Utopia, Minnie Pwerle and Sisters Molly, Galya and Emily

In the Northern Territory of Australia, there is a former cattle station called Utopia, also known as Urapuntja, which lies 300 km northeast of Alice Springs. The land at Utopia, totalling 1800 square kilometres, was handed back to indigenous people in the late 1970s and is home to about 900 people who live in a series of small outstations.

In the years between about 1910 and 1920, when the country at Utopia was first being opened up for cattle grazing, a baby was born there to a woman from the Anmatjerre language group and a man from the Alyawarr language group. Their shared country was Atnwengerrp. The parents named their baby daughter Minnie Pwerle and, like so many Aboriginal people of Minnie’s generation, the story of her life would be one of struggle and endurance. But Minnie would also become a respected elder of her community and, late in life, an acclaimed artist. Her daughter Barbara Weir would likewise find fame through her own art. Three of Minnie’s sisters, and Barbara’s daughter Theresa, would also begin to paint, adding their names to the roll call of indigenous painters who live and work in the remote communities of Utopia.

The modern history of art from the Utopia region began in 1977 when the art of batik was introduced there through workshops that were offered to the women. Painting in acrylic on canvas followed in the late 1980s, and Barbara Weir began painting in 1989.

Then, in late 1999, Minnie also began to paint. Her first solo exhibition was in Melbourne in 2000, after which her work was much sought-after. Minnie died in March 2006. Towards the end of her life, she had been living at Alparra, the largest community in Utopia. She remained a prodigious long-distance walker and never lost her bush ways. One Sydney curator tells the story that when Minnie came to cosmopolitan, inner-city Marrickville and surveyed the local gum trees – which were obviously not a supply of good bush tucker -- she remarked dismissively that there wasn’t much to eat in the city. She stayed at Bondi where she was fascinated by the sea and walked up and down the beach all hours of the day and night.

In 2004 Minnie’s sisters also started to paint, with Barbara’s encouragement. The sisters are Molly Pwerle, who was born in about 1920, Emily Pwerle, born about 1922, and Galya Pwerle, born circa the 1930s. The sisters live together at Irrultja, a tiny settlement at Utopia which is home to about 100 people.

Speaking in July 2007, Barbara told: “They [the sisters] used to say ‘one day you have got to come back here and bring that canvas. Bring it for us and we’ll paint.’ That was years ago. When I came back, that’s what I did. I went out there two or three years ago and gave it to them. Mum went out there. We painted. It was always in their brains. You didn’t have to teach them. It’s there all the time. It’s been taught to us like telling stories in the olden times.”

In their paintings, Molly, Emily and Galya draw on the same dreamings as Minnie and Barbara. One of their important dreamings is the bush tomato (Solanum chippendalei), whose name is Alyawarr is anemangkerr (pronounced similarly to numun-gurra). Although the seed of the bush tomato is bitter and poisonous, the flesh is an important food throughout Utopia and other parts of Central Australia. Its flavour is bland and can be compared to rock melon. The bush tomato can be eaten immediately, or threaded on to skewers and kept as a dried fruit for periods when bush tucker is scarce. The skewers are often obtained from desert rose shrubs which are usually found growing near the bush tomato, according to botanist Peter Latz in his book, Bushfires and Bushtucker.

Another dreaming painted by the women is the northern wild orange (Capparis umbonata) known in Alyawarre as akarley (pronounced a-kar-li). This fruit grows on a shrub about 3.5m high with weeping foliage and white flowers. The fruits hang on long stalks, turning yellow or reddish at maturity (Bushfires and Bushtucker).

The women also paint a commonly occurring plant which has provided a staple food for Aboriginal people in Utopia for thousands of years is an important dreaming. This plant is Portulaca oleracea, or munyeroo.  The Alyawarr word for this plant is lyaw (pronounced similarly to eh-lau-a). This plant is less common now in Utopia, thanks to decades of cattle grazing, but is still available in sufficient quantities to be harvested and used. The tiny black seeds of this plant are stone-ground to make a flour. This flour can be made into damper or cookies, or mixed with water to make a cordial for drinking.             

Portulaca oleracea is a vital food source for desert people because it is highly nutritious and still manages to set seed during times of low rainfall. It is hardy and grows quickly and is found especially abundantly after fire.           

The other important dreaming for these painters is the dancing tracks which are made in the sand during women’s ceremony, or awelye. A design based on these dancing tracks is painted on women’s bodies before a ceremony is performed, and this same design can be seen today in the women’s works on canvas.

Thanks to the art and travels of these women from Utopia, a far wider audience now has the chance to learn about and enjoy their stories and traditions. Minnie Pwerle travelled widely, thanks to her great success as an artist. So has Barbara. But Molly, Emily and Galya had never left their homelands until just before Minnie’s death, when Barbara took all four painting sisters to Melbourne and Adelaide. She remembers the sisters had a lot of fun on the trip, although Molly, Emily and Galya were frightened by their first sight of the sea. “They got scared – ‘big water’,’’ Barbara said.

There are two other sisters to Minnie. The late Maggie Pwerle, Minnie’s older sister, was the mother of the distinguished painters Gloria and Kathleen Pitjara (also spelled Petyarre). Another sister, Lottie Pwerle, lives at Irrultja.

Barbara’s daughter, Teresa McKeeman Purla (the old spelling of the skin name Pwerle) lives at Atnwengerrp, a small community on Utopia near Irrultja. Teresa, who is also an artist, looked after the elderly Pwerle sisters when Barbara was overseas.

Barbara said she does know lots of stories, handed down from her aunties. They liked to sit under a big tree while they painted and talked. Barbara has also learned to do the ceremonial body painting, taught to her by the old people.

The elderly Pwerle sisters can still recall seeing white people for the first time, which indicates that the women might be older than they are thought to be. The white people were Charles and Cora Chalmers and their family, who took up the lease of MacDonald Downs station in 1923. MacDonald Downs was next door to Utopia station, whose lease the Chalmers would later buy as well. The family sold Utopia to the government in the late 1970s, after which it reverted to Aboriginal ownership.

After the coming of the white graziers to Central Australia, contact between them and the local Aboriginal peoples became common. In the same way that many Aboriginal men became stockmen, the women were often employed domestically. Molly and Galya Pwerle worked as nannies for the Chalmers family. They cared for Jock Chalmers, the son of Mac Chalmers who was a young boy when he came to MacDonald Downs with his parents.

*Essay written by Elizabeth Fortescue for Boomerang Art