Amid the nexus of modern Indigenous art movements that began to flourish in the deserts of Central Australia in the 1990s, Utopia was a powerhouse of originality and innovation. Situated some 245 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs, the 1800-square-kilometre one-time pastoral lease was not only home to the most renowned artist of the era, Emily Kame Kngwarreye (c. 1910–96), but also to several other highly esteemed painters—among them Angelina Pwerle.
The foundational contemporary art practice at Utopia was the Indonesian batik technique, introduced in 1978, leading to the formation of the Utopia Women’s Batik (UWB) group. A decade later, acrylic paints, canvas and other media were introduced to the women. In this first momentous decade of activity, Angelina Pwerle was relatively invisible. She did not participate in the mid-1988 community-wide batik survey Utopia: A Picture Story, although six months later she contributed a painting on canvas to A Summer Project. A few more years would pass before Pwerle was able to dedicate more time to her art.
In the early 1990s, Pwerle was strongly connected to the extended family of Billy Morton Petyarre (c. 1917–2007), living at Ngkawenyerre. It is likely that the Mortons’ innovative school of carvings and ‘camp scene’ paintings, springing up in mid-1989, also inspired Pwerle to take up carving. In 1993, one of her expressive sculptures attracted the attention of Bill Nuttall, the director of Niagara Galleries, who suggested she create an exhibition—an invitation that resulted in a significant body of paintings in addition to the anticipated carvings. This marked the beginning of Pwerle’s career as a painter, and was the first of nine solo shows with Niagara.
In the mid-1990s, Pwerle’s paintings, figurative and ‘abstract’, revealed her love of strong colour. When painting her favoured figurative images of ancestor spirits, Pwerle consistently uses a brush and bright pigments. Turning to her major aesthetic preoccupation, Arnwekety, the Bush Plum (Carissa lanceolata) belonging to the Ahalpere estates of her father and grandfather, Pwerle paints with satay sticks, using both ends to create dots of different sizes.
Bush Plum was first exhibited in the 2015 Niagara Galleries exhibition Time and Space, in effect a small survey of Pwerle’s work of the previous decade. Focal points in several paintings were Pwerle’s rounded dots of pure colour—the signature palette she would often use to articulate the life-cycle of the Bush Plum and its pattern of growth and fruiting. While some paintings in Time and Space appeared quite static, composed of layered screens of solid dots emphasising the picture plane, others represent Arnwekety full of movement, in compositions of shadowy nebulae conjured out of delicately flecked mark-making.
In essence, Time and Space revealed how, over time and with the simplest of means, Pwerle developed a highly variegated aesthetic for Arnwekety, creating myriad versions of this culturally deep story from her country. In painting Bush Plum, Pwerle added another technique to her creative kit and bundled several skewers together, combining and rolling the multiple points to feather and concentrate the pigment across the canvas. Her soft-coloured palette subtly interacts with dominant white highlights—concentrated ‘touches’ from Pwerle’s multiple paint-loaded sticks. The image that emerges seems suffused with a lightness of being, as if suspended in time and space, in a dimension of Ahalpere made visible by the artist.
Anne Marie Brody