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Minnie Pwerle - Essay by Dr Garry Darby

Minnie Pwerle
 
 Essay by Dr Garry Darby written for Boomerang Art

 

Minnie Pwerle commenced painting in her late eighties and almost instantly drew the attention of gallery owners around the country. Just five years into her career as an Aboriginal artist she was listed as one of Australia's Top 50 Most Collectable Artists in the Australian Art Collector. During her brief career her paintings were steadily growing in popularity unmatched by any other Utopia Indigenous artist at that time.

One of eight children and mother of acclaimed Aboriginal artist Barbara Weir Minnie was born in the Utopia Station region of the Northern Territory, 250 kms north-east of Alice Springs. She was married to Motorcar Jim and together they had six children.

Like many other highly respected Utopia women artists, Minnie Pwerle participated in the batik project which was introduced to the community in 1977. Painting on canvas in the community started in the late 1980s.

In 1999, after many years of ceremonial body painting and in her late eighties, Minnie Pwerle started to paint on canvas.

Painting traditional body paint designs of Awelye and her inherited Bush Melon Dreaming, Minnie Pwerle, soon attracted a large following, holding her first solo exhibition in Melbourne in 2000. Her knowledge of and her spiritual connection to the land is clearly evident in all her paintings.

Minnie Pwerle continued to paint until she died in March 2006. Her paintings are held in many overseas institutional and private collections as well as the major art galleries in Australia.

 

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“When Emily Kame Kngwarreye passed away in early September 1996, the world lost one of its outstanding painters. A subsequent exhibition in Tokyo in mid-2008 established that there was international recognition of her genius.

Quite apart from her cultural significance Emily was a market leader with her paintings growing steadily in popularity from 1989 onwards. During her brief painting career she rocketed to the top of Australian auction markets and in 2007, eleven years after her death, her 1995 painting Earth's Creation set a record for an Aboriginal work at $1,056,000 Australian dollars.

Her departure left an obvious gap in the upper echelons of Australian indigenous painting. There was nobody, it seemed, who would step up to the illustrious heights reached by Emily. There was nobody, it seemed, who could capture the imagination of the art world and take Emily’s place. There was a vacancy at the top.

It is not my claim that Minnie Pwerle entirely filled that gap, and I do not compare her with Emily. They were after all, two very different individuals who shared a remarkably coincidental set of circumstances. But it was Minnie who became the next ‘big name’ female painter to emerge.

Both were from Utopia, both were elderly when they began to paint with non-traditional materials and both commanded a great deal of respect from everybody with whom they came in contact. Both received the highest accolades from their peers and from Australia’s art public. Both worked through very short careers as painters on canvas producing works for the white market. Both emerged through the decades which saw indigenous art in this country reach dizzy heights. Even so such success was never even contemplated by painters at Papunya,Balgo,Yuendumu, or other painters attached to the ‘official’ community art centres.

Stylistically also there were similarities. Minnie, like Emily, had a wonderful and, at times, wild sense of colour. Their brush marks were free and sometimes dry as the acrylic paint was dragged with undiminished energy across the canvas. They parted company, however, when it came to subject matter. They were, after all, from different areas and, as was always the case, their respective paintings reflected their personal and clan connections with country. Minnie’s work centred on Aweyle-Atnwengerrp, that is, women’s ceremonial concerns from her home country.

Minnie's painting career began in Adelaide in September 1999. At that time she was about 78 years old. With her was Barbara Weir (QV) her daughter, who was, by then, a highly accomplished painter. Encouraged by Barbara, Minnie made a series of linear works and from the very beginning showed that she had great graphic and colour qualities in her work with a medium which was new to her. It must be remembered that for all of her adult life Minnie had participated in ceremonies which involved the painting of the upper bodies of her female clan members. Later in life, as a tribal elder, this deep knowledge of ceremony and its performance and preparation meant that her place as a traditional painter was respected by the younger generations, some of whom continued to follow the old ways.

Barbara Weir remembers that time in Adelaide clearly and in a recent interview recalled that a number of painters used to visit her and that her mother became a little jealous.

She asked me for a canvas and brush, so I gave them to her. I stopped and watched her. I said, ‘How come you didn’t start painting before this?’ She said, because nobody asked me to.’ It was amazing. Then a dealer walked in and he bought the lot. He knew she was going to be a success.

She did indeed become an instant success and drew the attention of gallery owners around the country. Flinders Lane Gallery in Melbourne arranged Minnie’s first one person show in 2000. Her happy, energetic works were a sell-out.

The perceptive art dealer was Melbourne’s Hank Ebes and he bought some 300 of her early works. At that time Director of Flinder’s Lane Gallery in Melbourne, Sonia Heitlinger, was to report, in excited terms, ‘the whole show was a sell-out, with highly important collectors queuing up for works‘

Two years later, again at Flinders Lane, Minnie’s exhibition sold out. Her paintings were snapped by a market seeking a new ‘heroine’ from the indigenous art world. Collectors were in accord with Heitlinger’s claim that Minnie’s uniqueness turned on her, ‘freedom of expression, inventiveness and sometimes outrageous and courageous palette.

A very important aspect of Minnie’s painting was that it retained the freshness and vitality of the marks made with clay and ochre, on black skin, that she had painted for her clan sisters. Had Minnie painted in the European art world c.1920 she would have been embraced as an ‘Expressionist’. Her paintings may be regarded as ‘unruly’ and ‘naive’ in western terms but they are also energetic, spontaneous and direct; all qualities which Jackson Pollock sought to bring to his work in New York in the 1940s and 1950s. Her work, together with that of Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s, has been compared with the abstract expressionist works of the Sydney painter Tony Tuckson. ‘They all shared the qualities of reverence, abandon, reliance on gesture, raw expression and intuition - minimal fuss’.

There are elements of truth there. However it is more telling to recognise that Minnie, painting and re-painting her dreaming’s in an endless stream, was enjoying both the act of painting and the dignity and the sense of purpose that came with the work. She also earned a great deal of money. The latter can be thought of also as a peculiar, European, definitive measure of success.

In her later years, Minnie Pwerle appeared to be frail and vulnerable. However, this was denied in her paintings which remained vigorous, celebratory and dashing. Minnie found a way to celebrate her world and the things that were important to her. She developed a personal visual language which set her apart from others and became one of the great innovators from the Utopia area.

She was a quiet witness to the emergence of acrylic painting at Utopia. She could not have escaped it really. There was, of course, the astounding success of Emily to say nothing of the wonderful work of Gloria and Kathleen Petyarre and her own daughter Barbara Weir.  By 1999, when Minnie began, those painters, and a host of others, had ensured that art from Utopia would forever enjoy a place of importance in the history of the Australian Indigenous art movement. Minnie became a late, and somewhat reluctant contributor to Utopian art, but during her brief career her originality, prodigious output and vitality gave an unexpected but welcome impetus to the movement. A major Alice Springs dealer who represented Minnie has commented about her paintings suggesting that the vivid nature and appeal of her work was due, in part, to ‘her briskness about life, mixed with a beautiful innocence’.

Just five years into her painting career she was listed as one of Australia's Top 50 Most Collectable Artists Australian Art Collector  In 2005 she again enjoyed that accolade. This was a very rapid rise for a frail indigenous lady who had begun her painting career aged 89 years.

Minnie Pwerle was born at Antwengerrp on what was later to be known as Utopia pastoral station (c.1910-1922) and thus was about 18-22 years old when A.P. Marshall and M. Claxton took out the original lease on the area. Minnie was an Anmetyerre/Alyawarre speaker. Around that time she met up with Jack Weir, the owner of Bundy Station which adjoined the area known as Utopia. Weir was married, a fact which did not preclude him from associating with the young Minnie Pwerle.

Speaking openly about this period of her life Minnie later said, " The police came and got me when they found I had a half-caste kid; they got me and took me to Harts Range Police Station. Black women and white men wasn’t allowed to sleep together and make children. They charged Barbara’s father. He was put in jail. That was the law".

She, like many other indigenous women, found herself in an awkward situation that was not uncommon in the bush. This, in some ways was a ‘hangover’ from colonial times when female convicts were regarded in a similar light. They were chattels without dignity or rights.

Managers often preferred women as stock workers because of their reliability in procuring bush foods, and as importantly, for sexual services and female companionship. Such liaisons included casual sexual exchanges akin to western prostitution, and harshly exploitative liaisons where women were imprisoned and raped.

These days Bundy Station is part of the Aboriginal-owned pastoral lease Utopia. Jack Weir died a few short years after Barbara’s birth. Subsequently the young Barbara was taken away from Utopia to become one of the ‘stolen generation’. The dramatic story of her eventual return to Utopia and the heartbreak involved with that is told elsewhere ....”

by Dr Garry Darby

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