A brief history of Emily Kngwarreye and the Utopia Aboriginal Art movement


A carpet of sunburnt-red dirt. A glittering blue sky. Stretches of Spinifex bushes and eucalyptus trees, cohabited by kangaroos, goannas, echidnas and emus. This is Utopia.

Located in the heart of the Australian desert about 270 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs, Utopia is one of the most remote communities in the country. Upon this sacred land lies clusters of outstations: a reminder of the cattle stations erected here when white settlers arrived in 1927. It took more than 50 years for Aboriginal people to successfully claim the land back. Herein, art was the key to unlocking the community’s land rights.

In 1978, the art of batik infiltrated the Utopia community. The women learned the nuances of this textile art form: a notoriously fragile medium wherein cloth provides the basis for a canvas. Originating in Indonesia, batik was adopted and adapted by the Aboriginal women. Dyed colours were added to the fabrics in layers from the lightest to the darkest colours, whereupon the artists imprinted their rich depictions of cultural iconography.

These Utopia batiks quickly gained respect from art collectors, who praised the emergence of a dynamic art form that celebrated life in Central Australia. Hence, the artists of Utopia successfully and tangibly demonstrated the economic viability of their community, enabling them to affirm their legal—and moral—right to the land.

The rise of Utopia batiks paved the way for a number of prominent artists to gain recognition. Introduced to the phenomenon at 70 years old, the late Emily Kngwarreye is one such artist who played a pivotal role in the surging prominence of Aboriginal batiks.

Traditionally, this medium provided the genesis for a distinctive approach to Aboriginal art that focused on building layers and layers of patterns. This over-layering meant that information of cultural sensitivity could be hidden from the public.

For Emily Kngwarreye, the developing knowledge of this layering method allowed diversity and manipulation of the works. Her earlier paintings typically involved a linear drawing upon the dyed cloth, veiled by dots which created images of seeds and flowers. Later on, Emily Kngwarreye pioneered a movement that was considered a major breakthrough in Aboriginal art at the time, wherein the removal of layers exposed parts of the artwork which may typically be hidden. This deconstruction of design ultimately allowed the artist to present different viewpoints and meanings of the work’s subject.

As one of Utopia’s most significant artists, Emily Kngwarreye created works that were considered expressionistic in style, incorporating bold brushstrokes that told stories of the land and environment surrounding her.

This contemporary approach in her motifs is apparent in her transition to acrylic paint and canvas: a new medium which entered the Utopia artist community in 1988. Allowing the production of paintings on a broader scale compared to batik, the use of canvas further catapulted Emily Kngwarreye’s career. She managed to carve out a reputation for her confident and energetic statements characterised by abstract styles: a revolutionary movement for women Aboriginal artists who had previously been overshadowed by their male counterparts.

With 5,000 paintings, 48 group exhibitions, and $22.08 million in sales accrued over a career span of just eight years, Emily Kngwarreye’s talent lives on in her widely celebrated contribution to Australia’s art world.