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.