One of my favourite personalities in Aboriginal art, the Utopia artist, Barbara Weir, died on 3rd January. She was probably over 80, though three different galleries give her birth dates varying from 27 September 1940, via circa 1942 to 1945. As the latter came from the family’s Pwerle Gallery, it’s either the most accurate or the most flattering!
A key quote from Weir in my 1990s film, Art from the Heart? was, “We’re getting ripped off. But we Aboriginal people have to do something about it”. Significantly, her son Fred Torres set up his DACOU Gallery network at that time in Adelaide, giving his mother her first group show. She would later spend time and effort mentoring and supporting fellow family members as they developed their art careers, and she would play an important part in the evolution and promotion of the industry’s national body, the Aboriginal Art Association of Australia (AAAA). In 2019, Barbara was honoured by being appointed the inaugural Patron of the AAAA.
Barbara Weir was born at what was known as Bundy River Station in the Utopia region. She was the daughter of the future star artist Minnie Pwerle and Irish stockman Jack Weir who owned the station at the time. Her country was Atnwengerrp and her languages Anmatyerre and Alyawarr.
Given Barbara’s mixed heritage, under the Aborigines Protection Amending Act of 1915 her parents’ relationship was illegal and both were jailed for a period of time. Jack Weir passed away shortly after his release.
So, as a young child Barbara was raised in the Utopia region with her aunt, Emily Kame Kngwarreye playing a major role. She was often hidden from government and welfare officials. It was their role to locate and take into custody any child of mixed heritage who could then be assimilated into “white” society. However at the age of nine, Barbara was found and removed from her family. She was placed in care in Alice Springs, but because she continued to use her birth languages, she was moved away to Darwin. During this period, Barbara was told her mother and family were dead, and her family also believed that after her removal she was killed.
Barbara married Mervyn Torres and in 1969 they moved to the remote community of Papunya where Mervyn was a field officer. Little did they know that they were about to witness the birth of the Aboriginal Art movement; when the Papunya men began painting their stories for a non-Indigenous art market. It was during this time that Barbara redicovered her family.
The reunion was highly emotional, but brought significant challenges as Barbara no longer spoke her languages. This didn’t discourage her, and, over the following two decades, she mastered both Anmatyerre and Alyawarre. She also reconnected with her aunt Emily and re-established their bond. Living on Utopia, Barbara became active in the local land rights movement and was elected the first woman president of the Indigenous Urapunta Council in 1985.
Barbara was caught up in the whole art explosion on Utopia, encouraged by the maverick Rodney Gooch, based at the CAAMA radio station. She began to explore the artistic traditions of her region and in 1994, she was part of a group of 10 women who travelled to Indonesia to study Batik. When Emily Kngwarreye died in 1996, Barbara began to attract attention from collectors around Australia and overseas. Her now famed Grass Seeds artworks were considered contemporary and unique – though it was a motif she shared with good friend Gloria Petyarre.
In fact, Barbara used two distinctive stylistic conventions, one linear the other an all over dotting technique. For her Grass Seed Dreamings, she combined both aerial and side view linearly to describe dense fields of swaying grass in close focus. They seem at once to be both appearing and disappearing, setting up pulsating rhythms which are accentuated by soft plays of flowing colour over the canvas surface.
For My Mother’s Country Dreamings, Barbara created a cosmic feel with finely executed dots in which float various amorphic shapes. These shapes are where she over-painted to conceal symbols of sacred story that are not meant to be seen. Such areas refer to abandoned campsites, women’s coolamons used to collect fruit and berries, and the shapes of women’s bodies that are painted up for ceremony, known as Awelye.
The breakthrough in Barbara’s career came during a visit to Switzerland in 1996, where at the request of a European collector she was asked to run some workshops. Her canvases created during then were popular with local collectors and sold immediately. With confidence riding high, she was offered successful exhibitions in Australia, across Europe and further afield in Japan, the US, Mexico and Fiji.
In Australia, Barbara’s solo show ‘Dreamworks’ in 1999 was a sellout success, receiving press notice including a full page article in The Australian newspaper.
Not only did Barbara establish herself as a top Aboriginal Artist, but in 2000 she also invented and managed her now elderly mother Minnie Pwerle’s stellar career.
Barbara Weir left us in Adelaide on January 3rd
Artist: Minnie Pwerle, Barabara Weir, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Gloria Petyarre,
Tags: Art from the Heart? , barbara weir , emily kame kngwarreye , Fred Torres , gloria petyarre , Grass Seed Dreamings , Jeremy Eccles , minnie pwerle , My Mother’s Country Dreamings , Rodney Gooch ,