Grass by Barbara Weir (1940-2023)

I invited Elizabeth Fortescue a journalist and writer to one of my workshops in the outback and there she interviewed the artist Barbara Weir. Barbara checked every word Elizabeth wrote to ensure her story is communicated correctly. Here is her essay:

"Long, tapering lines which elegantly overlap one another in many of Barbara Weir’s paintings represent the grass which was found abundantly at Utopia until the introduction of cattle grazing in the early decades of the 20th Century. The botanical name for this grass is Portulaca Oleracea.

The grass has been important to the Aboriginal people for thousands of years because it bears small, black seeds which are ground up to make flour. Barbara Weir did not paint these seeds, but she painted the grass itself. The colors she used reflected the state of the grass in nature. When she painted it green, the grass were young and growing. When she painted it yellow, red and black, the grass were being burned in a bushfire. When she painted it white and grey, it represented the aftermath of a bushfire. Sometimes she included some red in an otherwise white or off-white grass painting, which indicated there is still some fire burning.

Many of Barbara’s paintings are titled My Mother’s Country. In these works, she paid homage to her maternal ancestors, their lands, their dreaming's and their way of life.

Barbara was born in about 1945 to Minnie Pwerle and Jack Weir, an Irish Australian man who owned a cattle run called Bundy River Station, about 50km from Utopia.

Barbara, who was originally named Florrie, grew up in the bush at Utopia alongside her extended family including Emily Kame Kngwarreye, who would become a famous Aboriginal painter. “Aunty Emily” helped to raise Barbara, and was there at one of the turning points in Barbara’s young life.

In those years, the Australian Government was enforcing its assimilation policy, under which children of mixed race were taken from their communities and brought up in white society. These children learned English and white customs, and their particular agony of displacement and disorientation was documented in the 1997 report into the so-called “stolen generation”, titled Bringing Them Home.

Minnie Pwerle was a bush woman who followed traditional ways. But she also worked on Bundy River Station. She was aware of the patrols that came and snatched mixed-race children from their black families in the bush. Minnie told Barbara that if the white man came, he would take her away and drown her. So Barbara learned to fear the patrols, and at various times Minnie would hide her in an effort to keep her safe. One hiding place was the dog holes in the riverbank.

One day, when Barbara was aged about eight, she and another girl were sent out by Aunty Emily (Kngwarreye) to collect some water in billycans. Absorbed in their task, the two children didn’t notice that a Land Rover was approaching them. They ran off when it was too late, and Barbara, with her lighter skin, was caught by the patrol. She was taken away from her family and her home, not to return for many years. When she did, she was a virtual stranger to her own kin.

As time went by, Barbara’s mother Minnie and all Minnie’s family came to believe the little girl was dead. Barbara assumed her mother was dead as well. In reality, Barbara had been taken to Alice Springs, where she lived for about 18 months in a home for mixed-race children. Barbara was then sent to Darwin to encourage her to speak English and to forget her native language.

By the age of 18, Barbara was living in Darwin and working as a maid when she married a man named Mervyn Torres. In 1963, Torres was driving through Alice Springs and thought he would ask a local person about Barbara’s mother. To Torres’ astonishment – and Barbara’s, when he told her – he learned that Minnie was very much alive, and still living in the bush at Utopia.

When Barbara heard the news, she resolved to find her mother and reconnect with her black family.



After their initial meeting of about 10 days’ duration, Barbara continued to visit her mother’s community at regular intervals. It took her 15 years, but Barbara relearned the Aboriginal languages that she had spoken as a child. She relearned the laws of her tribal lands, including the ceremonial body painting which Minnie, as a respected elder, carried out on the women in her community.

Barbara discovered that she now had six half brothers and sisters, owing to her mother’s marriage to an Aboriginal man called Motorcar Jim Ngala. Minnie and Barbara would never enjoy a close mother-daughter bond. Perhaps those crucial years spent apart in vastly differing circumstances had left a gulf which was just too wide to bridge. “We don’t get on if we’re going to live with one another all the time. We’re too stubborn,” Barbara told the author in 2003.

Nevertheless, Minnie and Barbara were once again mother and daughter, and Barbara spent much time with Minnie in the years after their reconnection. Barbara would drive out to Irrultja, the outstation where Minnie lived with her sisters. Barbara would camp out with her black family, hunting with them for kangaroo, witchetty grubs and honey ants, and collecting sweet potato and bush melon.

Having lived in a house, Barbara had no desire to spend the rest of her life in one of the tin humpies where her mother dwelt. So she continued to base herself in Alice Springs, making regular trips to Irrultja."