Aboriginal Art

The Australian Artist Who Began Painting at 78

E mily Kame Kngwarreye is one of the most significant Australian painters of the 20th century. Her paintings are an example of the uniqueness of Australian art and dynamism of Indigenous Australian culture. She was born in the early 20th century in Alhalkere, a remote desert region in the eastern part of central Australia. An Anmatyerre elder and ceremonial leader, with incomparable knowledge of law and language, she began painting at 78 years of age and continued until her death.


Of the seven exceptional works offered in Aboriginal Art (14 March, London), six are from the same collection of Indigenous Australian artworks acquired by Swiss collector, Stefano Spaccapietra. After viewing Kngwarreye’s work in France in the early 1990s, Spaccapietra sought her finest examples and, in the time that followed, collected the six works offered in this sale. These range from Ndorkwa- Wild Plum, through to the large scale masterwork Kame- Summer Awelye II and culminate in the rare, late, gestural and linear painting Kame Awelye.

Her involvement in the Utopia Women’s Batik Group marked the beginning of her incredible foray into two-dimensional work. In 1988, already in her 80s, Emily painted her first canvas Emu Woman which instantly attracted enormous attention and, almost overnight, she became nationally and internationally recognised.


Her remarkable work is inspired by her country, Alhalkere, her cultural connections to community and country and her ancestral history and custodianship of the women’s Dreaming sites. The constant themes of her paintings visit  the landscape through the seasonal cycles, her relationship with this land on which she lived and her Dreamings, in all their manifestations.

In Ndorkwa- Wild Plum, dots of paint fleck over an organic grid system, based on the growth of yam roots underground. In Nterkwe – Emu Tucker II, this stylistically similar matrix of lines represents the tracks of the emus scuttling across the ground looking for nourishment. The search by emus for bush food is also the focus in Fertile Desert, where the dotting lines weaving across the canvas are more expressive and random, but represent this same theme.

The mark-making in these early paintings represents a variety of berries and fruits, for example the wild plum, ndorkwa. In Summer Awelye II the vivid yellow, pink and orange dotting describes the flowers and seeds of the atnulyare tuber. One of the first canvases Emily painted on this scale, this work is characteristic of the large fields of dots that evolved from the batik-infused earlier works concentrating on dots and simple linear structures. He traceries of lines are now concealed beneath the surface dots; like an underground map referring to people, places and all things. Kngwarreye’s palette was determined by the seasons; in Anoorolya, the gently flowing lines of dots in pastel colours represent early Spring wild-flowers carpeting the desert.

In Kngwarreye’s later paintings her exuberant dotting gives way to linear works; the powerful tradition of mark making derived from the markings on women’s bodies for ceremony. Kame Awelye uses calligraphic, gestural lineation to elaborate on the patterns of the yam roots and celebrate the female nature of the land.

As well as holding strong connections to Country, seasons and wildlife, Emily’s paintings also show evidence of the strong ceremonial traditions intrinsic to the culture. This is evidenced in the links between the patterns in the paintings, and the painted black ground of the some of her works, representing the patterns decorating the black skin of ceremonial participants. The grid structures evident in many of Emily’s works echo the traditional compositional structures of ceremonial paintings describing journey lines to sacred sites.

The significance of complex ceremonial traditions within Emily’s culture is embodied in these works, and their themes demonstrate the intrinsic connection of the individual to the landscape. In a painting career that lasted only eight short years, by an artist who knew nothing of the art world beyond Utopia, these works demonstrate the significance of complex ceremonial traditions within the artist’s culture and express the intrinsic connection of the individual to the landscape.

More from Sotheby's

We use our own and third party cookies to enable you to navigate around our Site, use its features and engage on social media, and to allow us to perform analytics, remember your preferences, provide services that you have requested and produce content and advertisements tailored to your interests, both on our Site as well as others. For more information, or to learn how to change your cookie or marketing preferences, please see our updated Privacy Policy & Cookie Policy.

By continuing to use our Site, you consent to our use of cookies and to the practices described in our updated Privacy Policy.