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Kate Robertson · Recording Medicinal Plants of Siwai, Bougainville

Creative People

At 12-years-old, Kate Robertson took her first photos bushwalking with her dad on Mount Buffalo in North East Victoria. The photographer has since graduated from that trusty Pentax SLR on to an intriguing ‘cameraless’ method, as seen in her latest body of work.

Her current exhibition, Recording the medicinal plants of Siwai, Bougainville, is on show now at Chapter House Lane in Melbourne.


5th May, 2017
Elle Murrell
Friday 5th May 2017

Recording the medicinal plants of Siwai, Bougainville was created by photographer Kate Robertson over three long-term community stays in Papua New Guinea. ‘The concept for this body of work was to find ways to photographically chronicle the medicinal plants in approaches that align with community values’ explains Kate, who was determined to be more than a parachute photographer.

Kate spent many a high school lunch break developing in the darkroom, later trained as a commercial photographer, and upon graduating worked on editorial and advertising shoots. She has always been drawn to the arts and, following a stint working in galleries in London, decided to pursue fine art study. She graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts in 2005, and has since exhibited at diverse galleries, from artist-run (including a gallery she set up with a group of friends in a disused Abbotsford shop), to commercial and public, in Australia and abroad.

Kate’s latest series was initiated and guided by Chief Alex Dawia, from Taa Lupumoiku Clan, who she first met six years ago. ‘Repeatedly, he expressed his growing concern that traditional knowledge was not being passed on to the younger generation and was potentially in danger of being lost’ explains Kate. In 2012, she accepted his offer to chronicle cultural values for international audiences, and to engage local youth in a project to preserve language and traditional knowledge.

Kate employed an alternative ‘cameraless’ method, exposing expired black-and-white paper with plant extractions to sunlight over different periods, from hours to days. The striking results are similar to that of a contact print or photogram. ‘When the surface of the photographic paper touches the internal structure in leaves, a chemical reaction is orchestrated and imprinted, changing the colour,’ she details. ‘The lumen process enables me to transcend the actual object, and to allow the chemical in the paper, the chemical in the plant, and environment elements to assemble and react.’

Bougainville is currently recovering and reconciling from a 13-year civil war that saw the death of more than 20,000 people. The war came about as a result of environmental destruction caused by toxic mine waste that was being discharged into the local river systems. ‘The aftermath of the war has not only polluted parts of the environment and generated psychological trauma for local people, but it has also weakened traditional governance and social cultural structures,’ explains Kate. ‘This has impacted on my work in numerous ways, which I hope make this series not just a record of traditional medicinal knowledge, but also a deeper photographic exploration of connections between community and environment.’

The  photographer will be returning to Siwai in June to continue working on a book with the people of Kainake Village. This youth-engagement project details plant applications in both the local language Motuna, and English, and is to be distributed to local schools. Works from Kate’s latest series are currently available as prints, with all proceeds contributing to the creation of this book.

Recording the medicinal plants of Siwai, Bougainville by Kate Robertson
May 4th to June 30th
Chapter House Lane
Entry via Flinders Lane, Melbourne

For more information on Kate Robertson’s latest series visit her website, here, where you can also follow her future projects, including works created for the new Jackalope Hotel on the Morning Peninsula, and a Berlin exhibition in 2018.

Photographer Kate Robertson is currently exhibiting her latest series, Recording the medicinal plants of Siwai, Bougainville, at Chapter House Lane. Photo – Kate Robertson.

The Design Files acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

First Nations artists, designers, makers, and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files. Please email