Minnie Pwerle: Late Bloomer - Art Collector

Issue 32, April - June 2005

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Minnie Pwerle started painting late in life and has quickly become one of Australia’s highest selling contemporary artists. Susan McCulloch profiles her short, successful career.

For seven years she witnessed the extraordinary rise to artistic super stardom of her friend Emily Kame Kngwarreye. Later she watched as other younger women from her central desert Utopia home – Gloria and Kathleen Petyarre, Angelina Pwerle, Abie Loy and her own daughter Barbara Weir – became prolific and highly prized artists.

Then in 2000 at over 80 years of age Minnie Pwerle started painting. Now she ranks as Australia’s highest selling contemporary Aboriginal artist with works selling from several hundred dollars to around $15,000 for her earliest works. Average prices for newer works are around $5,000.

Her daughter Barbara Weir says that while Pwerle was in Adelaide staying with her she suddenly asked for some canvas and a brush. To the astonishment of Weir and her son Fred Torres who owns Adelaide’s Dacou Gallery, Pwerle instantly painted with confidence and surety.

Melbourne dealer Hank Ebes videotaped Pwerle painting her first series. She paints with great deliberation refusing food to work for hours on end – as though these paintings have been gestating all the years she was watching others paint.

The results however are far from measured. Bold, brave sweeps of colour translate the traditional body designs onto canvas in brilliant yellows, reds, greens, purples and blues. Equally vibrant circles and lines re-create the patterns of stories and songs that she and her female relatives and ancestors danced and sang.

“There’s no question that she’s a genius,” says Ebes. “She is just brilliant – the way she uses colour and the bold unafraid way she paints.”

Minnie Pwerle was born in the Utopia region circa 1920. Her country is Antwengerrp and her languages are Anmatyerre and Alyawarre. She has lived at Utopia all her life, working on the property and at the homestead for western pastoralists until Utopia was returned to Aboriginal control in 1976.

While a teenager she gave birth to Barbara Weir (originally called Florrie) whose father was station owner Jack Weir. Both Weir and Pwerle were sent to jail for their daughter’s birth – inter-racial relationships in those days were a crime. Nine years later Barbara Weir was taken from Utopia, returning as a young woman with children of her own.

Now a widow Pwerle lives at one of Utopia’s many outstations and spends much time with her three remaining sisters, all in their 80s, as well as with her daughter Barbara in Alice Springs and with her grandson Fred Torres in Adelaide.

Her main Dreamings are Awelye-Antwengerrp, Bush Melon and Bush Melon Seed, all of which convey her love and respect for the land and the food it provides. Awelye- Antwengerrp (Awelye means women’s ceremony] Antwengerrp is her home area.

In an unpublished book on Utopia, writer Victoria King describes Pwerle as a “small, quiet woman” whose newly-found painting skills have “given her life new energy and meaning, creating a transformation that is miraculous to witness”.

Understanding English but speaking it little, Pwerle is reluctant to talk about her work, even to relatives, other than to say that she “likes working on her own, painting”.

So what prompted her to start painting? “She said no-one had asked her before,” says Barbara Weir, herself a highly successful painter.

Many of Pwerle’s canvases are boldly gestural, sometimes raw in execution, at other times more restrained. Some are sure stripes of one or two colours representing women’s body paintings. More complex are the bush melon series in which lines, curves and circles weave in and out, around and on top of each other reflecting the complexity of the women’s dreaming stories of the once-abundant, now rare bush melon – its sweet flesh eaten fresh or dried on wooden skewers for later eating.

Melbourne’s Flinders Lane gallery director Sonia Heitlinger has been involved with artists from Utopia since the early 1990s. She gave Pwerle her first solo exhibition in 2000 and believes her to be amongst the finest of contemporary Australian artists.

“I have never ceased to be surprised by her inventiveness and the delight and pleasure that she finds in the act of painting,” says Heitlinger. “In a very short time her ability to delight her public and yet to invite the highest critical acclaim has been remarkable.”

Heitlinger believes it is Pwerle’s “freedom of expression, inventiveness and sometimes outrageous and courageous palette” that make her work unique.

Brisbane’s Fireworks Gallery director Michael Eather says there are some spooky similarities between Pwerle and Emily Kngwarreye. Like Kngwarreye, Pwerle had not moved far from her home area 250 kilometres north east of Alice Springs, until she started painting. Similarly Pwerle also started painting around 80 and like Kngwarreye started painting with vigour and stylistic freedom.

“Kngwarreye was the greatest as she broke all the rules, and opened up a whole different way for Aboriginal painting,” says Eather. In 2003 Eather’s Fire-Works Gallery placed the paintings of Kngwarreye, Pwerle and Sydney abstractionist Tony Tuckson together. Although separated by generational and cultural differences Eather believes that the three share certain similar qualities of “reverence, abandon, reliance on gesture, raw expression and intuition”.

Currently Emily Kngwarreye ranks as Australia’s top selling indigenous artist on the secondary market. The Australian Art Sales Digest lists 59 works by Kngwarreye selling for just over $2 million in 2004.

Pwerle’s works are only just starting to sell on the secondary market with the top sale to date $43,000. But the primary market can’t get enough of her vibrant canvases. Galleries throughout Australia and internationally clamour for her work and the 86 year old is a prodigious painter.

Success however brings complexities. A phone conversation with Weir while Pwerle is staying with her in Alice Springs is interrupted by the sound of a car door slamming and shouting. “Hold on a minute,” says Weir dropping the phone. “It was someone wanting to take mum off in a van,” she says on her return. Such occurrences sound bizarre in a Western context but are not unusual for some popular senior Aboriginal artists.

But despite her apparent frailty Pwerle remains formidably fit, agile and determined. She outruns women years younger on the regular hunts for food in the bush and on a visit to the lunch truck at her home one day Pwerle returns not with lunch, but with an axe. “I have to cut that one down,” she says gesturing with her head to a large tree which she has promised one of her sisters she will remove.

Pwerle most likes painting on her verandah at home. Nearby is an important women’s site along the banks of a wide, usually dry, creek bed. Eucalypts border its edges and flat rocky outcrops lead from its sandy reaches into terrain which despite its apparent aridity supports much wildlife to hunt, grass seeds and other bush foods and sources of underground clear water.

On a fine winter’s day it is peaceful and silent. Summer – with its hot winds and over 40 degree heat is very different – especially before painting offered an alternative lifestyle.

“I’d see Minnie, like most people sitting under mulga trees in the heat sometimes with strong hot winds carrying the stinging red centre sands, no running water, hundreds of flies and lots of dogs all fighting for a morsel to eat or living in a humpy made of scrap roofing iron, branches and leaves,” says Alice Springs’ Mbantua Gallery director Tim Jennings. “This can seem like a hugely uncomfortable and difficult life. But Aboriginal people often choose to live this way as breezes can cool, the stars can be seen and people can sit around a fire telling and re-telling stories.”

As a police officer visiting the area, Jennings knew Pwerle for 18 years before she started painting. Now a leading gallery director specialising in artists of Utopia, Jennings is one of Pwerle’s and Weir’s main dealers.

To Tim Jennings Pwerle’s painting career has given this shy, self-contained woman a new dimension late in her life. “She understands about mythology and about every insect, animal and plant, has participated in hundreds of ceremonies, and spent thousands of evenings watching the stars, crying over loss and laughing about the tiniest of things,” he says. “This is reflected in her paintings which express an energy, and a perhaps hidden personality. There’s a richness without inhibition – clean and vivid, a briskness about life, a beautiful innocence which, in the twilight years of her life, is being expressed in colourful and free flowing brushwork. To me it indicates that she is happy with her place in this world.”

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