Barbara Weir, a great ambassador for her people, was first recognised in the wider world with exhibitions in Paris and Switzerland in 1996. Her work was then shown in exhibitions in Japan, the USA, Mexico and Fiji. Her first Australian solo show, “Dreamworks”, was a sellout. Success at that level has continued with Barbara frequently visiting foreign countries to show and discuss her work. She has become perhaps the most widely travelled Aboriginal painter in the history of Australian Aboriginal art.
Barbara was born in 1945 at Bundy River Station in the Utopia area, North East of Alice Springs. Her father was the Irish station owner Jack Weir, and her mother was the Aboriginal painter Minnie Pwerle, after Emily Kame Kngwarreye the most famous of the Utopia Aboriginal artists.
The welfare officers that patrolled Utopia and other areas in the 1950s sought particularly to protect mixed heritage children and Barbara Weir was hidden from them from the age of two. She spent seven years with her aunty, the famous Emily Kame Kngwarreye and was, in indigenous terms, ‘grown up ‘by her.
Aged nine, however, she was taken away to Bungalow, now the ‘Telegraph Station’ at Alice Springs and later to other children’s homes around the country.
English became her main language during those years when she was away from ‘home’; a time when she reluctantly grew away from her mother and family at Utopia. Barbara had little control over her own destiny, but that changed towards the end of the 1960s. By that time, she had three children and had determined that she would return to Utopia and her family there.
Resuming her relationship with her Aunty Emily Barbara Weir became involved first with the batik movement at Utopia and later with the painting movement. In this way, the young Aboriginal artist became a contributor to the flourishing movement that is Utopia art.
It might be said that there are no art schools in the desert and, like Barbara Weir, Aboriginal painters learn their skills by watching those around them. In her case she could not have had a more outstanding mentor as the famous Emily Kame Kngwarreye.
Emily Kame’s influence may be seen in Barbara Weir’s free-flowing style and ‘loose ‘paint application. However, it must also be noted that Barbara Weir developed her own subjects and these, most notably her ’grass ‘paintings, have set her apart from her Aboriginal peers and contemporaries. In more recent times Barbara has experimented widely with different images and methods of paint application. In this sense, she is a highly original and inventive Aboriginal painter. Accordingly, she has made a strong contribution to the fact that Utopia is now the most highly regarded area of indigenous art production in the country.
As a painter Barbara Weir’s career really took full flight in 1994. She had visited Indonesia with other artists from Utopia. They went to learn about and explore the possibilities of batik. However, for Barbara, this journey inspired ideas about painting. After a period of figurative, traditional work her style became more symbolic and evolved towards abstraction. The dreaming’s she depicted included Bush Berry, My Mothers Country and Grass Seed. The latter has become, as is the case with Gloria Petyarre’s ‘Medicine Leaf Dreaming’, one of the most successful images ever in the history of Australian Aboriginal art. As is the case with most indigenous women’s painting, these dreaming’s are all associated with women’s body decoration for ceremony. Involved also is the notion of food gathering, including bush tucker such as seeds, berries, plums and yams. The latter, of course, was prolifically and famously painted by Emily Kame Kngwarreye.
Traditionally, food gathering dominated the lives of indigenous women. Barbara experienced this as a child and again on her return to her Aboriginal Homeland Utopia as an adult. For her, the grass seed, which was crushed into flour after collection and then used to make bread, was to become a dominant image. The grass, called Lyaw, Munyeroo or Pigsweed, and its seed had provided sustenance to her people for thousands of generations of Aboriginal people. Accordingly, she had an affection and understanding for it. Her paintings of this subject show it in various ways … sometimes on fire .. sometimes after fire, and sometimes in periods of lush growth. The swaying rhythms of the grass provide the foundations for original and seductive paintings. These, however, take on a great depth and appeal when the underlying story is revealed.
This last notion is particularly true of another remarkable image that Barbara Weir has developed. This is the enigmatic and moving “My Mother’s Country” which refers to the country on which Barbara Weir grew up. It is therefore larded with memories, some of them very poignant.
These shapes are the areas where she has over painted to conceal symbols of sacred stories that are painted beneath and not meant to be seen. Such areas refer to secret abandoned campsites that people made as they trekked across the country in search of food, women’s coolamons used to collect fruit and berries and/or forms of women’s body that are adorned with paint for ceremonies. Sometimes she incorporates the linear patterns to represent women’s body designs – stripes that are traditionally applied to breasts, arms and legs for ceremonies known as Awelye.
This work, often repeated as one of her major ‘dreaming’s’, takes on the abstract qualities upon which her later works are constructed. Indeed, since about 2004 Barbara Weir has developed as a ‘painter’s painter’. That is, she displays many qualities of brushwork, form and color which situate her in the mainstream of contemporary art worldwide. This is not to deny her Aboriginal heritage, but Barbara Weir has achieved recognition as a pure ‘painter’, something that has evaded other outstanding indigenous artists, many of whom simply want to be known as ‘painters ‘rather than ‘indigenous painters’.