Emily Kam Kngwarray, Emu - Yuyara and Yam - Annlara Dreaming at Alalgura, 1990, synthetic polymer paint on linen, 120 cm × 90 cm (47 1/4" × 35 7/16") © Estate of Emily Kam Kngwarray

Emily Kam Kngwarray


Portrait of Emily Kam Kngwarray. Source: Utopia Art Sydney


b. 1910, Alhalkere, Utopia, Australia
d. 1996, Mparntwe/Alice Springs, Australia

Emily Kam Kngwarray is one of Australia’s most critically acclaimed and celebrated contemporary artists. In 2025, a major exhibition dedicated to Kngwarray’s work will be presented at Tate Modern, London, which will be followed by a solo exhibition at Pace’s London Gallery, presented with the support of D’Lan Contemporary.

A member of the Anmatyerre people of Alhalkere, originating in Australia’s Northern Territory, her artistic practice was rooted in Indigenous Australian beliefs and a cultural responsibility to ancestral lands; this all-encompassing philosophy draws on the history, relationships, topography, and vegetation of the surrounding earth. Working in the remote central desert of Utopia, her oeuvre was deeply inspired by her heritage, Anmatyerre spirituality, and surrounding landscapes. Kngwarray drew much of her creativity from Dreaming—a cultural worldview and comprehensive framework that structures and narrates relationships among individuals, families, ancestral history, future descendants, and the land and spirits. Her artistic journey was shaped by her role in ceremonial traditions, expressed through dance, chant, and the painting of bodies with natural materials such as ground ochre, charcoal, and ash. As an Elder of the Anmatyerre people and a custodian of sacred land, she developed a complex and potent visual language, which translated across her vibrant batiks and later paintings on canvas that brought her international acclaim.

In the 1970s, Kngwarray began painting on silk and cotton fabric in the batik style alongside the women in her community, and in 1977, became a founding member of the Utopia Women’s Batik Group. This labor-intensive process involved the unforgiving medium of hot wax, which, once applied, cannot be manipulated. Introduced to canvas in 1988, Kngwarray’s practice shifted in part due to the adaptability of paint as a medium, which allowed her to create spontaneous, gestural marks using various implements. Kngwarray’s paintings are a continuation of the deep-rooted oral and visual traditions that inspired her batik work. Beginning in 1988–89, when she was already in her seventies, she acquired her first canvas and created her first painting, Emu Woman (1988–89), which debuted in the group exhibition, A Summer Project: Utopia Women's Paintings held at S.H. Ervin Gallery, Sydney (1989).

Kngwarray's paintings, characterized by layered brushstrokes and dabs of paint, embody the vibrancy and rhythm of the natural world, reflecting her acute sense of its dynamic and pulsating nature. Centered on imagery from her homeland, the artist often portrayed root systems and life cycles of plants. Her chosen name, Kam, meaning the seeds and seedpod of the anwerlarr, or pencil yam, in her native language of Anmatyerre, is a central motif within her oeuvre, and often appears in works, especially from 1990–91. In the following years she shifted to what has been referred to as her “high colorist phase,” characterized by a wider range of color and saturated dabs of paint that reveal visual patterns and configurations when viewed at a distance. An indomitable force, Kngwarray saw her artistic production as a civic responsibility and believed her work would help protect her country from mining. She continued to create art until the last four years of her life.

Kngwarray was a prolific artist, executing an estimated three thousand paintings in an eight-year span. In 1997, she was represented posthumously at the 47th Venice Biennale. Her work is held in public collections worldwide, including Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida; Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney; Museum of Victoria, Melbourne; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; and The Vatican Museums, Vatican City.


Emily Kam Kngwarray, Emu - Yuyara and Yam - Annlara Dreaming at Alalgura, 1990, synthetic polymer paint on linen, 120 cm × 90 cm (47 1/4" × 35 7/16") © Estate of Emily Kam Kngwarray


Emily Kam Kngwarray, Yam Story, 1995, synthetic polymer paint on linen, 121 cm × 92.1 cm (47 5/8" × 36 1/4") © Estate of Emily Kam Kngwarray