Aboriginal Artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye is a Modern Day Miracle

(This article first appeared at on 21 Dec 2012)

Emily Kame Kngwarreye

When one discusses abstract expressionist artists such as Jackson PollockRothko and De Kooning, one immediately conjures up images of an incendiary art movement centered in New York, burning everything they had learnt in order to get back to something real. Today, an Australian Aborigine by the name of Emily Kame Kngwarreye is mentioned alongside them. And it has even been said that she may one day be known as the greatest.

She lived and died with no knowledge of the western art canon, let alone modernism, and far from being ‘rebellious’, her every brush stroke was steeped in the traditions of her people. So what on earth is she doing in such company?

My Country 1996

Emily is Australia’s most important Aborigine artist. She was the first to have a work sell for over a million dollars and remains the only Australian – of any background – to have an overseas retrospective held in their name.

It is part of the Emily myth that it was only at the age of 78 that she first put paint to canvas. Over the next eight years until her death in 1996 she produced almost 3000 works, and her development as an artist described a dizzying trajectory as she managed to transcend any stylistic restraints, and produce works of complete originality and uninhibited beauty.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye working on Earth’s Creation (1996)

Despite the popularity that Emily achieved during her lifetime, she continued to live as she always had, on her remote community in the Outback, with little of the trappings of civilization. She would paint in the open air, sitting cross-legged in the red Australian earth, the picture horizontal on the ground – Pollock fashion. Art dealers would be aghast to see Emily shuffle in from the bush, dragging her latest masterpiece behind her in the dust, totally immune and unaware of the value that was being placed on it by the art community.

Emily is, in every sense, the most traditional of painters – the antithesis of a modernist. She came from the oldest living race of humans on earth, spending her life on the edge of the remote Simpson desert, and was immersed in her people’s ‘dreaming’ to an extent that is impossible for a Westerner to grasp. The art critic Walter Benjamin said, ‘Either the paintings are traditional and not modern, or modern and not traditional’, and yet Emily is somehow utterly and completely both, which is why she has been described as the ‘impossible modernist’.

That Emily and New York’s avant-garde could arrive at common ground tells us at least two things about the human condition. The first is that we share a ‘collective unconscious’, as Carl Jung described our shared instinctive self or soul. The second is that progress comes at a cost.

Emily’s Dreaming (1996)

The New York modernists could only create their art by rebelling against all artistic tradition – it seems they needed to escape the burden of civilization in order to reach our collective unconscious. By contrast Emily got there effortlessly, allowing her tradition to flower through her art. In the end, the more arduous route forced upon Pollock and co. can only make us wonder whether the human journey has distanced ourselves from our soul.

Perhaps as the Australian biologist Jeremy Griffith says, progress has come at the cost of our instinctive self or soul, ‘We humans are now immensely psychologically upsetangry, egocentric and alienatedfrom participating in humanity’s heroic search for knowledge.’ Or even as in the words from The Man of La Mancha, we have had to ‘march into hell for a heavenly cause’.

Whatever the psychology, Emily has produced works of such beauty that curators have been reduced to tears. Beyond analysis, her work isas Akira Tatehata, the Director of The National Museum of Art in Osaka, saida ‘miracle’.

Big Yam Dreaming 1995

This Blog Post was written by Damon on January 6, 2013


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  • Monty Brown on January 8, 2013 at 12:28 pm

    Wonderful work and interesting story. Some of my early work ((still a novice)) was based on spaces which I was told origninate with the Australian original people. More recently this is to me fabulous! I gather there is a showing somewhere in the US. So I will seek it out and try to visit. Many thanks for sharing this story.

  • Jimmy on January 9, 2013 at 12:28 pm

    Damon, fabulous article thank you. You really have a knack of noticing the human condition in the world around and you write very well. Keep them coming!

  • Damon Isherwood on January 17, 2013 at 12:32 pm

    Hey Jimmy, I have been busy and have only just read your post above. You have to understand that the insights that I am putting in these articles aren’t mine, they are just me applying the information that Jeremy has worked out, and working up articles around that. Of course the resigned mind wants to take credit for the incredible insights Jeremy’s information into the human condition makes possible, and God knows I am no exception, but the truth is that I couldn’t begin to write any of the stuff that I am without this information – not a sentence. On a scale of 1 to 10 my insight rates about a 0.0001. But now Jeremy has given us the key, I could spend 10 lifetimes just going through Freedom and writing articles about all the issues that Jeremy raises and explains.

    And while I am coming clean, I should say that I probably wouldn’t have even heard of Emily, let alone appreciated her, if not for Jeremy who absolutely loves her to death. It was Jeremy who explained that Emily’s unequalled ability to express pure beauty comes from her unimpeded access to her soul (our fully cooperative, instinctive self); and it was Jeremy who took some of us to some Emily exhibitions to have the experience of seeing her actual paintings. In fact if you are interested there is a good documentary you can order from titled ‘Emily in Japan’. Jeremy even copied one of Emily’s paintings because he loved them so much and couldn’t afford to buy one. He acknowledges this at the bottom of the painting by calling it a Jemily.

    So Jimmy, my apparent insight is just me piggy backing on Jeremy’s insight, and now that you have come across these ideas you can be just as insightful as me – we all can. To have life contexted and explained is our amazing good fortune and honestly Jimmy these ideas as you know are so powerful and incredibly exciting, just to not have to live in the dark any more is the most fantastic gift, and it won’t be long before these understandings move the whole world to a life free of all the pain and suffering everyone is now enduring. Honestly the old world is tired and had it and the new world that Jeremy’s opened up has just got to be, and is going to be born.

    This is Jeremy’s Jemily, the painting you see on the wall in the background of all the videos on our website.

    This is Jeremy painting his ‘Jemily’ in 2009.

    Just so you know, Jeremy can create works of art himself, this is a frame of lovely pink shells Jeremy found on Henley Beach in Adelaide when he and Annie went there in 2007 for accupuncture treatment for Jeremy’s debilitating Chronic Fatigue that he had from approximately 1999 to 2009 as a result of years of unrelenting stress following the horrific campaign to try to destroy the WTM and him, which you can read about on our Persecution of the WTM page.

    There is also Jeremy’s beautiful furniture (which you can see in Part 2 of the Main Introductory Video on our WTM home page), and his instinctive drawings that you see throughout ‘Freedom’ such as these two:

  • Sally Edgar on January 28, 2013 at 12:33 pm

    Thanks Damon for that beautiful explanation of Emily’s art and for including those incredible pictures of her breathtaking work. It truly does touch you somewhere deep inside and for me just further cements the truth of Jeremy Griffith’s explanation of the human condition, and how with that explanation the pain of our past falls away into a magnificent present and future where the colours and meaning in Emily’s paintings come alive for us all! How good is this quote from Freedom (pg 55) to sum up what’s on offer now for us all: ‘I know this all might sound preposterous, but it’s not, it’s real, it’s on, you can join the Sunshine Army on the Sunshine Highway to the World in Sunshine. Become a MEMBER AND SUPPORTER OF THE WORLD TRANSFORMATION MOVEMENT. This finally is the birth of The Kingdom of Light and The Empire of the Sun in The World of the Free. After such a terrifyingly long journey and struggle through the cavernous world of darkness into this new world of light, the whole human race deserves, and is going to have, such a big celebration and party now that it will go on for generations. Everywhere we are going to be hoppin’ and boppin’, rompin’ and stompin’, hollerin’ and howlin’, huggin’ and laughin’, movin’ and groovin’, rollickin’ and rollin’, jumping and jiving, jolting and somersaulting, peeping and hiding, skipping and skating, shaking and shimmering, embracing and gyrating, twisting and shouting, dancing and singing, slipping and sliding, jamming and slamming, ripping and roaring, whirling and twirling and reelin’ and rockin’.’

  • natasha on April 17, 2013 at 12:33 pm

    Emily Kame Kngwarreye is wonderful artest and should be shown more appreciation in the world

  • Brenda Hillier on November 10, 2017 at 4:40 am

    I had never heard of her before. Astonishing paintings… Thank you!