Curated by Sandra Murray, ‘Finders Keepers: Nalda Searles’ is a powerful and intimate solo exhibition that features over 50 of the artist’s works from public and private collections, many on display for the first time. Showing at Mundaring Arts Centre in Western Australia as part of the Indian Ocean Craft Triennial, the exhibition spotlights the career of one of Western Australia’s most important living artists in what may likely be her last major solo exhibition due to deteriorating health.
‘Finders Keepers’ features a robust and varied selection of artworks that privilege tactility and operate on a scale proportional to the human body. Key curatorial motifs, particularly the importance of place, reverberate throughout the exhibition’s jewellery, sculpture and photography. The works are an earthy palette offset by pomegranate and terracotta walls, referencing the red earth of Western Australia where Searles has travelled and lived.
Searles’ works are arranged in conversational groupings throughout the gallery. Exuding gravitas, they recall the talismanic, totemic, or apotropaic; a giant foreboding pair of faceless human-kangaroo hybrid weaved guardians stand sentry to the exhibition.
When looking at Searles’ work, I am reminded of a quote by Dr Lisa Slade when talking about the work of another Perth-based artist, Olga Cironis; ‘She transforms everyday materials into the amuletic.’ Nalda talks of ‘imbibing’ the objects with spirit. I am so moved by their aura in the gallery, I ask curator Sandra Murray what shapes Searles’ relationship to the occult, spiritual, otherworldly might take, and Searles shares this reply:
‘I dawdled wherever I found points of interest… There was never any academic structure to my learning and this aspect gave me that which could be named spirituality, mythology and culturality… played a huge role in my naive development and because I was so serious about it all I seemed to attract mentors… Eileen Keys was a major demonstrator of this… she took a piece of wood to a clay figure I had made and she beat it and hammered and right in front of my eyes there was spirituality. I knew then what I needed to seek… and have done so ever since.’ 1
Seek, find and make Searles did for over four decades; the exhibition teems with evidence of her travels through the Southern Cross to the Wheatbelt, the Goldfields and beyond to the Sandy Desert and the Pilbara. There is an interesting tension – the domestic, human scale of Searles’ works is complicated by her use of materials from the natural landscape that add a sense of grandiosity and invoke the labour of geological time. These notions are evident in works like the newly created metres long over-extended stitched sculpture Suture line and the larger-than-life weighted Stone shoes. These objects transgress boundaries between the decorative, the utilitarian, and the aesthetic, and are equally experienced on emotional and conceptual levels.
This is an exhibition where the curator and artist have collaborated closely on its genesis and production; Murray says it was a protracted process – due to the artist’s poor health, all communications had to take place over email or in person. This labour was one the curator says she felt privileged to undertake, stating that Searles is an artist ‘tenacious, loyal, loving, intelligent, an amazing person that I felt it a privilege to come to know.’
Searles’ tenacity is evident in the painstaking labour of her intricate creations. The land is her studio; the exhibition features a host of artworks made from items retrieved on her travels and those gifted to her by friends, as well as objects from her own collection. Complemented by didactic panels that reveal the stories, materials and inspirations behind the artworks in Searles’ own words, the personal is central to this exhibition; after wandering through the gallery, I feel the artist is intensely familiar.
It is a privilege to get so close to the instigator of an entire art movement (using Australian plant fibre and found objects); and to hear directly from the woman, artist and storyteller behind it. Murray does not slip into voyeurism or essentialism, and tactfully incorporates the various tenements of Searles’ practice and celebrates her relationship to contemporary fibre sculpture. ‘Finders Keepers’ is a thoughtful and attentive exhibition that eloquently articulates the immensity of Searles’ longstanding and important contribution to sculptural practice in Australia.
Aimee Dodds is a Perth-based arts writer and emerging curator.
Mundaring Arts Centre
14 August to 31 October 2021
- Quote from Nalda Searles, email to Sandra Murray, 25 August 2021.