Indigenous Australian art gallery est. 1989.

Stroke of genius as unseen Emilys go on display

Connecting the dots … Kame - Summer Awelye 2 hangs in Mary Place Gallery.
Photo: Peter Morris
Louise Schwartzkoff
December 20, 2007 Sydney Morning Herald

For 15 years, the Holt family kept a million-dollar painting by one of Australia's most successful Aboriginal artists rolled up in a storeroom on their remote cattle station in Central Australia.

Like many of Emily Kame Kngwarreye's works, Kame - Summer Awelye 2 was painted on the verandah of the Holts's homestead at Delmore Downs. Until she died in 1996, Kngwarreye lived next door to the Holts in the Aboriginal community of Utopia. She spoke almost no English and began painting on canvas only in her 70s, but her pictures, dubbed "Emilys" are regarded by many in the art world as works of genius.

Though it is not for sale, the painting is believed to be worth $1 million. It is on public display for the first time with seven other unseen Emilys at an exhibition of Utopia's artists at the Mary Place Gallery in Paddington.

Delmore Downs Station has been in Donald Holt's family for three generations. He first met Kngwarreye, a friend of his mother's, as a child, and later helped her liaise with galleries and private collectors. He remembers the way she dotted vibrant yellows and pinks across the canvas to create the million-dollar work. "She was always affected by the seasons, and in the summer of 1991 we'd had some good rain, so when she did the painting, there were beautiful flowers everywhere," he said.

During her life, Kngwarreye's pictures earned her thousands. Their value has increased since her death. In May, her 1995 painting Earth's Creationsold for $1,056,000 at auction, a record for Aboriginal art until the sale of Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri's Warlugulong for $2.4 million.

The co-director of the Barry Stern Galleries in Paddington, Dominic Maunsell, has bought and sold hundreds of Emilys. "In 10 years time, there's every chance her work will be worth many millions," he said yesterday. "She was the greatest colourist in Australia's artistic history. Her works were always easy to sell because they fitted in everywhere."

Not that Kngwarreye ever grew rich. Most of her money went towards cars, food, blankets and clothing for her large extended family. Despite rumours she was being used by her community, Mr Holt said she loved giving. "She knew her own mind and just gave money when she felt like it. It wasn't as though people were hanging around waiting for handouts," he said.

The Holts' relationship with Utopia's artists is viewed with suspicion by some city art dealers, but Mr Holt said the criticisms were fuelled by jealousy.

The family has placed 13 of Kngwarreye's paintings on sale at the Paddington exhibition, but will keepKame - Summer Awelye 2 in their collection. "We don't like to sell them, but when there's a drought on you have to sell a few," Mr Holt said.