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Minnie PWERLE (b.1922; d.2006)

Minnie Pwerle (also known as Minnie Purla or Minnie Motorcar Apwerl) was born sometime between 1910 and 1922. Being an Aboriginal tribal woman from the Central desert, birth dates were often estimates by comparison with other events, especially for those born before contact with European Australians.  She was of the Anmatyerre and Alyawarre Aboriginal language groups. Minnie was born near Utopia cattle station about three-hundred kilometres north-east of Alice Springs. Utopia was returned to Indigenous ownership in the late seventies; Minnie was one of the traditional owners of Utopia station recognised in the 1980 indigenous land claim made over the property.

Utopia was famous for its Batiks produced in the seventies and eighties. By 1981 there were over fifty artists at Utopia creating batik works which were being disseminated into the Western commercial arts world. The activity of painting onto canvas - to also satisfy the Western consumer - was taken up later in the 80's. Minnie did not take up painting on canvas until late in the year 1999. Although she had a lifetime of experience in body painting it is uncertain whether she had ever been a participant in the batik production of the previous decades.

Minnie had had an eventful life by the time she came to the attention of the Western art world. In 1945 she had an affair with a married station owner Jack Weir. These types of relationships were illegal in those days and both she and Jack were jailed. Jack Weir died shortly after his release from prison whilst Minnie was left with a baby girl from the liaison. The child was partly raised by Minnie's sister in law, Emily Kame Kngwarreye (1910-1996) who was to become one of Australia's most famous Aboriginal artists. At about the age of nine, the child, Barbara Weir, was forcibly removed from her family and taken into Western custody. Her family were terrified and devastated as they thought she had been killed. It wasn't until the late 60's that the family was reunited - Barbara Weir (one of the Stolen Generation) was to become a prominent Indigenous artist and politician. She had been painting for over ten years by the time her mother was to take up the brush.

Barbara's son Fred Torres opened a commercial gallery, DACOU, in 1993. DACOU is the acronym for Dreaming Arts Centre of Utopia. It was in late 1999, whilst visiting Barbara in Adelaide at Fred Torres' DACOU gallery that Minnie expressed a desire to paint. She was given some canvases and proceeded to paint a series of linear works - much in the mould of her late sister in law, Emily Kngwarreye. These were an immediate hit and were snapped up by other gallery owners - all were sold in a short period of time - and more and more were wanted.

Minnie was given her first solo exhibition at Flinders Lane Gallery in 2000, she was to have other solo shows at Gallery Savah, Sydney; Mbantua Gallery, Alice Springs, and DACOU gallery. In the six year period that she was painting she was included in nearly fifty group exhibitions. As noted by Professor Vivienne Johnson Minnie was a Utopia artist whose style was..."radically different from all the other painting communities in the Western Desert - and stunningly successful in the marketplace.*

As to her style: it has been described as bold, vibrant and expressive - combining two main design themes for the depiction of stories or features for which she had responsibility within her family or clan. The first of these is that of free flowing parallel lines in a pendulous outline, depicting the body painting designs used in women's ceremonies or Awelye. The second is that of circular shapes symbolising such objects as the bush tomato, bush melon, Northern wild orange and other bush foods depicted in her paintings. The end result has been described as "broad, luminescent flowing lines and circles".** Michael Eather compares her work, not only to Emily Kngwarreye, but also to Tony Tuckson (one of Australia's abstract, gestural, expressive painting luminaries from the sixties and seventies).***

As had happened to Emily Kngwarreye, Minnie found that popular success within the Indigenous art industry came at a price. She was constantly hounded by ‘wannabe dealers’ (Emily's words), opportunists, and even her own community to produce more and more works - much of which were to fuel a secondary market. There was even talk that Minnie had been the victim of kidnappers taking her away against her will so as to enforce the production of paintings.

Minnie Pwerle was a shining light - she rekindled the ashes of the great Emily Kngwarreye, and provided to the Australian art world six years of unbridled, joyous paintings. 

*  Minnie Pwerle - Wikipedia

**  Ibid

***  Ibid

****  Ibid


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