Emily Kame Kngwarreye was an Aboriginal woman from Utopia in central Australia who began to paint on canvas when she was about 78 years old. In the 8 years before her death in 1996, she produced a staggering output of over 3,000 canvasses, some of which are now valued more highly (in monetary terms) than the work of most other female Australian artists.
The exhibition of Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s paintings which toured to Osaka and Tokyo in 2008 is arguably the biggest, most comprehensive single artist exhibition to travel internationally from Australia.
EMILY IN JAPAN is the story of the making of this landmark exhibition, with all of the complex cross-cultural transactions that were involved – from the red desert of central Australia where Emily lived, to the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, where the exhibition was curated, and to the high end of the art world in Japan.
The driving force behind the exhibition is Margo Neale, an Indigenous art curator and historian, who had mounted an earlier, smaller exhibition of Emily’s work for the Queensland Art Gallery in 1998. This earlier exhibition had attracted the attention of a Japanese scholar and art critic, Professor Akira Tatehata, and it became his personal mission to bring such an exhibition in Japan. The working relationship and friendship between Margo Neale and Professor Tatehata, and their shared passion for Emily’s art, is at the core of the film.
The exhibition in Osaka and Tokyo was a major media event and attracted record-breaking crowds. The success of the exhibition signifies the achievement of one of Emily’s dreams that Margo undertook to realise: that her work, her stories, be seen by people around the world. It gives to this elderly woman from Utopia her rightful place as one of the world’s leading modernist artists and as an eminent Australian.