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Shirley Macnamara, Weaver and Cattle Drover

Indigenous Art

Today we meet an awe-inspiring artist, based in remote western Queensland, where she runs her own thriving cattle property!

Shirley Macnamara developed her artistic practice in response to a personal loss in the 1990s, and her woven multi-media pieces have since come to also incorporate pressing environmental, political and cultural concerns.

Lauded for her prize-winning work at the prestigious 34th NATSIA Awards , Shirley’s pieces are currently on exhibit as part of the Tarnanthi: Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at the Art Gallery of South Australia.

9th January, 2018

Shirley Macnamara, Ungubutha Guutu (Porcupine Vessel) 2016 (detail), spinifex, porcupine quills and fixative 33 x 30 x 26cm. Photo – courtesy of the artist and Alcaston Gallery.

Shirley Macnamara, Bush Fascinator 2013, spinifex with Kangaroo bone and Coolamon tree seeds, 17 x 22 x 18cm (variable). Photo – courtesy of the artist and Alcaston Gallery.

Portrait of Shirley Macnamara. Photo – courtesy of Virginal Hills.

Shirley Macnamara, Bush Fascinator 2014, spinifex with emu feathers, 13 x 35 x 40cm (variable). Photo – courtesy of the artist and Alcaston Gallery.

Portrait of Shirley Macnamara, 2017. Photo – courtesy of Virginal Hills.

Shirley Macnamara, Scullcap 2013, emu feathers, natural ochre, resin, synthetic polymer fixative, 15 x 22 x 22cm. Photo – courtesy of the artist and Alcaston Gallery.

Shirley Macnamara, Cu 2016, hand coiled copper wire and raw copper 22 x 25 x 25cm. Photo – courtesy of the artist and Alcaston Gallery.

Installation image of Shirley Macnamara’s 2014 exhibition at Alcaston Gallery. Photo – courtesy of the artist and Alcaston Gallery.

Photography – Virginal Hills and Alcaston Gallery. 

Jessica Booth and Laetitia Prunetti
Tuesday 9th January 2018

Shirley Macnamara has lived a life on the land. Born into a family of drovers, she spent her childhood on cattle stations in remote north-west Queensland. These days, alongside her art practice, she runs her own station near Mount Isa with her son. It’s a remote place – ‘up until a few months ago, communication via the internet or email depended on our electricity generator, so information that the wider community might take for granted was not reliable or frequent where we live… We now have a solar power system, which enables us to have 24-hour power for the first time,’ says Shirley.

This combination of relative isolation and reliance on the land for her livelihood has instilled an unwavering respect for the natural environment and its inhabitants. Shirley has developed an artistic practice that incorporates environmental, political and cultural concerns whilst also being deeply personal, and which grew and matured in response to her husband’s death in the mid-1990s.

Having begun her artistic life as a painter, Shirley eventually gravitated towards woven forms – she had a desire to make work that was born out of her environment. In Spinifex, a native grass ubiquitous around her home and an extremely tough and resilient plant, she found her material of choice. ‘For Shirley’, says Beverly Knight of Alcaston Gallery, ‘Spinifex embodies the strength and resilience of her culture and country. Spinifex has not only been used by her people to construct shelters, but is also a sanctuary for insects and native wildlife’. As Shirley puts it, ‘We use it as a medicinal source, and also a spiritual one’.

In times of drought, Shirley has ‘to share the Spinifex with [her] cattle, who need it for survival’ – the climate, therefore, has a direct effect upon the materials available for her work. In this sense, her raw materials in themselves express some of her key concerns – namely the environment and climate change.

Twisting, moulding and coiling the native grasses, Shirley creates dynamic and intricate new forms that hero her materials. As well as Spinifex, she uses natural ochres, precious stones, bone and feathers and echidna quills in her pieces. ‘Initially, I needed to use the natural materials to make what became my art,’ tells Shirey, ‘and it has evolved into a way of me expressing a whole range of issues’.

Last year Shirley Macnamara was announced as the winner of the Wandjuk Marika Memorial Three-Dimensional Award at the prestigious 34th NATSIA Awards. She is an invited artist in the second edition of Tarnanthi: Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at the Art Gallery of South Australia (October 2017 to January 2018). Shirley’s work is also currently on display at the QAGOMA as part of their permanent collection exhibition.

‘Spinifex embodies the strength and resilience of Shirley’s culture and country’ – Beverly Knight, Alcaston Gallery.

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