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Minnie Pwerle (pronounced Purla) (c. 1910 – 18 March 2006) was an Australian Aboriginal artist. Her country was Atnwengerrp, and her languages were Anmatyerre and Alyawarr. She came from Utopia, an area of Central Australia 250 km northeast of Alice Springsmarker.

Pwerle is often compared with Emily Kame Kngwarreye. They both became prolific and highly praised artists who came to Western-style art late in life.

Personal life

Minnie was born in the early twentieth century near Utopia, Northern Territory, 300 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs, Northern Territorymarker. Utopia was a cattle station that was transferred to Indigenous ownership in the late 1970s.

Birnberg's biographical survey of Indigenous artists from central Australia gives a birth date of around 1920; McCulloch's Encyclopedia suggests around 1922; Elizabeth Fortescue's biographical essay in Art of Utopia suggests some time between 1910 and 1920. The uncertainty around Minnie's date and place of birth arises from the fact that Indigenous Australians often estimate dates of birth by comparison with other events, especially for people born before contact with European Australians.

When still a teenager, Minnie had a daughter with pastoral station owner Jack Weir. The child went on to become prominent Indigenous artist Barbara Weir. Minnie went on to have six further children with her husband 'Motorcar' Jim Ngala. Minnie had three sisters, Molly, born around 1920, Galya, born in the 1930s and Emily, born around 1922. All outlived Minnie.

Pwerle began painting in late 1999 or 2000 when she was nearly eighty and continued to paint up until two days before her death on 18 March 2006.

Artistic career

In the 1970s and 1980s Utopia became well known for the design and production of batiks. By 1981 there were 50 artists at the Utopia community creating batik works. A major batik design project supported by the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association resulted in works by 88 artists. While several sources comment that artistic activity at Utopia began with batik and only later moved to painting, they do not state whether Minnie was a batik artist before she took up the brush.

One of Minnie's pieces was entered into the 18th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award in 2001.

Minnie was one of the Utopia artists whose style was "radically different from all the other painting communities in the Western Desert—and stunningly successful in the market place". Her most famous fellow artist (and friend) was Emily Kngwarreye, whose painting Earth's Creation in 2007 sold for over AUS$1 million, setting a record for the price paid for a painting by an Indigenous Australian artist.

Regarded as one of the leading contemporary women artists, Minnie ranks alongside other notable Indigenous women painters such as Dorothy Napangardi, Gloria Petyarre and Kathleen Petyarre.

Pwerle (like Emily Kngwarreye) experienced considerable pressure to produce works, mentioned in McCulloch's fourth edition of the Encyclopedia of Australian Art. Her work was also mentioned in the context of the Australian Senate inquiry into Indigenous Australian art as being possibly the target of unethical business practices. This reflected broader issues in the industry surrounding artists like Pwerle, who were often older, had limited education or English language ability, and faced serious poverty both themselves and amongst their broader family. Questions were periodically raised about whether she was pressured to paint by others, whether she was paid fairly for her work, and whether some of the vast number of paintings traded under her name were created by her at all. The number of retail and Ebay outlets still selling Pwerle's later (2003 onwards) works in large quantities, after her short career late in life, continues to raise questions about ethics and practices in the sector.

Style of painting

Minnie painted the Awelye Atnwengerrp dreaming (or Women's Dreaming}. Her distinctive style used linear brush-work based on the body painting used for important women’s ceremonies in her native country of Atnwengerrp. She painted with a rich array of colours and her work contained a compelling visual and spiritual power.

All the stories she painted conveyed her deep connection with the land, and knowledge of the foods that it provides. Besides Women's Dreaming, Pwerle painted other Dreamings involving the bush melon, and bush melon seed, types of bush tucker traditionally used by her people, once very common, and becoming increasingly rarer.

Pwerle and the other women used to collect this fruit (that was green in colour and then ripened to a brown colour) and scrape out the small black seeds. They would then eat the fruit straight away or cut it into pieces and skewer them onto a piece of wood and dry them to be eaten in the coming months when bush tucker was scarce.

Pwerle's work shared many features with that of other contemporary artists of the central and western deserts: the portrayal of stories or features for which she had responsibility within her family or clan; the strong influence of traditional designs in the art; vigorous use of colour; and the enthusiastic embrace of new techniques, such as acrylic paint on canvas.

Major collections



Solo exhibitions and awards

2000 Minnie exhibited her paintings at various galleries throughout Australia including, Gallery Savah- Sydney, Flinders Lane Gallery- Melbourne and Mbantua Gallery, Alice Springs.

2000 “Mother and Daughter", Mbantua Gallery, Alice Springs, NT.

2001 “Out of Utopia: – Chapman Gallery- Canberra. Exhibited with Barbara Weir.

2001 Combined exhibition in San Anselmo, Marin County, California USA

2001 ‘Minnie Pwerle”,”Mary Pantjiti McLean- ‘Tumaru Purlykumunu- small stories”- Japingka Gallery- Perth- Western Australia.

2002 "United – Mother and Daughter"- exhibited with Barbara Weir at Alison Kelly Gallery, Armadale, Victoria.

2002 Solo exhibition, “ Recent Paintings”, Gallery Savah, Sydney, NSW.

2002 ‘Minnie’s Country’ Dacou Gallery, Adelaide, SA.

2002 Selected entrant in the 2002, 19th Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award.

2002 ‘BIG COUNTRY small worlds’- solo exhibition at Fire-works Gallery Qld

2002 ‘Awelye Atnwengerrp’ Solo Exhibition at Dacou Gallery, Adelaide, SA.

2002 Heart and Soul Gallery in conjunction with Mbantua Gallery, Nashville, TN, USA.

2002 Urban Wineworks with Mbantua Gallery, Portland, Oregon, USA.

2002 Mbantua Gallery – ‘In the Cove’, Portland, Oregon, USA.

2003 ‘My Grandmother and Me’, World Vision, Walkabout Gallery, Sydney, NSW.

2003 ‘Minnie Pwerle & Mitjili Napurrula', Japingka Gallery, Fremantle. WA.

2003 Solo Exhibition, “Sydney Art Fair”, Gallery Savah, Sydney, NSW.

2003 ‘Art from the Dreamtime”, Portland Art Museum in conjunction with Mbantua Gallery. Oregon, USA.

2004 ‘Diva’s of the Desert', Gallery Gonwana, Alice Springs, NT.

2005 “Utopia Revealed’, Japingka Gallery, Fremantle, WA.

2005 'Small Wonders', Mbantua Gallery, Alice Springs, NT.

2006 Solo Exhibition, “Memorial Exhibition”, Gallery Savah, Sydney. NSW.

2006 ‘The Pwerle Sisters,’ Group Exhibition, Flinders Lane Gallery, Melbourne, VIC.

2007 ‘Standing on Ceremony’, Tandanya Cultural Institute, Adelaide, SA.

2007 ‘Utopia in New York’ Robert Steele Gallery, New York. USA.

2007 ‘Treasures of the Spirit’, Tandanya Cultural Institute, Adelaide, SA.

2008 “Atnwengerrp: Land of Dreaming”, Minnie Pwerle carpet launch, Designer Rugs Showroom, Edgecliffe, NSW.

2008 'Emily and Her Legacy', Hillside Gallery in Tokyo, with Coo-ee Art Sydney in conjunction with the landmark retrospective exhibition 'Utopia – the Genius of Emily Kngwarreye' at the National Art Centre, Tokyo Japan.

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