COMPASS MAGAZINE #11
COMPASS MAGAZINE #11

BARBARA WEIR Preserving history on canvas

They are known as the 'Stolen Generations,' indigenous children the Australian government removed from their families between 1910 and 1970. Barbara Weir – one of those children – tells their stories through artwork inspired by her reclaimed heritage, and hopes her energetic canvases will pass them on.

Barbara Weir’s lively, abstract paintings capture stories from the past with intricate dotwork and brushstrokes. Vibrant colors, rhythmic swirls and mellifluous dots tell hidden tales inspired by her aboriginal home, Utopia – ancient stories she learned before being taken from her family.

“We used to paint stories on our bodies,” Weir remembers. “As kids we were painted all the time for ceremonies. My grandfather, nana, uncles and aunties told me stories on the sand too – stories which we’ve passed down through the generations for over 40,000 years. I wanted to leave these stories for my children on canvas.”

A STOLEN CHILDHOOD

The daughter of Minnie Pwerle, a famous Utopia artist, and Jack Weir, an Irish rancher, Weir fell victim to the government’s policy of taking mixed-race and aboriginal children from their families, forcing them into institutions or foster families. From state care beginning at age 10, she moved to children’s homes. Away for more than 13 years, Weir has spent 50 years reconnecting with her roots.

Her “Grass Seed” paintings – energetic brushstrokes capturing swaying grass – recall foods she ate. “We used to be rationed by the station people; the food didn’t last long. We used to go back and get our bush tucker – topping up on seeds we found out in the bush.”

“We’re still not accepted. We’ve made progress, but a lot more needs to be done.”

BARBARA WEIR ‘LOST GENERATION’ ARTIST

In “My Mother’s Country,” Weir paints bird’s-eye views of landscapes. Layers of green, blue and ochre dots represent sacred landmarks, rivers, ceremonial designs her family painted on their bodies – “all special places from my mother’s country,” she said.

But she emphasizes that these are her mother’s stories, not hers. “If I had an aboriginal father it would be different. I have to get special permission from my maternal grandfather to share some stories.”

MAKING PEACE WITH THE PAST

Sharing insights into ancient traditions reflects her determination and fighting spirit.

“My mother rejected me when I first came back. I was scared because the life I’d had with the white people was so different. I didn’t even speak her language any more. It took a long time for us to connect.”

Her aunt, renowned artist Emily Kngwarreye, took Weir in, welcoming her back, and so she stayed.

Returning to Utopia, she regained her family’s trust. “The hardest thing was relearning my languages. I did that when I went back home after I separated from my husband. I may never have painted if it hadn’t been for him leaving me!” she jokes, but she returned to Utopia to paint.

“I’m just so grateful for people liking my work and buying my stories.”

BARBARA WEIR ‘LOST GENERATION’ ARTIST

Kngwarreye influenced her, but Weir followed her own artistic path. “Emily had her own story to tell,” she said. “I couldn’t do anything like what she did. Everyone has different stories to share.”

AN ARTISTIC JOURNEY

Weir, who was active in the aboriginal landrights movement in the 1970s, became the first female Indigenous Urapunta Council president in 1985. She began painting in 1989 at age 45.

Weir experiments with media, styles and techniques; she studied batik in Indonesia. Ultimately, nature and her family’s stories define her work.  

“I learn more from going to the country,” she said. “I see my aunties and they show me what’s on the ground. The more they trust me, the more they show me.”

Featured in the Australian Tourist Commission’s commercial “Barbara Weir’s Australia,” and named one of Australian Art Collector magazine's 2009 top 50 collectible artists, she has traveled the world 13 times fulfilling commissions, sharing her stories and running workshops. “I’m just so grateful for people liking my work and buying my stories.”

Her latest collection honors her mother’s country. “It has rivers running through it. It’s about what we put on our body for ceremonies and where we go to teach young girls about the lore.”

Weir dreams of also visiting and painting her father’s homeland, Ireland. “My cousins send me pictures of the family farm. I would love to go there.”

Weir hopes her paintings will help to educate the public about aboriginal culture. “We’ve still got a long way to go to get on with everyone,” she said. “We’re still not accepted. We’ve made progress, but a lot more needs to be done.”

by Rebecca Lambert Back to top