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Minnie Pwerle

1910 - 2006 Utopia, Sandover, Australia

2 Works exhibited

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  • About the Artist
  • Curriculum Vitae

Minnie Pwerle (also Minnie Purla or Minnie Motorcar Apwerl) was an Australian Aboriginal artist. She came from Utopia, Northern Territory, a cattle station in the Sandover area of Central Australia 300 kilometres (190 mi) northeast of Alice Springs. Minnie was taught by her daughter Barbara Weir and began painting in 1999 at about the age of 80, and her works soon became highly popular and sought-after works of contemporary Indigenous Australian art.

In the years after she took up painting on canvas until she died in 2006, Minnie's works were exhibited around Australia and collected by major galleries both in Australia and Overseas. Minnie's work is often compared with that of her sister-in-law Emily Kame Kngwarreye, who also came from the Sandover and took up acrylic painting late in life. Minnie's daughter, Barbara Weir, is a highly respected artist in her own right. 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 country is 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. Minnie was one of six children, and had three sisters: Molly, born around 1920, Emily, born around 1922, and Galya, born in the 1930s. In about 1945, Minnie had an affair with a married man, Jack Weir, described by one source as a pastoral station owner. 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 she has since become the very 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 until the 80’s. Barbara married Mervyn Torres and has six children and thirteen grandchildren amongst them Jade and Mariah Torres. In 2015 Jade founded the Pwerle Gallery, with under their umbrella, a long list of highly celebrated family artists. Minnie went on to have six further children with her husband "Motorcar" Jim Ngala.

Minnie began painting in late 1999, when she was almost 80, after being taught by her daughter Barbara. 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 living at Alparra, the largest of Utopia's communities, or at Irrultja, again in the Sandover region. Sprightly and outgoing, even in her eighties she could outrun younger women chasing goannas for bushfood, 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).

When Minnie decided to take up painting in 2000 while she waited for her daughter Barbara to complete a canvas in an Adelaide workshop, the reception was immediately positive: she had her first solo exhibition that same year at Melbourne's Flinders Lane Gallery. She was first selected to exhibit in the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award in 2002. One of her pieces, Awelye Atnwengerrp, was exhibited in the 2003 Award, in which her name was given as Minnie Motorcar Apwerl (Pwerle). The artist's asking price for the picture, A$44,000, was the second- highest in the exhibition and the highest for an artist from the central and western deserts. Her painting Awelye Atnwengerrp 2 was exhibited in the 2005 competition. She was named by Australian Art Collector as one of Australia's 50 most collectible artists in 2004.

Desert art specialist Professor Vivien Johnson noted that Minnie was one of the Utopian artists whose style was "radically different from [that of] all the other painting communities in the Western Desert—and stunningly successful in the marketplace". Her most famous fellow artist was her sister in law, Emily Kngwarreye, whose painting Earth's Creation in 2017 sold for over $2 million, setting a record for the price paid for a painting by an Indigenous Australian artist.
Minnie's style was spontaneous and typified by "bold" and "vibrant" colour executed with great freedom. 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 bushfood represented in her works. Together, the designs were characterised by one reviewer as "broad, luminescent flowing lines and circles".

Legacy: 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. 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 her sister-in-law 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 of all time.

PUBLIC COLLECTIONS:

Art Gallery of NSW
Art Gallery of South Australia
Kelton Foundation USA Kreglinger Collection Antwerp Netherlands
National Gallery of Victoria,
Queensland Art Gallery Thomas Vroom Collection Holland
Hank Ebes Collection
AMP Collection

Works by Minnie Pwerle

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2003

91 x 120 cm

SOLD

2004

123 x 89 cm

SOLD

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