Barbara Weir

Barbara Weir


Barbara Weir is one of the most collected, travelled and published indigenous artist with an international reputation making it into the ‘TOP100 List’ of Indigenous artists.

There have been numerous exhibitions of her work both in Australia and overseas. Initial acclaim came with exhibitions in Paris and Switzerland in 1996. Her work was then shown in exhibitions in Japan, the USA, Mexico and Fiji. Her first Australian solo show, “Dreamworks”, was a sellout. Success at that level has continued with Barbara frequently visiting foreign countries to show and discuss her work. She has become perhaps the most widely travelled painter in the history of Australian art.

Barbara Weir is product of an area that has produced many great painters...Utopia. Indeed, in the present day Barbara ranks right up with the best. Her life has been a chequered one but now she enjoys international fame as one of the most collected indigenous artists of all time.

Her emergence as a painter coincided happily with a great boom in sales of indigenous art. Her unique style coupled with a natural ability to apply paint to canvas in a very engaging way has meant that her colorful and dynamic images have captured the imagination of a generation of collectors. These paintings are enhanced by a knowledge of her remarkable life and her struggle against the odds as one of the ‘stolen generation’.

Barbara’s story has been told many times and it reflects, quite perfectly, attitudes to indigenous people in Australia during the decades of the 1950s to the 1990s. Her career began and flourished during the latter part of that era.

Barbara Weir was born in 1945 at Bundy River Station in the Utopia area, North East of Alice Springs. Her father was Irish station owner Jack Weir, and her mother was Minnie Pwerle, herself one of the most famous of the Utopia painters.

 The welfare officers that patrolled Utopia and other areas in the 1950s sought particularly to protect mixed heritage children and Barbara was hidden from them from the age of two. She spent seven years with her aunty, the famous Emily Kngwarreye and was, in indigenous terms, ‘grown up‘ by her.

Aged nine, however, she was taken away to Bungalow, now the ‘Telegraph Station’ at Alice Springs and later to other children’s homes around the country.

English became her main language during those years when she was away from ‘home’; a time when she reluctantly grew away from her mother and family at Utopia. Barbara had little control over her own destiny, but that changed towards the end of the 1960s. By that time she had three children and had determined that she would return to Utopia and her family there. She had forgotten most of her Anmatyerre language by this time and this proved something of a barrier in her attempts to integrate.

Resuming her relationship with her Aunty Emily, Barbara became involved first with the batik movement at Utopia and later with the painting movement. In this way the young artist became a contributor to the flourishing movement that is Utopia art.

It might be said that there are no art schools in the desert and, like Barbara, painters learn their skills by watching those around them. In her case she could not have had a more outstanding mentor, nor could she have developed in a place which had more concern with wonderful artworks made with non- traditional materials.

Emily’s influence may be seen in Barbara’s free-flowing style and ‘loose‘ paint application. However, it must also be noted that Barbara developed her own subjects and these, most notably her ’grass‘ paintings, have set her apart from her peers and contemporaries. In more recent times Barbara has experimented widely with different images and methods of paint application. In this sense she is a highly original and inventive painter. Accordingly she has made a strong contribution to the fact that Utopia is now the most highly regarded area of indigenous art production in the country.

Her marriage ended in 1977 and she returned permanently to Utopia with her six children. Coinciding with her return she found a number of the women, and particularly Emily Kngwarreye, were involved with the newly introduced batik movement. This was indeed fortuitous for Barbara, now 32 years old. A new career beckoned.

As a painter her career really took full flight in 1994. She had visited Indonesia with other artists from Utopia. They went to learn about and explore the possibilities of batik. However, for Barbara, this journey inspired ideas about painting. After a period of figurative, traditional work her style became more symbolic and evolved towards abstraction. The dreamings she depicted included Bush Berry, My Mothers Country and Grass Seed. The latter has become, as is the case with Gloria Petyarre’s ‘Medicine Leaf Dreaming’, one of the most successful images ever in the history of Australian art. As is the case with most indigenous women’s painting, these dreamings are all associated with women’s body decoration for ceremony. Involved also is the notion of food gathering, including bush tucker such as seeds, berries, plums and yams. The latter, of course, was prolifically and famously painted by Emily Kngwarreye.

Traditionally, food gathering dominated the lives of indigenous women. Barbara experienced this as a child and again on her return to Utopia as an adult. For her, the grass seed, which was crushed into flour after collection and then used to make bread, was to become a dominant image. The grass, called Lyaw, Munyeroo or Pigsweed, and its seed had provided sustenance to her people for thousands of generations. Accordingly, she had an affection and understanding for it. Her paintings of this subject show it in various ways ... sometimes on fire ... sometimes after fire, and sometimes in periods of lush growth. The swaying rhythms of the grass provide the foundations for original and seductive paintings. These, however, take on a great depth and appeal when the underlying story is revealed.

This last notion is particularly true of another remarkable image that Barbara has developed. This is the enigmatic and moving “My Mother’s Country”

This work, often repeated as one of her major ‘dreamings’, takes on the abstract qualities upon which her later work’s are constructed. Indeed since about 2004 Barbara has developed as a ‘painter’s painter’. That is, she displays many qualities of brushwork, form and color which situate her in the mainstream of contemporary art worldwide. This is not to deny her Aboriginal heritage, but Barbara has achieved recognition as a pure ‘painter’, something that has evaded other outstanding indigenous artists, many of whom simply want to be known as ‘painters‘ rather than ‘indigenous painters’.

It is appropriate then that Barbara, a world traveler, and a great ambassador for her people, also be recognized in the wider world for her creative talents.