While many of her works centre around themes of resilience and belonging, it is first and foremost the material she uses that defines her practice and echoes the history of her ancestors. For the past twenty years, Shirley has used spinifex grass as the primary material for her sculptural works, a native plant with knife-like edges that has endured the harshest, most arid environments of Australia. Spinifex grass manages to survive in seemingly barren landscapes – and the metaphorical potential of this is not lost on Shirley.
Beyond its practical use, the artist’s relationship with spinifex is a complex one, digging through layers of personal and familial history. For Shirley, the grass represents her connection to her home and to the land, the two being inseparable from one another. Shirley explains, “The materials I use are very important, because they’re a part of the landscape, and they’re also part of the ongoing cycle that happens. But spinifex is a difficult material to work with. I often have to pick out pieces that end up in my fingers. It is difficult [laughs], but I just love it. I just love how it works for me.”
Shirley’s sculptures often take the form of vessels – specifically guutu, a traditional word meaning a vessel that can carry things. The symbolism of these guutu extend far beyond their humble forms. The artists explains that the relationship her grandmother and other older members of her family have with creating objects is a very important and emotive one. During the construction process, the Elders sing songs into their works to embed them with the stories of their land and their people. Shirley explains that she herself is not able to follow on with this tradition because it is lost to her, so instead she makes vessels as a symbol of holding and maintaining these traditions. Though this recognition of lineage is strong within her work, her methods and use of material is unique to her. “I taught myself,” she says. “I don’t know if our family members were weavers; our country is very dry. By the time I started, there was no one I could ask to show me what to do, so I just started doing it on my own. My spinifex work is all absolutely self-taught.”
During her recent art residency at The University of Queensland, Shirley began to experiment with large-scale installations – something she had never attempted before. Using her signature material together with found natural materials such as emu feathers, bones and ochres, the works retreat from the functional realm and enter the purely sculptural. Suspended from the ceiling are woven spinifex rings accompanied by images that collaboratively explore the traditions of her people, their resilience and their dependence on the land for strength. Underpinning these explorations is a pleading message of conservation and remembrance.
“I am just so passionate about caring for what we have in terms of the landscape, the country and the bush,” she says. “We need to be careful that we don’t disrupt anything too much; that we don’t mess the balance up.”
Shirley’s new series of sculpture works stand at a juncture between ancestral tradition and contemporary reinterpretation in which resilience is an anchor for survival.