Emily Karaka was born in Auckland and she has strong links with the city. She belongs to the Tamaki Makaurau hapu (sub-tribe) of Ngai Tai who are the tangata whenua of the Tamaki isthmus where Pakuranga is now located. Her tribal affiliations include Ngati Wai, Waiohua and Ngati Hine. Karaka is largely a self-taught artist who has exhibited regularly since her first one-person show in 1980. Her early supporters included sculptor Greer Twiss who introduced her to Colin McCahon whom Karaka claims as one of her respected elders. Philip Clairmont, Allen Maddox, Ralph Hotere and Tony Fomison are among her other mentors.
Karaka paints in an expressionist style characterised by vibrant colour and heavily applied paint. The Treaty of Waitangi document is a theme underlying many of her paintings. The raw energy and text that blazons across many of her canvasses communicates a tone of political protest. Politics is in Karaka's blood, her grandmother fought against land confiscation and her father was a strong advocate for Maori Labour.
In recent years Karaka's paintings have become less overt in her political message. Numerous symbols are woven into complex surfaces of swirling and chaotic brushwork Local Government Tea Party (1997) that refers to the artist's involvement in the consultation process between local government (A.R.C) and Crown over Treaty claims. The numbers visible in this painting, refer to specific Tainui Treaty claims yet the tone is celebratory with champagne glasses being raised.