From a long line of artists and continuing a powerful legacy, Jade Torres is the Director of Pwerle Gallery, which aims to strengthen the presence of Aboriginal culture on the international art stage.
A very proud Alyawarr woman, Torres grew up in Adelaide but her family hails from the Utopia region, 270 kilometres northeast of Alice Springs on Atnwengerrp.
Torres is the daughter of Fred Torres; art dealer, curator and owner of DACOU Gallery. She is the great-granddaughter of celebrated artist, Minnie Pwerle, the granddaughter of Barbara Weir and the great-niece of Emily Kame Kngwarreye.
“All I remember as a child was painting, painting from so young. All the images I have are me sitting there with just a nappy on and a cardboard box,” she said.
“I would sit there for hours and hours and hours and just copy all my Nannas and Aunties.”
Being surrounded by art from a young age, it’s no surprise Torres decided to enter the industry.
“The Aboriginal art industry is very hard. It is a really cut throat industry and you have to be prepared to navigate through that with a sense of cultural responsibility.”
“I was well aware of that from a young age and I had to be mentally prepared to go into a very male dominated world—growing up being around so many strong women, I learnt naturally how to stand alone on my two feet,” she said.
Torres established Pwerle Gallery in 2015.
“My vision for the business was not only to sell the artwork and represent the artwork—that has been done. I really wanted to expand our platform and be very collaborative; and have other ways of representing the artwork and our culture,” she said.
In 2017 and 2018, Pwerle Gallery collaborated with Aje, a contemporary Australian fashion brand.
“I wanted to work with an Australian fashion label who were unique and who had a particular niche in the market,” Torres said.
“They as a brand had worked themselves up from being a small boutique label to a large global brand. I needed to work with someone who was going to be mindful of the sensitivity of working with Aboriginal culture and Dreamtime stories.
The collection centred around the artworks of Minnie Pwerle, or Nanna Minnie as Torres affectionately calls her, and gained interest from collectors across the globe.
“The collaboration was a great success and it was a huge achievement to get it into the fashion world and in such a large scale. They gained multiple international stockists from that collection overseas because they knew who Nanna Minnie Pwerle was,” Torres said.
In August 2018 Pwerle Gallery pulled out of a deal with furniture and homeware giant, IKEA—a deal that was set to see their artwork in IKEA’s 400 stores across the globe.
“It was two years in the making, started with a simple discussion with the CEO of IKEA Australia which led to talking to the head designer of the IKEA Sweden team,” Torres said.
“We had conversations about launching the first ever global Aboriginal range within the IKEA collections and we publicly announced the potential collaboration in Sydney at their event called Democratic Design Days Australia.
“When it came down to the negotiation stage, the unfortunate thing was the head designer of Sweden whom had worked for the company for 25 years had left. One of the agreements was he was going to stay onboard for the project—but he wasn’t able to.
“We went into a meeting with a whole new design team [who] had a different vision for the project, so we mutually decided not to go ahead.”
At 25-years-old, Torres turned down a mammoth business opportunity. A decision she now believes was the right thing to do.
“That type of global PR around Aboriginal culture and about what we want to represent and tell was massive … I could see the potential of what this would do for our community and our main priority was about sharing our culture and stories correctly and respectfully,” she said.
“It was unfortunate that the collaboration did not turn out as they are an amazing company and we built some great relationships with the IKEA team.”
Torres spoke of the influence of intuition in that decision.
“My family have a really strong spiritual healing [connection] and communicating [connection] with ancestors that have passed on. I feel like naturally I get told and see signs all the time, we have strong [intuition] within our family members,” she said.
“If things don’t feel spiritually and emotionally good, even if the deal and the money is good—I’m out.”
Pwerle Gallery did suffer the effects of COVID-19, with the pandemic spoiling plans for New York and South Korean exhibitions. However, it’s given the team time to adjust to the online world.
“We do have a private location in Adelaide, but the online world is so strong. I think I like the idea of being able to move things around and have pop-up exhibitions so that everyone in every state can have access to what we do,” she said.
For Torres, her path has been heavily influenced by the family that surrounds her and the culture within her.
“I get told quite often that I have my great-grandmother Minnie living through me, I almost feel like I’ve done this before, in a past life,” she said.
“It makes my soul happy. I feel like I am not alive when I’m not producing creative work.”
By Rachael Knowles