Barbara Weir is one of my favorite painters. As an aboriginal artist, she approaches her work with a different set of expectations and intentions than is typical in the Western artistic canon. Like other women from her community (including now-deceased Minnie Pwerle, Barbara’s mother, and international art star Emily Kame Kngwarreye), her work is closely tied to nature, ritual and the metaphysics of the aboriginal belief system.
Her story is compelling. From Barbara’s website, Elizabeth Fortescue details a bit of her genealogy:
In the Northern Territory of Australia, there is a former cattle station called Utopia, also known as Urapuntja, which lies 300 km northeast of Alice Springs. The land at Utopia, totalling 1800 square kilometres, was handed back to indigenous people in the late 1970s and is home to about 900 people who live in a series of small outstations.
In the years between about 1910 and 1920, when the country at Utopia was first being opened up for cattle grazing, a baby was born there to a woman from the Anmatjerre language group and a man from the Alyawarr language group. Their shared country was Atnwengerrp. The parents named their baby daughter Minnie Pwerle and, like so many Aboriginal people of Minnie’s generation, the story of her life would be one of struggle and endurance. But Minnie would also become a respected elder of her community and, late in life, one of Australia’s most acclaimed indigenous artists. Minnie was destined never to leave Australian shores; not so her daughter Barbara Weir, whose own paintings attracted international recognition and opened up many opportunities for her to travel overseas. Three of Minnie’s sisters, and Barbara’s daughter Teresa, would also begin to paint, adding their names to the roll call of indigenous painters who live and work in the remote communities of Utopia.
The modern history of art from the Utopia region began in 1977 when the art of batik was introduced there through workshops that were offered to the women. Painting in acrylic on canvas followed in the late 1980s, and Barbara Weir began painting in 1989.
Then, in late 1999, Minnie also began to paint. Her first solo exhibition was in Melbourne in 2000, after which her work was much sought-after. Minnie died in March 2006. Towards the end of her life, she had been living at Alparra, the largest community in Utopia. She remained a prodigious long-distance walker and never lost her bush ways. One Sydney curator tells the story that when Minnie came to cosmopolitan, inner-city Marrickville and surveyed the local gum trees – which were obviously not a supply of good bush tucker — she remarked dismissively that there wasn’t much to eat in the city. She stayed at Bondi where she was fascinated by the sea and walked up and down the beach all hours of the day and night.
In speaking of her work, Fortescue puts her work in its context of nature and songlining:
Long, tapering lines which elegantly overlap one another in many of Barbara Weir’s paintings represent the grass which was found abundantly at Utopia until the introduction of cattle grazing in the early decades of the 20th Century. The botanical name for this grass is Portulaca oleracea.
The grass has been important to the Aboriginal people for thousands of years because it bears small, black seeds which are ground up to make flour. Barbara Weir does not paint these seeds, but she paints the grass itself. The colours she uses reflect the state of the grass in nature. When she paints it green, the grass is young and growing. When she paints it yellow, red and black, the grass is being burned in a bushfire. When she paints it white and grey, it’s the aftermath of a bushfire. Sometimes she includes some red in an otherwise white or off-white grass painting, which indicates there is still some fire burning.
Many of Barbara’s paintings are titled My Mother’s Country. In these works, she pays homage to her maternal ancestors, their lands, their dreamings and their way of life.
I see grass seed dreaming everywhere. While there is no “California beach ice plant” songline in the aboriginal taxonomy, the visual relationship is ongoing.
Note: The text by Fortescue is from a book on Weir published by Boomerang Arts.