Born c.1922, in the Eastern Desert, Minnie Pwerle worked on the property and homestead of nearby pastoralists as a young girl and, and whilst still in her teens bore a daughter, Barbara (Florie), to Jack Weir, the owner of a neighbouring station. Jack was arrested and taken with Minnie and their child to Harts Range police station from which she walked the 600 kilometers back to her outstation with her baby in her arms. She spent the following years living in fear that her daughter would be taken away by ‘the native welfare’. Barbara was finally taken eight years later and did not return to Utopia until 1968, by which time Jack Weir had died, and Minnie had married Motorcar Jim, with whom she had six children.
Despite the batik workshops held in Utopia in the late 1970’s and the adoption of painting there by women as early as the late 1980’s, Minnie Pwerle is not believed to have picked up a brush until she had reached her late 70’s, in 1999. Minnie’s reason, given during an interview in 2004 was that ‘no one asked me to’. Such apparent shyness however is not at all evident in the canvasses she immediately began filling with gestural depictions of her country, Atnwengerrp, and its Dreamings. A collection of the first three hundered of these has been kept intact by Hank Ebes, the owner of Aboriginal Gallery of Dreamings, who helped to fund the earliest workshops at the time she began to paint. A chronological look through these early works demonstrates the surety and vigor of her stroke from the outset as she depicted the Women’s Ceremony, Awelye, and the once abundant Bush Melon and Bush Melon Seed in a way that reflects a strength of character built during a lifetime of dislocation and hardship.
Minnie’s career and that of the great Emily Kame Kngwarreye share many parallels. Both began painting in their late 70’s and both created work for a period of seven years. Despite a short early period during which Emily painted tightly controlled painstaking fields of tiny dots obscuring detailed iconography beneath, both painted the majority of their works equally gesturally and produced a prodigious output, generally thought to number in excess of 4000 individual works. Both artists painted works that were immediately popular, most especially amongst women, and were able to support a number of close relatives with the income they generated.
Indeed the comparison between the two women, who were sisters-in-law, extended to their fundamental feelings 'of reverence, abandon… intuition-minimal fuss,' as Sydney abstractionist Tony Tuckson phrased it (cited in McCulloch 2003). The manner in which they created their works appeared to be the result of an urgency to reconnect to the past and to keep the Dreaming a living reality. Just like Emily Kngwarreye before her, in painting after painting Minnie boldly and self-assuredly depicted the body designs painted on to women’s breasts and limbs for the regular ceremonial revivification of her country. While the rambling tuberous roots of the Yam or Bush Potato were Emily’s Dreamings and the subject of her art, Minnie’s primary focus was the Bush Melon and its seeds. Her Awelye-Antnwengerrp paintings drew directly from these ceremonial practices, depicting bush melon, seed, and breast designs in powerful multi-coloured brushstrokes that built in to a structured patchwork of luminous colour most often emanating from within a darker under-layer. The energy of these vibrant colourful works seemed to capture the joy of coming across these sweet bush foods, now scarce and difficult to find.
In retrospect, Minnie’s painting career reflects a sense of disorganisation and dislocation, given the absence of an art centre in the community during her lifetime. While family groups live on sixteen disparate outstations, the Arlparra store, where Minnie sometimes resided is still the sole unifying centre. Her first works were painted during a workshop organized by Barbara Weir’s son, her grandson Fred Torres, who became her principle dealer. Minnie, however, painted for many others, including Tim Jennings of Mbantua Gallery, Jo Doyle of Ironwood Arts as well as nearly all of the dealers in Alice Springs at one time or another. From the outset her work was popular and, just as Emily had done during the early 1990’s, Minnie kept many galleries in business during the start of the new millennium. In the space of just seven years, like Emily, she could easily have painted up to 4000 works. With Torres as her agent she produced most of her finest paintings, receiving wide acclaim after solo exhibitions in Melbourne in 2000 at the Flinders Lane Gallery and in Sydney at Gallery Savah. Her works were exhibited at Fireworks Gallery in Brisbane, Japingka Gallery in Perth and Tandanya in Adelaide as well as being included in important exhibitions in Paris, and Santa Fe. She passed away in 2006, her life an extraordinary journey mapping the transition from that of a nomad, through the early years of the pastoral industry, to a new era of Aboriginal control, and a flourishing art movement at Utopia. It has only been possible to assess the true quality of her output in retrospect, because her career as a painter was rapid and chaotic and her output uneven and often repetitive. Since her death, it has become apparent that her finest works are enduring masterpieces and, despite her many minor works, these place her amongst the most important Aboriginal artists that practiced during the early years of the twenty first century.
Minnie Pwerle painted only during the last seven years of her life yet her output was prodigious. Her colourful expressive works seemed tailor-made to meet the market demand for vibrant gestural paintings left vacant by the death of her countrywoman Emily Kngwarreye. She created her earliest paintings in 1999 and by 2002, when her first works began appearing on the secondary market, they could be found in shops, retailers and galleries all over the country. With so many paintings produced in such a short and intense period, an uneven output and reports of fakery were not uncommon. While the Aboriginal art market was in a buoyant state, the speculative atmosphere at the time made it difficult for anyone, other than those closest to her, to differentiate between her finest works and the large amount of repetitive imagery she produced. As a result, when her paintings began to appear at auction, results were nothing short of catastrophic. Collectors, quite obviously, did not take her work seriously. Sotheby’s were completely disinterested in her, due in part to their lack of faith in the artist, but more because of their prejudice against works with Dacou provenance; a hangover from their policy in regard to Emily’s Kngwarreye’s output.
Her presence in the secondary market began inauspiciously. When her works first appeared in 2002 only two works sold out of the five offered with two out of four selling the following year. With Minnie continuing to supply an ever ready and uneducated primary market, 2004 and 2005 were her worst years. Of 35 works offered during those two years 32 failed to sell. Under normal circumstances most auction houses and collectors would have seen this as the kiss of death., but there were a number of fine art galleries that had sold exceptional works by the artist. Believing that she had been ill-served by the mediocre paintings that had found their way in to the secondary market at that time they began feeding it with higher quality works through Lawson~Menzies sales. Perhaps one work alone pointed to a far different future for the artist in the secondary market. Despite the appalling results of 2004, an exceptional example of the artist’s best early paintings Awelye Atnwengerrp 2000, measuring 360 x 166 cm, sold for $43,200 against a presale estimate of $40,000-60,000 at Lawson~Menzies November auction (Lot 42). This result easily held the record for the artist until the following year when Lawson~Menzies sold Awelye 2004 for $72,000 (Lot 53).
It is indicative of the incredible turnaround in Minnie’s records that just four years later, this work was her seventh highest result. Sales during the three years following her death in 2006, by comparison, were nothing short of spectacular and were due entirely to a curatorial reassessment of her oeuvre by Lawson~Menzies who had sold every one of her top ten results and all but three of her top 20 by the end of that period. In what was a complete turnabout 55 works were offered in 2006 and 2007 of which 43 were successful. In 2007 alone, Lawson~Menzies posted the artist’s best, third, fourth, fifth, eight, ninth and tenth highest results. A new record was set in November 2007 for a relatively early work Awelye Atnwengerrp 2002 (Lot 51) measuring 165 x 360 cm, which sold for $78,000 against a pre-sale estimate of $60,000-80,000 thereby eclipsing the previous record of $72,000 for the similar sized Awelye 2004 that had sold in November 2006 (Lot 53).
As would be expected, average prices on the secondary market vary according to size regardless of quality. Minnie painted a number of major works around 350 x 165 cm in size, which have sold at an average of $56,000. This held true in 2009 with Awelye Antwengerrp - Bush Tomato, 2001 measuring 353 x 164 cm which sold for $43,200. However there is a dramatic drop in average prices with works around 270 x 120 cm having sold for a mean of $18,000, while works averaging 200 x 120 cm sold at around $11,000. Works smaller than 150 x 120 cm regularly sell below $5,000. Moreover, regardless of size, her 2010 average price of $8.080, was nearly half that of 2009. This is quite a different story to her prices in the primary market. Since her death Dacou re-priced all of her canvasses painted prior to 2002 and today these sell for considerably more than the averages listed above. Over the next few years expect some spectacular results when the best of these smaller works are offered through auction houses. As a perfect example, Awelye 2003, a wonderful 120 x 90 cm work executed in a moody blue and white palette with minimalist aesthetic was estimated at just $8,000-10,000 in Lawson~Menzies November 2007 sale (Lot 110) but sold for $36,000, a stunning result compared to the average for works around this size of just $3,500. With so many ordinary paintings sitting on collector’s walls, the cream of Minnie’s oeuvre will only appear for sale over time. Nevertheless, her recent records have been impressive. She was the 20th most successful artist of the movement in 2015, the 16th in 2016. and 14th on 2019.
As with works by all prolific artists, the majority of Minnie Pwerle’s paintings are difficult to critically assess. Most of her smaller works are to be avoided at auction despite their appeal, especially by collectors who have any concerns about investment value. Yet those works bought with judgment and a critical eye should hold their value. With average prices for smaller works well below primary market values, the secondary market may well be the place to pick up a bargain, especially if you fall in love with a painting and are not so concerned about its re-sale value. Minnie's major works vary in quality but not as greatly as the smaller pieces. There are enough masterpieces amongst them to ensure that Minnie Pwerle will rate amongst the greatest of all Aboriginal women painters and prove a number of her critics completely wrong about her legacy.