Grass is the forgiveness of nature—her constant benediction. Fields trampled with battle, saturated with blood, torn with the ruts of cannon, grow green again with grass, and carnage is forgotten. Streets abandoned by traffic become grass-grown like rural lanes and are obliterated…
In 1870, the renowned Kansas orator Senator John James Ingalls gave a speech titled ‘In Praise of Blue Grass’. He offered soothing words at a time when American South looked to the restorative powers of nature to heal the damage of the recent civil war. In the work of Australian artist Nalda Searles, we also discover a nature that quietly returns to recover lost ground. Searles offers irrepressible nature a helping hand.
With her needle and thread, Searles gathers native flora into forms that reflect the lives of those who dwell on the land. She embroiders clothes with leaves and seeds that lie scattered on the ground. She tells a story of love and courtship embellished with bush motifs. She translates the Indo-European language into antipodean nature. Searles overcomes us.
There’s something quite patient and rhythmical about the patterns that emerge in Searles’ work. If you’ve visited one of her exhibitions, it is likely that you have heard in a video the gentle melody of her voice as she describes the working process. Her intonation is an undulating up and down like a scrubby landscape. Each humble element of flora is approached in its individuality. It is not captive to a grid. Nalda’s hand gathers into shape, rather than orders into alignment.
After such an intense experience, we feel a responsibility to preserve Searles’ method somehow and somewhere. How can we carry this charmed experience beyond the gallery and into the world? Where do we place Searles’ work?
Strange to basketry
The most immediate location for Searle’s work is within the craft of basketry. Searles shares with the American pioneer fibre artist Ed Rossbach a similar invention with materials. Rossbach demonstrated that the techniques of basketry could be applied beyond natural materials, even incorporating plastic or newspapers. Like much 20th century American studio craft, Rossbach’s work emphasised individual invention and virtuosic technique. By contrast, Searles’ work seems to aspire to neither of these qualities. Her materials remain organic and her technique cleaves to nature. Where might Nalda’s work fit into the international scene?
Is it an indigenous connection? Native American and African traditions play an important role in the US scene. A basket-maker like Mary Jackson draws inspiration from the sweetgrass baskets passed down from slaves. She interprets this tradition in classical forms that honour the past through perfection of technique. By contrast, Nalda’s forms are strange to basketry, belonging more to fashion or everyday life. She honours her material with the imperfections that reflect the variegation of materials.
But there is an American thread that brings us closer to the world of Nalda Searles. Douglas Fuchs was an American basket-maker who came to Australia with an interest in our fibre traditions. He arrived in 1981 and developed the exhibition Floating Forest for the JamFactory in Adelaide. Fuch’s challenge was to find ways of incorporating materials from the land such as seagrass and kurrajong pods. While this resulted in large abstract forms, he inspired basket-makers such as Virginia Kaiser to confront the challenge of interpreting Australian materials. Thus continues an Australian basketry scene that exists in parallel to Searles. We now see the east coast artist Beth Hatton create works from grass that reflect ironically on colonisation.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Nullarbor Plain, Searles was able to inspire a mixture of indigenous and non-indigenous artists with ambitions to create a world of grass. Through workshops with Nalda, the Noongar artist Joyce Winsley from Narrogin developed a technique for binding grass together into figures with narrative power. From the formless expanse of bush she was able to fashion animated characters, such as the Didgeridoo Man. Taking basketry into the Western desert, Searles’ inspired artists like Kantjupaye Benson who extrapolated this technique to monumental extremes, as in the grass vehicle of Toyota Dreaming. One of Searles’ protégés, Kate Campbell-Pope, has been able to take this method into the reverse dimension by constructing an anatomical model of the human body out of grass. There seems no end to what can be done.
We’ve seen emerge in Australia a language of artistic expression that is unique in the world. In its resonance with the land and boundless possibilities, it can be compared to the development of dot painting that occurred in Papunya during the 1960s. Nalda Searles is a foundational artist in this new tradition. She continues basketry’s experimentation with natural materials and develops needlecraft techniques for sculptural effect. And so how do we place this in the broader Australian context?
This use of a common material like grass can be seen as part of a widespread interest in the use of found materials. Such ‘poor craft’ is also evident in ceramicists who cast ordinary objects (Fleur Schell), jewellers who transform plastic bags (Mark Verwerk and Stephen Gallagher), furniture makers to adapt to indigenous timbers (Damien Wright) and glass artists who cast consumer packaging (David Herbert). The key to poor craft is the use of materials that are devoid of any monetary value. Searles’ materials are gathered from the bush floor, leftover clothing or fodder of the land. In a highly privatised, commodified, world, artists seek out the worthless as a precious element capable of shared meaning.
For Australians, this has particular resonance in the make-do tradition that forged a settler culture on the other side of the world. It reflects an egalitarian sensibility that seeks out the underdog for special encouragement.
Of these artists, Searles’ work connects strongly with the Koori artist Lorraine Connelly-Northey, but in a reverse direction. Rather than adorn settler objects with native flora, Connelly-Northey re-creates traditional Aboriginal artefacts such as coolamons out of found alien material such as fencing wire and mattress springs. It goes both ways.
Searles is a key force in the Australian craft scene. Where might she fit in the broader visual arts scene?
The sculpture scene of the 1980s has strong parallels with Searles. The land art tradition of Andy Goldsworthy has served as a context for Australian sculptors who aspire to subtle interventions that honour the landscape. The late John Davies attempted to express the fragile beauty of the environment with ephemeral self-specific installations involving leaves and trigs. This has been replaced by more conceptual work today.
…with the exception of Adelaide artist Fiona Hall. For both Hall and Searles, art is a matter of artisanal invention—learning how to adapt traditional craft techniques to non-traditional materials (Hall knits baby clothes out of coke cans). Both enact an eventual victory of nature over culture (Hall’s birds’ nests made from US dollar bills). Their difference is largely one of mobility. Hall is on a constant quest to find new forms of transformation and new cultures to engage with (recently British Guyana). As a craft artist, Searles is more located in her place (the west half of Australia), her medium (basketry) and her communities (Blackstone). Searles is local to Hall’s global.
We see a similar contrast in the recent work of the Colombian-born artist Maria Cardoso, who creates painstaking installations with emu feathers embroidered on mesh. Like Searles, Cardoso creates form from Australian materials. But the effect is more monumental than narrative. Her work aspires to abstraction, while Searles’ is grounded in the particular.
While Searles processes resonate with work by Australian visual artists, her work remains more in its location of origin. In this groundedness, it has a special place in the broader context of Australian culture.
Beyond the artistic context, Nalda is part of a distinctively Australian lineage of women who have submerged themselves in the lives of Aboriginal communities in the nation’s desert centre. The most notorious of these is Daisy Bates, from whom Nalda has drawn inspiration in some of her works. Bates used her Irish background to claim special understanding of Aboriginal mythology. Initiated into these secrets, she was able to say that ‘the ever-open book of Nature has taught me more of wisdom than is compassed in the libraries of men.’
While Bates absorbed the indigenous culture around her, she managed to maintain her own cultural identity with strict attention to her Edwardian costume. Bates constructed a complicated daily routine in order to maintain this edifice. As she said, ‘I made friends with the needle’. While far more sensitive to issues of transmission in Aboriginal culture, Searles’ place has strong resonance with the white woman of the desert.
More recently, the Tasmanian Olive Pink settled in Alice Springs to connect with the Walpiri, seeking to find a sanctuary to protect them from the encroachments of white development. During a radio broadcast in 1939 she invited listeners to imagine the night sky in central Australia, ‘
If you can imagine yourselves there, you will be more in the most to think WITH, instead of just FOR the Aborigines. and it is only by thinking with them that we shall ever have the sympathetic insight to obtain ‘givings’ for them that they do not, themselves, look on only as a FURTHER TAKING AWAY…
Like Bates, Pink was legendary for her regal attire. She was given the nickname ‘flower pot’ for her terracotta hat. The contrast of delicate female clothing and the alien hard Australian landscape is remembered in the novel and film of Picnic at Hanging Rock. By contrast to the male ‘drizabone’ bush uniform, which signifies a conquest of nature, the petticoat implies a submission to its life force.
There are strong parallels in the lives of these legendary Australian figures and the real-life experience of Nalda Searles. But through the work of Searles we can also reflect on the scene of a Western woman seeking to find a place among the people of the land.
Searles’ work manifests a particularly rare form of collaboration with Indigenous artists. While she has studied and absorbed the Ngaanyatjarra culture, she also seeks to contribute something in return. Her needlecraft skills have been important in developing new collective activities such as basketry that enable a positive engagement with whitefella culture.
By contrast with New Zealand, Australia has lacked a formalised dialogue between indigenous and non-indigenous. The bicultural relationship between Pakeha and Maori continues to evolve—from the Waitangi treaty to the echoes of traditional motifs in non-indigenous jewellers such as those involved in the Bone, Stone and Shell exhibition of 1988. Through writers like Michael King and artists like Colin McCahon, Pakeha have negotiated a place for themselves in New Zealand. By contrast, in Australia, the legal doctrine of terra nullius has left a legacy of profound alienation from the culture that has given the land its meaning. Searles work is a beginning in the slow alignment of these two elements.
Gone to seed
Beyond New Zealand, we can find resonance for Searles’ work with other cultures that have also undergone colonisation. South Africa’s vibrant indigenous basketry traditions have developed with the incorporation of found materials such as telephone wire. Beaded embroidery reaches a monumental scale. Yet both crafts remain at the level of the graphic, with little direct reference to nature. One artist close to Nalda is the white Congolese sculptor Jacques Dhont, who weaves figures from the bark of Port Jackson wattle, originally an Australian tree and now detested as an ‘alien’ that destroys the delicate ecology of the cape. His work has value for both the forms that he produces and the contamination he decreases.
Across the Pacific, the use of grass in Brazil has developed to form works of great technical skill, but these remain retail products with little story to tell. In Peru, there is trade in dolls constructed from scraps of old traditional textiles, but this only appears in markets. Though the scene is changing, artisanship in Latin America remains a lower caste activity not associated with the conversation about cultural identity.
But the spirit of Nalda’s work does have resonance with broader republican themes of Latin culture. In 1923, the Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade initiated a new movement known of Anthropofagi which celebrated a cultural version of cannibalism. Defying the tendency to always identify with civilised Europe, Andrade advocated identification with the native Tupi Indians. ‘Against all importers of canned consciousness’ he opposed ‘the palpable existence of life’. Andrade’s manifesto initiated a bold Brazilian modernism that tried to ignore previous models but at the same time absorb all influences. It inspired the movement of Tropicalismo, which sought a full-bodied audience participation in the space of new possibilities that have been created.
Compared to the cannibalism celebrated by Brazilian modernism, Searles’ quieter approach is more like a gradual infestation. Exposed to the resilient energies of the outback, the accoutrements of modern life are soon covered with insects, seeds, leaves and dirt. Colonisation has been a constant battle against these elements in order to keep settlement pure. Searles’ work allows nature to infiltrate the settler culture. But rather than corrupt and destroy its beauty as feared, nature provides a baroque ornament. It adds value to the host while retaining its own origins.
The idea of an Australian republic has continued to appear as an abstract legal formality. The work of an artist like Searles provides us with a tangible sense of what such a future might feel like. As a basket-maker, artist and cultural agent, Nalda Searles represents a key point of convergence in our part of the world.
This essay is for the Nalda Searles national touring exhibition in 2009.
Also published on Medium.