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Minnie Pwerle, Women's Ceremonies

Minnie Pwerle, Awelye

The Artist (from the Central Art Aboriginal Art Store)

Minnie was born in the early 20th Century near Utopia, north-east of Alice Springs in the Sandover region in Central Australia. Minnie's particular country was 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 the 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.

Estimates of Minnie's birth date vary widely depending on which biographical source viewed and covers dates from 1910 to 1922.  The uncertainty arises because Indigenous Australians often estimate dates of birth by comparison with other events, especially for those born before contact with European Australians. Minnie was one of six children, and had three sisters: Molly, born around 1920, Emily, born around 1922 and Galya, born in the 1930s. She was of the Anmatyerre and Alyawarre Aboriginal language groups.

In about 1945, Minnie had an affair with a married man, Jack Weir, described by one source as a pastoral station owner, by a second as "an Irish Australian man who owned  a cattle run called Bundy River Station'. The relationship at the time was considered illegal and the pair were jailed. Shortly after his release, Jack Weir died leaving Minnie with a child which was partly raised by Minnie's sister in law, artist Emily Kngwarreye (Barbara Weir, who was one of the Stolen Generation). At the age of nine, Barbara was forcibly taken from her family who believed she had been killed. The family were reunited in the late 1960s  but Barbara did not form a close bond with Minnie.

Minnie went onto have six further children with her husband 'Motorcar' Jim Ngala, including Aileen, Betty, Raymond and Dora Mpetyane, and two others who by 2010 had died.   Her grandchildren include Fred Torres, who founded private art gallery DACOU in 1993 and artist Teresa Purla (or Pwerle).

Minnie began painting in late 1999 when she was almost 80. When asked why she had not begun earlier (painting and batik works had created at Utopia for over 20 years), her daughter Barbara Weir reported Minnie's answer as being  that 'no-one had asked her'. Byh 2000s, she was reported as living at Alparra, the largest of Utopia's communities, or at Urultja. Sprightly and outgoing, even in her eighties she could outrun younger women chasing goannas for bush food, and she conintued to create art until just before her death on 18 March 2006.

Awelye by Minnie Pwerle

The Work of Art

This colourful work of art is a blend of different ideas that include women's ceremonies, bush-tucker and bush melon dreaming. Pwerle's brushwork imitates the finger painting used to apply designs to dancers and singers. As with other contemporary artists of the central and western deserts, her paintings included depictions of stories of feature for which she had responsibility within her family or clan such as Awelye dreaming  (Women's dreaming). Indigenous art expert Jenny Green believes Minnie's work continues the tradition of 'gestural abstractionism' established by Emily Kngwarreye, which contrasted with the use of recognisable traditional motifs such as animal tracks in the works of Western Desert artists.

Other Works of Art

Although this is the only example of Minnie Pwerle's work within the UC Collection, the University has about fifty works of art by Indigenous artists including Emily Kngwarreye's Awelye.

Awelye by Emily Kame Kngwarreye


Central Art Aboriginal Art Store: