Nalda Searles ✿ Re-gifted in red

Sandra Murray and Andrew Nicholls

1 September 2021

Nalda Searles, Suture line, 2021, sisal rope (c.1980), vintage black cotton thread from Obi Studio, Kyoto, salvaged Onkaparinga blanket, 1200cm length, circumference variable. Photograph by Rebecca Mansell.

Curator Sandra Murray and writer Andrew Nicholls reflect on recent work in red by the fibre legend, Nalda Searles.

The curator Sandra Murray introduces the exhibition. 

Finders Keepers features over 50 significant works held in public and private collections throughout Australia. I selected both older and newly created works, to plait together a captivating representation of the artist’s practice. To create a distinctive exhibition it was essential to me to include previously unexhibited pieces or little-known works, many of these came from Searles’ own collection. I wanted to demonstrate the national and international status of this artist, hence seeking interstate loans that demonstrate the respect held for Searles. United together, these works illustrate the artist’s unique contribution to art and sculptural practice in Australia.

This is an exhibition where the Curator and artist collaborated closely on its genesis and evolution. I have worked with many artists and with Nalda it became a journey of her art intertwined with her life, a revelatory process that I cherished.

In terms of thematics, location and the personal are key to Nalda’s practice, and to this exhibition. Materials for Nalda’s artworks are frequently the items found on location, her journeys have spread from the Southern Cross to the Wheatbelt, the Goldfields, and beyond to the Sandy Desert and the Pilbara.

Alternately her works are centred on items personally gifted to her by friends, such as the red woollen coat that the artist Lorraine Biggs gave to Nalda. It became transformed into the dark and gothic Hirsute coat that now stands sentinel at the exhibition’s entrance (placed with the other two new works, Suture line and Pubic triangle).

Nothing can be described as conventional in Finders Keepers. Searles has been a crucial Australian figure in the development of contemporary sculpture, fibre and textile art.

Nalda Searles, Pubic triangle, 2021, salvaged Onkaparinga blanket, vintage black cotton thread from Obi Studio, Kyoto, 30 x 51cm. Photograph by Rebecca Mansell.

The Scarlet Woman

An essay by the writer Andrew Nicholls

Given that colour functions as a language with its own distinct meanings (and repercussions – just ask Aegeus), I don’t think it’s an overstatement to suggest that red is the colour with the most to say for itself, the most profound psychological resonance. It is, biologically speaking, the most human colour – supposedly the first hue that our primitive ancestors evolved to perceive between 65-38 million years ago [Finlay, 2007, 390-392], and imperceptible to many other living creatures. From the earliest stages of human evolution it has articulated a language of authority. After black and white, it was the first named colour in pre-modern cultures [ibid, 395] and the earliest to be used by artists, via the many naturally-occurring red ochre pigments. Its subsequent application in cave art and ancient sites across the globe – and later alchemists’ laboratories – suggests that our ancestors considered it to be imbued with magical properties [Clottes and Lewis-Williams, 1998; Mahdihassan, 1984, 32-42].

To quote medieval historian Michel Pastoureau, “Red is the archetypal colour, the first colour humans mastered, fabricated, reproduced, and broke down into different shades…[t]his has given it primacy over all other colours through the millennia” [2018, 8]. Part of the reason for its privileged status so early in our development may be due to its scarcity in the ancient world, Elena Phibbs noting that red has “always been one of the most highly prized colours, in part because it is among the most difficult to achieve” going on to praise the “artisans of great creativity, resourcefulness, and intelligence” [2010, 5-6] who eventually mastered its application in textiles and art.

From a cultural perspective red is highly contradictory in nature. As Finlay notes, “While wavelengths of red reach the upper stories of the brain, feelings about red – a colour typically associated with fire, anger, desire, danger, and bloodshed – bubble up from its cellar.” [op cit, 394]. As the colour of blood, red has always been associated with life and death, and featured in burial customs and funerary attire throughout our early history. This association with death may be in part due to the highly toxic materials frequently used for its creation in Europe and Africa prior to the Spanish discovery of cochineal via the colonisation of Mexico [ibid, 5 and Phibbs, 2] which provided a more affordable alternative to the safer, but vastly expensive kermes dyes produced in the Mediterranean up to that point [Finlay, 398]. It is the colour of danger and of shame, of the god and the planet Mars and their associations of aggression and war, but conversely represents love, passion, marriage and good luck in multiple cultures. “Clearly red has a double meaning: it may signal either threat or opportunity, depending on the context” psychologists Kuniecki, Pilarczyk and Wichary state in their study of its attention-drawing characteristics [2015, 2].

It is not surprising therefore that Nalda Searles chose two bright red books as the canvases to represent Yuwa/Yes and Wiya/No, the most assertive and dichotomous words in her formative Language of the Land, Learning Ngaanyatjarra (1994) series. This iconic body of work saw Searles embellished book covers to create a pictorial glossary to help her learn the language of the Western Desert, where she chose to spend much of her studio time. It cemented her practice and her identity as that of a white woman who could hold her own – physically, culturally and verbally – in the most remote landscapes of Western Australia.

Yuwa/Yes and Wiya/No are among a number of works from Searle’s early practice that made similar use of this most richly-associative of colours. These include a delicately-crafted red linen thread and Jarrah-seed Neckpiece from 1985; blood-red ininti seeds studding her epic Ininti Warntu Minyma Kutjara Yalatja (Seed Blanket Two Women Walking) blanket work from 1996, and the campfire accoutrement created for Daisy Bates in Seven Sisters – fibre works arising from the West (2003); and rich red thread binding her patella stellarum herbarumque (plant vessel of stars) in 2003 and Waterhole for Nuniwa basket in 2005. The collection of Samplers she created to hone her skills with the unfamiliar material of meadow fodder in 2006 similarly incorporated flashes of red, the series’ only colour other than black, white and earth tones. This collection of fetish-like miniatures included one small work with the single command, listen, emblazoned across its surface in vivid crimson, highlighting the urgency of this seemingly-playful body of works, which were her means of showcasing the potential of an ecologically sustainable alternative to native grasses.

However, it was in her epic Drifting in my Own Land project in 2009 where Searles’ use of red found full voice. Visitors were welcomed to the main exhibition space by her Siphon, a woven grass funnel with a vivid red spiral drawing the viewer’s gaze into its depths as if into the unconscious. Inland Boundaries saw a crimson broderie anglaise dress unpicked and splayed on to a field of dyed and weathered fabric to create an aerial agricultural landscape. Red Comforter comprised a blanket with a sun-bleached pattern of Xanthorreoa bracts, and meticulously hand-stitched red thread on the reverse. A scarlet silk spiral bound together meadow fodder and snakes bones in her Before the Plough basket, which evoked a dried waterhole. These works used red to represent a vital life force within the regional Western Australian landscape.

In other works the colour signified flirtation and sexual desire. Her Own Skin was a sensuous red slip (the lining of the dress from Inland Boundaries) hanging tremulously in the air, while dried verticordia grandis (feather flower) blooms dotted a pair of grass Courting Cushions created for her parents (whose romance was cut short by the war), and speckled her late father’s suit, signifying his unexpressed desire for intimacy. Loitering at the Dancehall saw her mother’s black satin dress—still uncannily holding the shape of a female body – caressed by phallic scarlet kangaroo paws.

These various red works are among Searles’ best, and they weave through her practice like the crimson thread gifted to Theseus by Ariadne to guide his safe passage through the labyrinth. They culminate—for now at least—in the three new works created for Finders Keepers: a coat bristling with human hair, a tangle of rope that was previously her washing line of 25 years, and a Pubic Triangle embellished with black stitching. Collectively these strange bodily part-objects speak of the borders of the physical body, the sexual organs, and the conflation of interior and exterior.

One of Searles’ most enduring themes is the use of clothing as a stand-in for the body underneath, be it a specific individual (such as her parents’ repurposed clothing in Drifting in my Own Land) or as a more general cultural signifier (the nature-encrusted blazers and jackets of re-coverings in 1996). The red jacket that has formed the base of Hirsute Coat was gifted to Searles by (Western Australian-born, Tasmanian-based) painter Lorraine Biggs, who wore it in her youth. A beautifully constructed hand-sewn garment, it has been needle-felted by Searles with hair donated by friends and family (including her father’s, and some of my own), evoking the masochism of saints’ hair shirts. Searles has previously used her own hair in her work, but the mixing of multiple people’s lends this work an added frisson of the taboo. Through its combination of well-mannered, hand-stitched construction and the prickly interiority of the corporeal Hirsute Coat brings archetypal connotations of the feral – the work reads as a conflation of red riding hood and the wolf – and the carnal.

Searles’ work frequently has sexual overtones. In painstakingly sheathing her former clothesline in hand-stitched red cotton, she has created a disturbingly intestine-like tangle in Tracking, (though carefully leaving a section of rope exposed in tribute to its sturdy construction and the many clothes/bodies/memories it supported in its previous life). However, at the same time, it is an impossibly-extended phallus with comical Freudian associations.

Like Freud, Searles has a fascination for looking to humankind’s past as a way of understanding its present, and in recent years her field of reference has retreated to our distant history.

Like Freud, Searles has a fascination for looking to humankind’s past as a way of understanding its present, and in recent years her field of reference has retreated to our distant history. The Freudian-inspired works she created for An Internal Difficulty in 2015 literally incorporated antiquated crafted objects – a carved wooden goddess figure from New Guinea, a heavy disc-shaped bead of pale green Roman glass, and a fragment of a Syrian clay figurine (circa 2,300 BC) encased in her ‘brain basket’ (which also made a feature of dark red coiling). Her Kangaroo Couple (2009) were two of a number of deeply uncanny hybrids created over the course of her career that seem born of the curious union of white woman and Western Australian landscape, like Pasiphaë and the snow-white bull. Though distinctively Australian, the pair evoked the gravitas of Egyptian deities.

Her new Pubic Triangle is infinitely more minimal than these works – almost a sketch – but is equally inspired by ancient art, in particular representations of the goddess Inanna/Ishtar, who would later become associated with Aphrodite/Venus. It recalls female figures and sexual organs depicted in Palaeolithic cave art in sites such as Roc-aux-Sorciers, La Madeleine sur Tarn and Tito Bustillo [Clottes and Lewis-Williams, 1998, 44-45]. Its hectic stitching in luxurious Japanese black cotton thread from Kyoto is suggestive of pubic hair. “And this stitch is so free. You just go wherever you want to…” she states of this looser, more gestural style, which she attributes to the fact that her eyes are “conking out”. As such it is comparable to the painterly marks of desert painters such as Jakayu Bilyabu, Nancy Nyanjilpayi Chapman, Eubena Nampitjin (dec), and Bugai Whyoulter (to name a few) in their senior years. They speak of the artists’ ageing bodies (failing eyesight and wobbly hands) but, more importantly, resonate with assertiveness, seniority, a highly-refined aesthetic and profound cultural power.

Searles has mused that Finders Keepers may be her final exhibition, a sentiment that has driven the development of these red works, “…so I’m thinking about that as I make the work. All the angst. Every stitch is a story. Every stitch is a word.” As such they beg comparison with what has proceeded them. Early in her career Searles’ primary focus was the basketry meticulously structured with bush-sourced materials that sang of the harsh beauty of the State’s desert landscapes, and objects exploring the ‘making do’ tradition of the white women who dwelt there. Such women are honoured in Searles’ practice. There is a palpable sense of respect for their endeavours (however flawed) to forge a truce with their surroundings in order to get on with the important business of domestic life. And there is an equal fascination with their inevitable failure, the subsequent merging of landscape and woman—what curator Kevin Murray dubbed the ‘poetics of infestation’ [2009, 18]—seen in her bush-wrapped and embellished clothing and camp wares. And then emerge the cast of playful yet threatening, hybrids, the haunting kangaroo-headed women and Xanthorrhoea-prickled dolls that seem to have stepped out of a fever dream of the Western Australian bush. But always they were situated firmly within the landscape—even her Freudian works incorporated twigs and snakes from the Goldfields. Finders Keepers brings us the first body of work not explicitly about the State’s interior, but her own. Unlike Ariadne’s red thread, they lead us only forward, ever deeper into the maze.

Andrew Nicholls, 2021


All quotes by Nalda Searles are taken from an interview with the artist. Perth: April, 2021.

Clottes, J., & Lewis-Williams, J.D. 1998. The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves. New York: Harry Abrams.

Mahdihassan, S. 1984. Outline of the Beginnings of Alchemy and its Antecedents. The American Journal of Chinese Medicine, Vol. 12, Ed. 1-4. Bethesda: National Library of Medicine. 32-42.

Finlay, R. 2007. Weaving the Rainbow: Visions of Colour in World History. Journal of World History, Vol. 18, Ed. 4 (December). Manoa: University of Hawai’i. 383-431.

Murray, K. 2009. Nalda Searles and the Poetics of Infestation, from Nalda Searles, Drifting in my Own Land (exhibition catalogue). Perth: Nalda Searles and ART ON THE MOVE. 18-23.

Pastoureau, M. 2018. Red: The History of a Colour, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Phipps, E. 2010. Cochineal Red: The Art History of a Colour. Adapted from The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol. 67, Ed. 3 (Winter). New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Kuniecki , M., Pilarczyk, J. & Wichary, s. 2015. The color red attracts attention in an emotional context. An ERP study. Psychophysiology Laboratory, Institute of Psychology, Jagiellonian University, Kraków, Poland. Retrieved from, May, 2021.

Nalda Searles working on Hirsute coat, 2021, recycled red wool coat (gift of Lorraine Biggs), human hair, dimensions variable. Photograph by Rebecca Mansell.

Nalda Searles writes: 

Why red? Red is liberation. It is revolution. It Congeals. It Reveals. It Conceals. It is love. It is anger. It is living. It is passion. It is danger. It is freedom. Almost all of life returns to red.

Nalda Searles – Finders Keepers is at Mundaring Arts Centre, Perth 14 August – 31 October 2021. 

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