Awelye Atnwengerrpby Minnie Pwerle
This artwork depicts Awelye body paint design.
The artists depiction refers to women's ceremonies performed at Atnwengerrp. Aboriginal women anoint their upper body with oil before applying body paint designs in preparation for their ceremonies. The women sing during this application process.
Women's ceremonies are very important; through body paint, song lines and dance cycles, they pay homage to the country they are attached too.
Minnie was born in the early 20th century near Utopia, north-east of Alice Springs in central Australia. Utopia was a cattle station that was returned to Indigenous ownership in the late 1970s. It is part of a broader region known as the Sandover, containing about 20 Indigenous outstations and centred on the Sandover River. Minnie was one of the traditional owners of Utopia station recognised in the 1980 Indigenous land claim made over the property; her particular country was known as Atnwengerrp.
Pwerle (in the Anmatyerre language) or Apwerle (in Alyawarr) is a skin name, one of 16 used to denote the subsections or subgroups in the kinship system of central Australian Indigenous people. These names define kinship relationships that influence preferred marriage partners, and may be associated with particular totems. Although they may be used as terms of address, they are not surnames in the sense used by Europeans. Thus "Minnie" is the element of the artist's name that is specifically hers.
Estimates of Minnie's birth date vary widely. The National Gallery of Victoria estimates around 1915; Birnberg's biographical survey of Indigenous artists from central Australia gives a birth date of around 1920; The new McCulloch's Encyclopaedia of Australian Art suggests around 1922; Elizabeth Fortescue's biographical essay in Art of Utopia offers a range between 1910 and 1920.The uncertainty arises because Indigenous Australians often estimate dates of birth by comparison with other events, especially for those born before contact with European Australians. Minnie was one of six children, and had three sisters: Molly, born around 1920, Emily, born around 1922, and Galya, born in the 1930s. She was of the Anmatyerre and Alyawarre Aboriginal language groups.
In about 1945, Minnie had an affair with a married man, Jack Weir, described by one source as a pastoral station owner, by a second as "an Irish Australian man who owned a cattle run called Bundy River Station", and by another as an Irish "stock man" A relationship such as that between Minnie and Weir was illegal, and the pair were jailed; Weir died shortly after his release. Minnie had a child from their liaison, who was partly raised by Minnie's sister-in-law, artist Emily Kngwarreye, and became prominent Indigenous artist Barbara Weir. Barbara Weir was one of the Stolen Generations. At about the age of nine, she was forcibly taken from her family, who believed she had then been killed. The family were reunited in the late 1960s, but Barbara did not form a close bond with Minnie. Barbara married Mervyn Torres, and as of 2000 had six children and thirteen grandchildren.
Minnie went on to have six further children with her husband "Motorcar" Jim Ngala, including Aileen, Betty, Raymond and Dora Mpetyane, and two others who by 2010 had died. Her grandchildren include Fred Torres, who founded private art gallery DACOU in 1993, and artist Teresa Purla (or Pwerle).
Minnie began painting in late 1999 when she was almost 80. When asked why she had not begun earlier (painting and batik works had been created at Utopia for over 20 years), her daughter Barbara Weir reported Minnie's answer as being that "no-one had asked her". By the 2000s, she was reported as living at Alparra, the largest of Utopia's communities, or at Urultja (also Irrultja, again in the Sandover region). Sprightly and outgoing, even in her eighties she could outrun younger women chasing goanna's for bush food, and she continued to create art works until two days before her death on 18 March 2006. She was outlived by all her sisters except Maggie Pwerle, mother of artists Gloria and Kathleen Petyarre (or Pitjara).
Minnie's style was spontaneous, and typified by "bold" and "vibrant" colour executed with great freedom. As with other contemporary artists of the central and western deserts, her paintings included depictions of stories or features for which she had responsibility within her family or clan, such as the Awelye Atnwengerrp dreaming (or Women's Dreaming). Indigenous art expert Jenny Green believes Minnie's work continues the tradition of "gestural abstractionism" established by Emily Kngwarreye, which contrasted with the use of recognisable traditional motifs—such as animal tracks—in the works of Western Desert artists. Brisbane artist and gallerist Michael Esther has likened her work not only to that of Emily, but also to Australian abstract impressionist artist Tony Tuckson.
Minnie's paintings include two main design themes. The first is free-flowing and parallel lines in a pendulous outline, depicting the body painting designs used in women's ceremonies, or Awelye. The second theme involves circular shapes, used to symbolise bush tomato (Solanum chippendalei), bush melon, and northern wild orange (Capparis umbonata), among a number of forms of bush food represented in her works.Together, the designs were characterised by one reviewer as "broad, luminescent flowing lines and circles".
Minnie's art was quickly added to major public collections such as the Art Gallery of NSW, Art Gallery of South Australia, National Gallery of Victoria and Queensland Art Gallery. It was also included in a 2009 exhibition of Indigenous Australian painting at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her works later formed the basis of a series of designer rugs, and, together with paintings by her sisters, illustrated the cover of art critic Benjamin Genocchio's book, Dollar Dreaming. Described by art dealer Hank Ebes as the works of "a genius", Minnie's paintings were typically selling for $5,000 in 2005; the highest price fetched on the secondary market at that time was $43,000.
Regarded as one of Australia's leading contemporary women artists, Minnie ranks alongside other notable Indigenous female painters Dorothy Napangardi, Gloria Petyarre and Kathleen Petyarre.
One of a number of women such as Emily Kngwarreye who dominated central and western desert painting in the first decade of the 21st century,Minnie is considered to be one of Australia's best-known Indigenous artists, whose work "the market couldn't get enough .
(Please note in respect for the Pwerle family, Central Art has removed all portrait photographs of this artist. This is in recognition of Aboriginal custom and cultural practices.)
Artist has Passed Away
1910 - 2006
Out of respect for Aboriginal culture Central Art has removed the artist's photograph.
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The Copyright of all images and documentation remains with Sabine Haider. The Australian Copyright Act protects all artists from unauthorised copying by giving control over original works of art to the artist by law. However depending on the use proposed, Sabine Haider from Central Art – Aboriginal Art Store can facilitate reproduction of works with the permission of the artist as we have developed close relationships over the years with many individual painters and craftspeople.
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