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Aboriginal art dynasty projects its story to new audiences

Arts & Culture

A fourth generation painter and gallery owner who spent her childhood living in remote Central Australia is finding new ways for people to experience her family’s Aboriginal art.

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Twenty-five year old Jade Torres comes from a long line of prominent artists, spanning from her great-grandmother Minnie Pwerle, whose vibrant canvas paintings have featured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, to her father Fred Torres, who opened Australia’s first Aboriginal-owned art gallery in 1993.

The Pwerle family hail from Utopia, 270 kilometres northeast of Alice Springs, where they have been creating and selling art for more than 30 years.

“My father consistently had painting workshops with the women out there next to a few sheds that they lived in with my uncles,” Torres says.

“We would get up and paint during the day and then lie under the stars next to a wood fire every night.

“I remember being a little child and I would have my little cardboard box and my paint and I couldn’t even talk much but I’d always be copying the women as they were painting and I’d always be intrigued in what they were doing.”

Jade Torres (centre back) with family in Utopia.

Despite its reputation as a renowned location for Aboriginal art, Utopia remains a place of extreme poverty for its approximate 2000 residents, most of whom are Alyawarr and Anmatyerre First Nations people.

Reports reveal shocking living conditions in the region’s camps, including rudimentary housing, poor sanitation and widespread hunger.

“It’s been known to be one of the Indigenous communities with the worst conditions in Australia,” Torres says.

“We do have the government resources but no one has pointed the funds to our community, probably because we don’t have that front leading person to push things where they need to go.

“That’s why we want to be that middle man and have that voice and try and make a difference.”

Utopia in Central Australia. Photo: Jade Torres

After spending time working for her father’s gallery DACOU (Dreaming Art Centre of Utopia), Torres launched her own Aboriginal art gallery – Pwerle Gallery – in 2015.

The Adelaide-based online gallery, which will launch its first exhibition, Four Generations – A Family Affair, at One Rundle Trading Co in Dulwich tonight, represents many of Torres’ family members, with part-profits from the sale of artwork directed back to the community.

“I started Pwerle as a kind of sister store to my dad’s and we’re in the process of merging everything from his company over to mine,” Torres says.

“We have always had a community trust and we’ve used that money to purchase homes and cars and whatever else people in the community needed.

“That’s the best part about running a family business – the fact that the community’s interests are always in our hearts and they’ll forever be important to us.”

Four Generations – A Utopian Family Affair features a collection of over 40 paintings – mostly depicting different dreaming stories – from nine artists including Minnie Pwerle, Barbara Weir and Emily Kame Kngwarreye.

“There are really bold, strong styles and all the different variances of the dreamtime are represented.

“We have quite a dominant style that has been continued for the last 30 years – things like grass seed which is a big feature in my nanna’s painting and scorpion dreaming which is my father’s dreaming.”

Torres will also feature her own paintings as part of the exhibition. Despite painting since she was a child, Torres only picked up the paintbrush professionally six weeks ago.

My childhood and memory is watching them paint and hearing them tell me their dreamtimes

Her paintings will feature alongside those of her younger sister Mariah, with the pair representing the “fourth generation” of the exhibition.

“For me personally, the biggest thing that always inspired me with my painting was women’s ceremony,” Torres says.

“I was brought up in a very strong female dominant family so for me painting about women’s ceremony – which in our culture is called awelye – was very close to my heart.

“My childhood and memory is watching them paint and hearing them tell me their dreamtimes and their stories and how the women’s ceremony would evolve so I wanted to interpret that in my paining,”

Barbara Weir, Grass Seed. Photo: Supplied

As well as modernising her family’s legacy through her own painting contributions, Torres is using collaborations with prominent Australian fashion labels such as Aje the Label and Women Image to create “wearable” versions of her family’s artwork.

Torres also worked with the Sydney Opera House to present Badu Gili, a light installation that projects Aboriginal artwork – including artwork from Minnie Pwerle – onto the Opera House’s eastern Bennelong sail at sundown.

Minnie Pwerle’s artwork projected onto the Sydney Opera House as part of Badu Gili. Photo: Supplied

“I started with Aje because I really wanted to work with an Australian label that understood the importance of Indigenous culture.

“Adrien (Norris), the head designer, had actually studied our family’s artwork at uni, so he was aware of who we were and he was really sensitive to it all.

“That was a year and a bit long project and it went really beautifully.”

Torres now has her eyes set on opening a gallery shopfront in Adelaide selling homewares and fashion items decorated in the gallery’s designs.

“We really want to become a trend and have a shop with the beautiful Aboriginal artwork hanging and then having the homewares collection with cushions and cups and plates and the fashion range.

“We would then love for Pwerle to have a store in every state and have something that is in every home.”

A model wearing a dress from the Aje X Pwerle Gallery collaboration, which featured Minnie Pwerle’s artwork. Photo: Supplied

Torres says the overall vision is to make people more aware of Indigenous culture.

“Doing these kinds of collaborations was just about thinking of creative avenues to keep the artwork ongoing and living rather than for all the artworks to sell out and become stagnant.

“The women are getting older and weaker and there’s just less and less resources.

“We really wanted to create a bit more of an understanding that there are still issues that are happening that not many people around Australia would know that are happening.

“There’s a story behind every piece of artwork and the struggles that the artist has dealt with over the years are also in the art and within their storytelling, so it was important for me to bring that to a wider audience.”

Four Generations – A Utopia Family Affair will be opened by Premier Steven Marshall at One Rundle Trading Co in Dulwich tonight. The exhibition runs until May 20.

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