The Dreaming

On a recent trip to Australia I fell madly in love with the paintings of Emily Kame Kngwarreye (pronounced Ung-warh-ay). I am not alone as Emily has been hailed as an artistic genius, her paintings acclaimed around the world as modern abstract masterpieces, her works compared to that of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko and her work “Big Yam Dreaming” hailed as one of the greatest paintings of the 20th century. Heady stuff, yet outside Australia she is hardly a household name.

images.jpgShe was an unlikely candidate to take the modern art world by storm. In fact Emily was an Australian Aboriginal woman who lived her life in a remote community, rather optimistically named “Utopia” in Australia’s central dessert 240 km north west of Alice Springs, a harsh landscape of ”mulga scrub and spinifex on red sandy flats, broken up by dry river beds lined with gum trees and paperbarks.”


Emily spent her life in virtual isolation thousands of miles from the influences of the contemporary art world. She lived in poverty, had no formal education spoke her native language, Anmatyerre and didn’t even begin painting on canvas until 1989 at the age of 79 when her very first painting “Emu Woman”, wildly divergent in style from previous works by aboriginal artists, brought her to the attention of the art world.

In a rare interview, (translated by a relative) when asked what she painted, Emily replied “Whole lot, that’s all, whole lot. My dreaming, pencil yam, mountain devil lizard, grass seed, dingo, emu, small plant emu food, green bean and yam seed. That’s what I paint, whole damn lot.” 

Traditional Aboriginals are a deeply spiritual people and her answer refers to the complex, mythical legends that explain Creation, determine Aboriginal laws and beliefs and assign to each individual their own particular dreaming identity. As Emily paints exclusively about The Dreaming it is impossible to understand her work without understanding The Dreaming. 

I knew of The Dreaming from an early age as my mother had given me a copy of a book by the Aboriginal poet Kath Walker (now known as Oodgeroo Noonuccal) called “Stradbroke Dreamtime” as I had grown up on Stradbroke Island (where Kath Walker was born) and it held a special place in my heart. 

For Aboriginal people The Dreaming is the parallel universe they believe exists alongside the one they are living. This Dream World, or spiritual realm is continuous and eternal, both everything and “everywhen”  the past, present and future. It is their life force, and as such the Dreaming exerts powerful influences over the real world. 

The actual time of creation is called the Dreamtime. Dreamtime legends, passed on through generations by singing, dancing, storytelling and paintings, tell how the earth, sky, plants, animals, rivers and changing seasons, were all created long ago by spirit ancestors. The Dreaming legends explain natural phenomena, like how colors came to be, the introduction of language and the first use of fire. They provide explanations of why things are the way they are on earth and give meaning to everyday life.  These spirit ancestors still exert a powerful influence and presence;  after the period of creation they came to rest by cleverly transforming themselves into some of their creations, animals or birds, stars in the sky, a plant, a rock, a pool, even an artists rendering – that retain the creative essence of the ancestor.


It is the duty of the living to protect and maintain these sacred creatures, objects and sites as well as their creation stories. Some stories are “owned” by families or inherited by individuals and it is both their right and their duty to maintain these Dreamings. In this way the wise ancestral spirits created relationships between man and nature that protect the land and all its inhabitants.

They also explain the behavior of man and animals and set out the laws that govern human conduct. These laws spell out their responsibility to keep creation stories alive and ecological responsibilities in their roles as custodians of the land.

Individuals have Dreamings of their own as it is believed that everyone is born with an ancestral totemic spirit, the life essence of a Dreaming species that they maintain a mystical relationship with throughout their life. The spirit of the child is said to enter the developing fetus during the 5th month of pregnancy. An Australian Aboriginal might have Wallaby Dreaming, Shark Dreaming, Honey Ant Dreaming or any other dreaming and as such they have special rights and responsibilities that pertain to their Dreaming totem. In this way traditional Australian Aboriginals, which Emily was, view life as part of a vast and complex system of relationships which can be traced directly back to the ancestral Totemic Spirit Beings of The Dreaming. If it sounds complicated just think of it as THE WHOLE LOT and this is what Emily painted.

Without written forms of communication it is easy to see how important other methods of recording and preserving the Dreaming legends were. Visual art has a long tradition in Aboriginal culture with rock drawings among the oldest known images, some over 30,000 years old.


body-paint-800-x-600.jpgTraditonal aboriginals painted their bodies and ceremonial clothing, drew pictures in the sand, on rocks and bark, carved in wood and stone, and decorated their weapons, tools and ceremonial objects. In this way they marked territory, recorded history and preserved their spiritual legends as well as communicated with the spirit world. Contemporary Aboriginal art often uses the same line and dot techniques used in more traditional artforms.

body-paint.jpgRussell Page performing in front of an “Emily”.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s own particualr dreaming was the Yam and it is a recurring theme, along with other dreamings, of her work. Her middle name “Kame” refers to the seeds and flowers of the pencil yam plant, a creeper with bright green leaves, yellow flowers and edible roots which was an important form of “bush tucker” for her people. Over and over her paintings recreate the underground network of roots and tubors that is the pencil yam.



this-one.jpgThe Kame story is a very important Dreaming story for the Alhalkere (Emily’s) people and the women perform ceremonies to ensure its productivity.

THE RAINBOW SERPENT DREAMING, described as “perhaps the oldest continuing religious belief in the world”. While the exact telling may vary from region to region the important telling of the story is always the same passed down over thousands of years by its dreaming custodians.

In the beginning, the world was flat, bare and cold. Rainbow Serpent slept underground along with all the other animals until she pushed up calling the other animals to follow. They burst through the earth forcing up the mountains and hills and spilling water over the land making the rivers and lakes. Then she created the sun, fire and all the colours of the rainbow. She goes by different names but to the Gagudj people of the Northern Territory she still resides in a pool under a waterfall in Kakadu.


Pete Maralwonga stands beside his bark painting of a rainbow serpent in Arnhem Land

8 Responses

  1. Ted Lederer Says:

    thanks Peg. enjoyed the article. Not that there isn’t lots that isn’t right in traditional cultures, but there are very positive and vitally important lessons to be learnt and absorbed from traditional cultures.

    Nice to see you at the gallery for jane’s opening. it’s always a pleasure.


  2. Anonymous Says:

    what a lovely way to view life…gives ‘double’ meaning to our existance..dreamy!
    thanks for sharing

  3. Virginia Leeming Says:

    This beautiful and informative text sent me scurrying to my book case to pick out Spirit Country that I had bought when in Sydney in 2003, and indeed I had several Emily plates in it along with a wealth of information about Austrailan art. It is my next reading project. thank you Peg

  4. aubin Says:

    Thanks, Peg. I learned a lot.

  5. heather notman Says:

    you totally surprise and amaze
    me with all your knowledge and the way you write.
    Hopefully you will put it in a
    book someday.
    Thank you,

  6. heyy Says:

    cool page

  7. cam Says:

    Thanks! i found this artical to be more helpful to me (year 12 student) than any other website.


  8. Kathy Venter at BAM | Skull Buddies Says:

    [...] I was curious about the influences Kathy Venter cited, one is Emily Kame Kngwarreye (pronounced Ung-warh-ay), this is a pretty good article. She started painting at 80! [...]

Leave a Comment

Please note: Comment's to this blog remain private. There is no need to resubmit your comment.

Recent Comments

  • [...] I was curious about the influences Kathy Venter cited,... on The Dreaming
  • My sweet Paki Sahili - what an amazing experience we shared!... on Mother India
  • Peg, finally got to read the brought back all the ... on Mother India
  • I want to say how much I enjoyed "Goat Givers and Other Lov... on Mother India
  • Peg You are an amazing women! To be apart of this incred... on Mother India
  • Hi Peg, Kim and I just returned from Rajasthan last night. ... on Mother India
  • Peg, I have held off reading this until I had the time to s... on Mother India
  • Peg.....Oh my gosh....loved it. amazing, fantastic...can't w... on Mother India
  • Peg ,my dear friend: You are a trouper. I know all the peop... on Mother India
  • Peggy: Looks intense and fascinating!... on Mother India