In her short but extraordinary career, Emily Kam Kngwarray became one of Australia’s most celebrated artists. She died in 1996 but her legacy lives on in a distinguished body of work, held in collections around the world, and now brought together in a stunning retrospective at the National Gallery in Canberra.
The gallery’s major summer exhibition will run until April 24, and in exciting news announced at this week’s opening, it will travel to London’s Tate Modern in July 2025.
The first survey of her work to be held in a major institution since 2008, the exhibition provides a rare opportunity to see a comprehensive collection of her most important works, from early vibrant batiks to her later monumental paintings. Many never-before-seen works from tightly held private collections are included in the exhibition, along with new acquisitions in the national collection.
A senior Anmatyerr woman from Alhalker in the Sandover region (commonly referred to as Utopia) north-east of Mparntwe/Alice Springs, Kngwarray took up painting in her 70s. Creating works deeply rooted in Country, she spent her final years encapsulating in her paintings the cultural knowledge, experience, and authority that she had gained throughout her remarkable life.
A big contingent of descendants and members of the Utopia community were at the exhibition opening, reminiscing and joyously celebrating the life and work of ‘the old lady’ as she was affectionately known.
National Gallery director, Dr Nick Mitzevich, described Kngwarray as “a pioneer in so many ways … she blazed a path for First Nations artists, women artists and Australian artists”. (One of her paintings, Earth’s Creation 1, sold for $2.1m in 2017, breaking the record for the highest auction price for an Australian female artist.)
“Her work continues to enthral audiences around the world,” Dr Mitzevich said. “Through her unparalleled talent and deep cultural connections, (her) works transcend time, inviting audiences to explore the spiritual landscapes and ancestral narratives woven intricately within each stroke.”
Assisted by Utopia Art Centre and Desart (the peak body for Central Australian art centres), curators Kelli Cole and Hetti Perkins, along with linguist Dr Jennifer Green, consulted extensively with Kngwarray’s family and community.
Cole said this had enabled the gallery to offer nuanced analyses that acknowledge “both the cultural specificity of Kngwarray’s inspiration and the majestic scope of Country and its ancestral inheritances”.
It also enabled the creation of an immersive audio tour featuring soundscapes and songs of the awely (women’s ceremony), so that audiences can journey beyond the artworks into the heart of Kngwarray’s Country. The awely ceremonies are still practised in Utopia today.
Be sure to pick up a copy of the exhibition catalogue, which privileges the artist’s voice, drawing on audio recordings Kngwarray made in the 1980s and 1990s, offering new insights into her life and work.
What? Emily Kam Kngwarray
Where? National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
When? Saturday 2 December 2023 to Sunday 28 April 2024.
Cost? $26 Adults | $21 Members | $23 Concession/Student | $11 Child (5 to 16 years) | $16 Mob Tix | Season tickets $51