Minnie Pwerle (Born: c.1910/1920 – Died 2006) commenced painting in her late eighties and almost instantly drew the attention of gallery owners around the country. Just five years into her career as an Aboriginal artist she was listed as one of Australia’s Top 50 “Most Collectable Artists” in the Australian Art Collector. During her brief career her paintings were steadily growing in popularity unmatched by any other Utopia Indigenous artist.
First I met Minnie in 1999 when she did her first paintings in her grandson’s workshop in Adelaide. I watched her for some time and her relatives, including her daughter Barbara Weir encouraged her to continue painting. Very quickly this unique older lady became famous and one could see her paintings hanging in almost every gallery in Australia snapped up in a matter of days by keen collectors. I stayed away from this race till the middle of 2005 when I made an offer to Barbara her daughter to purchase her mothers paintings. I didn’t want to take part in the race for Minnie’s paintings but eventually the love for her art convinced me to give it a go and to make an offer. Most of the paintings I bought while Minnie was still alive and the ones I bought from her daughter and grandchildren after Minnie passed away have been kept in my collection till now and will be displayed for the first time on my new website and some in my Gold Coast Gallery.
When Emily Kame Kngwarreye passed away in early September 1996, the world lost one of its outstanding painters. A subsequent exhibition in Tokyo in mid-2008 established that there was international recognition of her genius.
Quite apart from her cultural significance Emily was a market leader with her paintings growing steadily in popularity from 1989 onwards. During her brief painting career she rocketed to the top of Australian auction markets and in 2007, eleven years after her death, her 1995 painting Earth’s Creation set a record for an Aboriginal work at $1,056,000 Australian dollars.
Her departure left an obvious gap in the upper echelons of Australian indigenous painting. There was nobody, it seemed, who would step up to the illustrious heights reached by Emily. There was nobody, it seemed, who could capture the imagination of the art world and take Emily’s place. There was a vacancy at the top.
It is not my claim that Minnie Pwerle entirely filled that gap, and I do not compare her with Emily. They were after all, two very different individuals who shared a remarkably coincidental set of circumstances. But it was Minnie who became the next ‘big name’ female painter to emerge.
Both were from Utopia, both were elderly when they began to paint with non-traditional materials and both commanded a great deal of respect from everybody with whom they came in contact. Both received the highest accolades from their peers and from Australia’s art public. Both worked through very short careers as painters on canvas producing works for the white market. Both emerged through the decades which saw indigenous art in this country reach dizzy heights.
Stylistically also there were similarities. Minnie, like Emily, had a wonderful and, at times, wild sense of colour. Their brush marks were free and sometimes dry as the acrylic paint was dragged with undiminished energy across the canvas. They parted company, however, when it came to subject matter. They were, after all, from different areas and, as was always the case, their respective paintings reflected their personal and clan connections with country. Minnie’s work centred on Aweyle-Atnwengerrp, that is, women’s ceremonial concerns from her home country.
Other dreaming’s Minnie painted included the bush tomato and the wild desert orange. The fruits of both plants are represented in Minnie’s canvasses by a circular shape.
Also common in her work is a pendulous shape painted with parallel lines. This shape represents the breast of a women which has been painted for the performance of women’s business. In her life as a tribal elder, Minnie had been appointed a ceremonial body painter. Minnie sought to preserve aspects of this important role when she came to do paintings on canvas.
Minnie was one of six children, and had seven of her own. Until several years before her death, she had visited Alice Springs only once. In the final years, however, Minnie travelled widely within Australia. She never went overseas.
Her first exhibition was in 2000 at Flinders Lane Gallery in Melbourne and many others followed and her works can be found in numerous collections in Australia and overseas.