Molly Pwerle’s paintings are often characterized by long, straight lines which criss-cross the canvas. She paints these lines in one direction, and at times overlays a second set of lines running in the opposite direction. The result of her work is a pattern which resembles loosely woven cloth.
However, Molly Pwerle’s lines have nothing to do with weaving. Importantly for Molly Pwerle and for her expression of her heritage, these lines symbolise dance tracks. Dance tracks are the markings made in the sand by women of Molly Pwerle’s country when they gather to perform their ceremonial dance. The women stand shoulder to shoulder, each one’s feet slightly apart. While another group of women sits and sings, the barefoot dancers move forward in unison, their toes gripping the sand. Each dancer takes a series of small hops with both feet together, the soles of their feet barely leaving the ground. As the line of women moves forward, their feet leave dance tracks in the sand.
Every Aboriginal person owns a dance. Molly Pwerle paints the dance owned only by the women of the Pwerle and Kemarre skin groups. This dance tells the story of how the dreamtime women danced all day and night. It is a story which has been passed down to the Pwerle sisters by their ancestors. Interestingly, at a location in Utopia, dance tracks made in the dreamtime have hardened with the passage of time.
Molly, her sisters Minnie, Galya and Emily Pwerle painted in Boomerang Art’s studio as well as in their place in Utopia. Barbara Weir, Minnie Pwerle’s daughter, organised her relatives and supported us substantially by helping us to arrange for workshops with those unique elderly artists.
The story of Molly is best told together with the one of her three other sisters – Minnie, Emily and Galya.
When the career of those artists are considered together with that of Minnie they form a modern day phenomenon in the Aboriginal art world. Here is a group (in Western art terminology we would call them a ‘school’) with a unique basis. Four sisters, one of whom is already an established star, all originating from a remote desert area of central Australia, all painters of traditional ‘dreamings’ that connect them irrevocably to their country, all of considerable age and experience and all living through an era of ‘first contact’ with European graziers invading their traditional lands and existence. There has been no equivalent in the Aboriginal art world.
During 2004 the sisters were encouraged to take up painting with non-traditional materials. They had, of course, all been painters in the traditional sense: body painters with ochre, clay and charcoal ash.
Barbara Weir, Minnie’s eldest daughter encouraged her aunties to paint and originated the first group workshop at Irrultja, a tiny outstation near Utopia. The sisters took to painting with the new materials in an instinctive way and found that they could easily and effectively express their ancient dreamings. They treated the workshops as opportunities for ‘performance’ and in some way emulated the dancing, singing and chanting of ceremonies they had practiced throughout their lives.
Barbara Weir recalled that the sisters always wanted to paint. She said, They (the sisters) used to say ‘one day you have got to come back here and bring that canvas. Bring it for us and we’ll paint.’ That was years ago. And that’s exactly what Barbara did. She went out there in about 2004 and gave canvas to the sisters. Barbara said, they simply painted. It was always in their brains. You didn’t have to teach them. It was there all the time. It’s been taught to them like telling stories in the olden times.
The history of those elderly ladies goes a long way back and it may well be that they are older than published. They remember well seeing their first white people. Accordingly they form a link with a tribal, nomadic and traditional way of life that is now rapidly fading. As the generation of Emily Kngwarreye, Minnie Pwerle and her sisters pass away so too will that traditional knowledge be diminished.
Molly’s paintings are characterised by a series of long horizontal or vertical lines that represent the markings painted on the upper part of the women’s bodies when they gather to perform their ceremonial dance. These lines represent dancing tracks in the sand made by the women.
Emily paints “Awelye Atnwengerrp (women’s ceremony), she employs a series of lines and symbols and often criss-crossed patterns. These are frequently laid one on top of another in colours that are expressive, colourful and dynamic. Her patterns originate in body design and were an integral part of ceremonies.
Galya paints grass that was plentiful in the Utopia area; Portulaca Oleracea, (referred to as, ‘munyeroo’) which had provided a vital food source for many generations. The grass produces a tiny black seed and Galya adopted its half-circle shape as the dominant motif of her painting.
Cattle grazing, over a fifty-year period, reduced the prolific nature of this grass. Consequently Galya is recalling, in her paintings, the time when its seeds were a significant part of the diet of her clan. As such, important dreaming stories developed around this grass and its seed. The seed may seem insignificant to western notions but for the women of Utopia it holds a place of importance.
In her more recent paintings she has developed a way of working which sees her lay down a basis of traditional Awelye, women’s body painting, which is then covered, and partly obscured by expressive, coloured dotting. This creates a ‘look through’ effect that is enigmatic but redolent of country and desert colour.