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Explore Lena. An exhibition of paintings by Utopia elder Lena Pwerle

September 22, 2018 2 min read

A portrait of Utopia Aboriginal Elder Lena Pwerle

A two and a half hour drive from Alice Springs, up the Sandover Highway and deep into Central Australia's remote Utopia region, will get you to Arlparra Store where elder Lena Pwerle lives in a small humpy.

The humpy is made of corrugated tin and held up by branches, boxes and rope. It fits three mattresses atop steel bed frames; one for herself, her sister Rosie and her daughter Nora. 

Her last humpy fit four; one for her daughter Connie who passed away of pneumonia.

Lena's traditional home is her permanent residence. There are enough buildings for Lena to have her own house if she wishes, but to Lena this is home and she has everything she needs.

It is situated in close proximity to the small general store that services the entire region, and the open plan allows her to be easily accessible to her people.

Other country people and those from neighbouring countries live in the government housing dotted around the community.

Lena Pwerle's hand with paint brush

It doesn't seem like Lena is in her 80's, but old birth records indicate she is born in 1934. Her eldest son, George, was born a natural bush birth in 1953 when Lena was nineteen.

She had married a young man named Sam Kngwarreye from a neighbouring country up north. They lived up there awhile and had seven children.

Large pastel coloured Soakage painting by Lena Pwerle with circles

Lena's father had been an elder of her country and because of this blood line and her natural ability to lead, she became an elder herself. 

The endeared term is 'boss woman' - similar to a commander-in-chief, and is a guardian of certain aspects of her people's culture.

Lena paints how she leads. Firstly she makes sure everyone around her has canvas to paint too. She is proud of them.

She handles the execution slowly, carefully and methodically, but not perfectly. She laughs and tells stories.

Each painting is individual yet infused with the same story: Soakage Dreaming.

Collage of four paintings by Lena Pwerle

View exhibition paintings »



Soakages are a source of water in Australian deserts and were once the main water supply for Australian desert Aboriginals. 

Some soakages are found in the form of rockholes hidden by overgrown foliage, others under the sand with no obvious indication they are there and digging is required to access them.

Some soakages though are the length of football fields sunken into the ground like a swamp. 

Contaminated sacred rockhole

Soakage Dreaming, the story, is something passed down to Lena by her grandmother. It is informative - mapping out soakages, and expresses gratitude for their provision of water.

This knowledge was particularly significant during Lena's youth and previous generations. Now, most soakages are either contaminated by introduced live stock or have dried up. There are bores located at each major settlement in Utopia and the people of Utopia drink from this.

View paintings by Lena Pwerle »

Explore Lena: an exhibition of works by Utopia Aboriginal Elder Lena Pwerle #aboriginalart #indigenousart #australianculture #utopialane #lenapwerle

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