Born: c.1910/1920 – (Died 2006)
Skin Name: Pwerle (Purla)
Minnie Pwerle 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.
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.
Minnie’s painting career began in Adelaide in September 1999. At that time she was about 88 years old. With her was Barbara Weir her daughter, who was, by then, a highly accomplished painter. Encouraged by Barbara, Minnie made a series of linear works and from the very beginning showed that she had great graphic and colour qualities in her work with a medium which was new to her. It must be remembered that for all of her adult life Minnie had participated in ceremonies which involved the painting of the upper bodies of her female clan members. Later in life, as a tribal elder, this deep knowledge of ceremony and its performance and preparation meant that her place as a traditional painter was respected by the younger generations, some of whom continued to follow the old ways.
Paintings by Minnie Pwerle: