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Barbara Weir, OAM (c. 1945 – 2023)
Barbara Weir was a highly successful contemporary Australian Aboriginal artist who was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 2009. She was the daughter of Minnie Pwerle, a famous Alyawarre woman artist. Barbara was a highly experimental, innovative artist and painted her mother’s Dreamings of bush tomato, bush melon, wild orange, and a particular wild grass used for making a flat bread called damper.
In this painting she depicted the bold circles and lines that women make with ochres on
their breasts, arms, and chests during awelye ceremonies.
Before becoming an artist, Barbara’s life was even more difficult than that of most Aboriginal Australians. At the age of nine while collecting water for her Aunt Emily Kngwarreye, she became an unwilling member of the Stolen Generation when government officials forcibly took her to a harsh mission 1000 km away for being of mixed-race. It took her twelve years to find her family again. When she returned, her ability to speak English
and her determination for justice made her instrumental in Utopia’s Land Rights claim, the
first Aboriginal outstation returned to its indigenous people.
Utopia is a remote Aboriginal outstation in the semi-arid centre of Australia, approximately 300 kilometres
northeast of Alice Springs, where sixteen small, family-based Anmatyerre and Alyawarre language-speaking
communities live on 3500 kilometres of land. In the 1920s, two British settlers took the land by force from
their ancestors, made it a cattle station, and called it Utopia because of the abundance of rabbits, an
environmentally disastrous introduced animal. In 1978, Utopia became the first Aboriginal outstation in Australia
to have a successful Land Rights claim.
Aboriginal Australians have the longest, land-based culture in the world, over 65,000 years, and are
custodians for specific places that they call ‘country’. Their oral culture holds extraordinary ecological
knowledge and experiential wisdom that the people continue to pass on to new generations. They have long
drawn patterns in the sand and painted patterns on their bodies with ochres during separate ritual men’s and women’s ceremonies.
The women of Utopia come together for awelye ceremonies to re-animate the land, ensure perpetuation of plant and animal species, and for the people's health and happiness. Over many days and nights, they ‘sing up’
country, ‘paint up’ their bodies with ochre designs, do ritual dances, and tell Dreaming stories to
new generations of young girls.
The contemporary Aboriginal art movement is very recent. In 1977, many of the Utopia women
participated in a batik workshop, and even though it was a labour-intensive process, it became a
popular communal activity. They used small tjanting tools and hot wax melted on open fires while
collecting bush tucker. When acrylic paints were distributed at Utopia in 1988, the medium became
more popular because they were an easier and more versatile medium to use. It is still women who
primarily paint at Utopia and they depict their Dreamings and women’s awelye body painting
© Copyright Dr. Victoria King 2023.
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