Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s Big yam Dreaming is one of my favourite paintings by an Australian artist. It’s a powerful and huge (8 metres x 3 metres) painting covered with a tangle of curving white brushstrokes, forming an organic pattern that represents the roots of the yam and the cracks of the earth in desert country, and also the spiritual sense of country of this indigenous artist.
Emily Kame Kngwarreye was born in 1910 in a remote desert area known as Utopia, 230 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs. Her work was inspired by her cultural life as an Anmatyerre elder, and her lifelong custodianship of the women’s Dreaming sites in her clan country, Alhalkere.
Although Emily only started painting when she was in her late 70s, she produced over 3,000 paintings in the course of her eight-year painting career. For most of her life she had only sporadic contact with the outside world. It was not until she was 80 that she became, almost overnight, an artist of national and international standing.
Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s visions of Alhalkere are her personal cultural legacy to the world. Whenever Emily was asked to explain her paintings, regardless of whether the images were a shimmering veil of dots, raw stripes seared across the surface or elegant black lines, her answer was always the same:
Whole lot, that’s whole lot, Awelye (my Dreaming), Arlatyeye (pencil yam), Arkerrthe (mountain devil lizard), Ntange (grass seed), Tingu (Dreamtime pup), Ankerre (emu), Intekwe (favourite food of emus, a small plant), Atnwerle (green bean), and Kame (yam seed). That’s what I paint,
Big yam Dreaming (Anwerlarr anganenty), 1995, synthetic polymer paint on canvas
Emily completed Big yam Dreaming in only two days, the same time it took assistants to prime the canvas black. She sat cross-legged on the three-by-eight metre canvas spread flat on the ground and painted her way to the edges, ‘knitting’ one section onto another without preliminary sketching, scaling or reworking.
When you consider that she never studied art, never came into contact with the great artists of her time and did not begin painting until she was almost 80 years of age, there can only be one way to describe her. She was just a genius.
– Akira Tatehata – Director, National Museum of Art, Osaka