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Highlights from the ANU Art Collection: Angelina Pwerle Ngale

Angelina Pwerle Ngale | Anmattyer and Alyawarr peoples
Born Camel Camp, Utopia, Northern Territory, 1947

Angelina Pwerle Ngale is a senior Anmattyer and Alyawarr woman living and working in the Utopia homelands northwest of Alice Springs. Pwerle’s art is infused with the rich cultural knowledge of her Country and Altyerr (Dreaming).

Pwerle started making art in the 1980s as part of the Utopia Women’s Batik Group, and though she was one of the youngest participants, she demonstrated a refined and captivating personal style. Experience painting in ceremonial contexts (including applying body paint for women’s business) informed the more contemporary art of Anmattyer artists, who began producing incredibly fine and sophisticated work soon after the introduction of acrylic paints to the Utopia artists in the summer of 1988-89.

Angelina Pwerle Ngale, ‘Bush Plum’, 1997. acrylic on canvas, 183.5 × 174.5 cm. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program by Annette Reeves and Bill Nuttall, 2017. Australian National University Collection. © Angelina Pwerle Ngale/Copyright Agency, 2024.

Pwerle’s most common subjects are anwekety (bush plum), athem-areny (little spirit people), and women’s ceremonies. Bush Plum (1997) is characteristic of the artist’s style, comprised of a large-scale dark background populated with intense and varying concentrations of miniscule pale dots.

Dots have many different functions in Indigenous art and there are great regional and stylistic variations in their application. In this work, the scattering of different-coloured dots alludes to the lifecycle of the plant, as it changes from germinating seed, to flower, to fruit and then dies off, before repeating the cycle with the next rain. The speckled composition also alludes to the paths of the bush plum seeds that are blown across the country by the Dreamtime winds, and the tracks of the women collecting bush plum for food and keeping its Altyerr story.

Installation view of ‘Bush Plum’ (1997) by Angelina Pwerle Ngale from the exhibition ‘Highlights from the ANU Art Collection’, 2020

Bush foods and flowers are common subjects in the work of women artists from the Central Desert region, as women typically gather bush foods and are responsible for caring for the Altyerr associated with them. Anwekety are shrubs of the Central Desert region that flower with small white blooms after rain and produce small olive-like fruits, which are eaten fresh, preserved and dried, or roasted and ground into a paste. They are an essential traditional food for the Anmattyer people and are an important part of the Altyerr story particular to the sacred site of Ahalper — Pwerle’s patrilineal country. Hence, the work speaks to both the physical sustenance and spiritual nourishment of anwekety.

Pwerle’s practice of stippling using a wooden skewer dipped in thick acrylic paint and dotted onto canvas gives a sense of both intimate closeness and detail, and the vastness of the cosmos. The fine, almost fastidious dotting of Pwerle’s work gives it a shimmering, mesmerising appearance, hinting at the subterranean presence of ancestral knowledge and power just below the surface. Bush Plum’s topography is both real and mythical, abstracted and based in reality. The power emanating from the canvas attests to the strength of ancestral power resonating across the Utopia landscape. Pwerle’s work is a meditative reflection of her Country and knowledge, of the plants, animals and earth which make up Altyerr.

The Drill Hall Gallery acknowledges the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, the traditional custodians of the Canberra region, and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.