Emily Kam Kngwarray was born at Alhalker, the eastern edge of her father and grandfather's country. Alhalker is located on Mount Skinner Station along the north-western boundary of Utopia Station, 230 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs. Kngwarray grew up in a traditional family as the youngest of three children.
In 1926, the borders of the Utopia pastoral lease were drawn across the country of the Eastern Anmatyerr and Alyawarr peoples. As a young woman Kngwarray was employed by several Europeans, including the owner of Woodgreen Station (Atartinga) where she looked after goats and performed other domestic duties. She also worked with her first husband leading camel trains transporting supplies between Alcoota Station and the wolfram mine on Mount Riddock Station.
Utopian art education
In 1977, Kngwarray and approximately 20 other Utopia women were introduced to the methods of tie-dye, block printing and batik as part of adult education classes. This was their first opportunity to learn new techniques and use introduced materials. The women developed their batik skills and Kngwarray was an enthusiastic practitioner for more than a decade.
Works on show
In the summer of 1988-89, Kngwarray began painting in acrylic on canvas, as part of The first works on canvas project instigated by CAAMA (the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association) in Alice Springs. These works were shown in A summer project at the S. H. Ervin Gallery, Sydney in 1989, and one of Kngwarray's paintings was reproduced on the cover of the exhibition catalogue, attracting widespread attention. In 1990, four solo exhibitions of Kngwarray's work were held in Sydney and Melbourne.
In 1992 Kngwarray was awarded an Australian Artist's Creative Fellowship by the Australia Council, which was presented to her in Canberra by the Prime Minister, Paul Keating. In 1997 the works of three Aboriginal women artists - Emily Kngwarray, Yvonne Koolmatrie and Judy Watson - were chosen to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale. In 1998 the artist was honoured by a major retrospective organised by the Queensland Art Gallery.