potato Dreaming” (1990). By 1992 Kngwarreye began joining the dots into lines and created parallel stripes in various colors horizontally and vertically that represented the terrain, rivers, and other features of the landscape.

Her work became more intricate as the years progressed, as her dots became larger and finer, because she started using larger brushes. “Alaqura Profusion” (1993) is an example of further development in Kngwarreye’s style that now exhibited patches of color and many dots arranged like rings. A similar style can be seen in her works from 1994, “Emu Country” and “My Mothers Country”. “Yam Dreaming” (1994) and “Bush Yam” (1995) feature thick stripes representing yam track lines. The painting “Yam Dreaming Awelye” (1995) features thinner lines crisscrossing the canvas. Her final paintings represented by “Body Paint” (1996) were done with a much thicker brush.

The recognition Kngwarreye received was phenomenal. Her first solo exhibition in the Coventry Gallery, Sydney in 1990 drew attention from critics and art lovers. In the year 2000, eight paintings of Kngwarreye together sold for $507,550 in the winter auction at Sotheby’s, while her “Earth’s Creation” sold for AUD 1,056,000 at a Sydney auction in 2007. In recognition of her outstanding work, the Australia Council awarded her the Australian Artists Creative Fellowship. Emily Kngwarreye passed away on 3 September, 1996.