Barabara Weir, who was originally named Florie, was born of mixed parentage at Bundy River Station in the Eastern Desert in 1945. Her mother Minnie Pwerle was 18 years old at the time, and her father, Jack Weir, owned the large cattle station on which she lived. In accordance with the prevailing law of the time, Florie’s birth resulted in her father’s imprisonment, and the ever-present likelihood that she would be taken away from her mother by the native welfare department. At around nine years of age, just as Minnie feared, Barbara was forced to exchange her carefree bush existence for life with a variety of foster families first in Alice Springs, and then over the following years in Victoria, and Darwin. By the age of 28 Barbara had given birth to five children of her own and was living in Darwin. As luck would have it, her husband met Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri in an Alice Springs hotel and over a drink Tjapaltjarri recalled ‘Weir… yes I remember that one, she was taken away from her family out at Utopia‘ (cited in McCulloch 2003). This chance conversation sparked a visit to Utopia in 1968. However reconnecting to her country was not as idyllic as the notion might suggest. Minnie had re-married, and having been unable to resolve the pain of her daughter’s removal, had not spoken of it to Barbara’s half siblings who were unaware of her existence. To further complicate matters Barbara could not communicate in Anamtjerre/Alyawarre.
It was through her relationship with her auntie, Emily Kngwarreye who had helped to look after her as a small child, that she found the acceptance that encouraged her to return to live in Utopia. According to Weir 'it was lucky Auntie Emily was still around because I wouldn’t have stayed otherwise‘ (cited in Geissler 2006: 38). She moved to Utopia permanently a decade later in 1977 and, with the breakdown of her marriage, went on to master both of her people’s languages and build a loving relationship with her mother. In the process of doing so, Barbara inherited Minnie’s Dreamings and was taught the associations between the land of her personal Dreamings, and women’s ceremonies and body decoration. She discovered her own affinity with the bush berries, grass seeds, wild flowers and the desert country of her birth that was to become the wellspring of her art.
Barbara Weir began working in Batik in the late 1980's, and traveled to Indonesia in 1994 with a group of artists to further their skills in this medium. She returned with renewed enthusiasm to forge her own artistic style. This experience, coupled with a workshop in Switzerland during 1996 proved to be the turning point in her career. Although she began painting grass seed images around this time, these were markedly different from her later works in this series. Simultaneously, no doubt influenced by the effects she was able to achieve with the tjanting in her batik works on silk, she began developing a painting style in which she intimately rendered images of her mother’s country. The structure and composition of these early paintings were founded on conventional traditional motifs as seen in works like My Mother’s Country 1997 in which extremely subtle tonal shifts and overlays, less inclined towards abstraction than those that have followed, displayed magnificent technical detail. At their peak these works conveyed a divine sensibility, which she has occasionally expanded upon in rare, labour intensive periods since that time. This stream of intimate detailed paintings developed later in to the most complex of her painting styles in which depictions of her ‘mother’s country’ are composed from blankets of finely arranged dots, beneath which lie submerged symbols relating to specific sites and sacred ‘women’s law’.
The foundation of her second, and most popular motif and style, her Grass Seed Dreamings, lies in her fine linear technique in which she overlaps thick, vigorously applied brilliantly coloured brushstrokes in works that superbly evoke the movement of native grass. What began as far more conventional, less highly charged works in the late 1990’s displayed a transformation around the turn of the millennium, coinciding with her first solo exhibition Dream Works, a sell out success at both Flinders Lane Gallery in Melbourne and Gallery Savah in Sydney. These exhibitions forecast her use of bright colour applied with a freedom of expression reminiscent of Emily Kngwarreye’s daring unselfconscious works a decade earlier. Since this time Barbara Weir’s paintings have been included in exhibitions in every capital city in Australia as well as important shows in Singapore, Chicago, Santa Fe, Paris, Copenhagen and Auckland as she has built a career that continues to blossom and develop both technically and artistically.
Barbara Weir now divides her time between her home in Adelaide, a studio residence in Alice Springs, and regular visits to Utopia for painting workshops with her family. The workshops are run by her son, Fred Torres, the Director of DACOU Aboriginal art gallery in Adelaide. Although informal, they provide a medium through which materials are distributed to a number of Utopia artists in the absence of an arts centre in the community. While Torres also acts as Weir’s manager she paints for several other dealers, most importantly Tim Jennings and his Mbantua Art Gallery in Alice Springs, which has enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with the artist.
Barbara Weir is both artistically gifted and politically aware. She played an instrumental role in Utopia’s successful land rights claim during the 1970's, and was the first women president of the Urapuntja Council in 1985. She is a prolific and highly gifted painter whose work operates within the tradition passed on to her by her family while continually extending its artistic possibilities. Her work straddles the two major identifiable Eastern Desert painting styles; that of the gestural painters exemplified by her auntie Emily and her mother Minnie, and that of the highly intimate and painstaking imagery created by Kathleen Petyarre and Angelina Ngal. She is an artist for all seasons and one definitely worth following as her career develops over the next decade.