Nalda Searles is a West Australian visual artist whose work in fibre textiles is nationally recognised for its intricate presentation and strong connections to the Australian landscape.
Nalda was born in Kalgoorlie in 1945 and grew up in the small town of Bullfinch in the Eastern Wheatbelt. One of six girls, Nalda often spent her time as a child “finding something creative to do.” She left school at 15 and undertook training in psychiatric nursing before taking off to travel through Africa, Australia and Asia. On her return to Australia in 1975, she was drawn to the arts, and her creative drive took over.
In 1979, Nalda took a short course in macramé and learned how to manipulate materials, igniting a passion for the woven cord and string. After completing the course, Nalda began to collect materials from the land – bark, sticks, stones – and taught herself to weave fibre textile baskets. In 1982, Nalda applied for and received a grant from the Australia Council to develop a significant body of work. She packed her car and headed for Sandford Rocks, spending the next six weeks camping, gathering materials and weaving local fibres into primitive vessels. She coiled her stories into forms taking influence from both her travels and childhood. Upon her return, Nalda showed those works in her first major solo exhibition, Bush Meetings and Basketry with the Crafts Council of Western Australia.
With a great desire to develop her artistry, Nalda enrolled in a Fine Arts degree at Curtin University of Technology in 1989, majoring in painting. Despite studying a challenging art form, Nalda excelled. After graduating, she was invited to run a Healthway program in Kalgoorlie, teaching local Indigenous people, many of whom lived on the streets, to engage in art-based activities. The program ran for two years. Pantjiti Mary McLean, a Ngaatjatjarra woman, was one of the program’s participants. Nalda and Pantjiti formed a lifelong friendship; Pantjiti taught Ngaatjatjarra language to Nalda and they would later collaborate on major pieces.
In the early 1990s, Nalda was involved with a group of Western Desert women and began to teach basketry in remote communities alongside arts worker Thisbe Purich. Their teachings instigated the now renowned Tjanpi Desert Weavers. From the late 1980s onward, Nalda also worked with Lynwood Senior High School and Edith Cowan University (ECU) to conduct bush camps in northern WA for students interested in art. She taught at the ECU camps for 21 years.
In the mid-1990s, Nalda received a mid-career fellowship from the Department of Culture and Arts, which resulted in a major group exhibition at the Moores Building in 1997 entitled Re-Coverings. The exhibition combined her work in fibre arts with salvaged textiles and was shown as part of the Festival of Perth.
In 2003, Nalda formed an idea to hold a cross-cultural exhibition between Indigenous and non-Indigenous women in Western Australia. The outcome was the Seven Sisters: Fibres Arising in the West exhibition, works from the Inma Kunkurangkalpa, The Seven Sisters or Plieades star constellation, a major dreaming track which extends across the entire continent. Thirteen female artists from across the country participated and an exhibition toured the State in 2004. The project was an important step in cross-cultural relationships in the arts community. Included in the exhibition were seven life size fibre female figures, The Seven Sisters, that are now held in the Western Australian Museum.
In 2009, Nalda won the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Awards from Artsource. The same year, her largest exhibition to date, Drifting in My Own Land, opened at John Curtin Gallery. Nalda travelled with the exhibition to 18 different venues across Australia over four years, finishing up in 2013. In 2015, a number of Nalda’s works were featured as part of the An Internal Difficulty exhibition, based on the antiquity collections of Sigmund Freud at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts.
Through her work, Nalda creates a strong sense of place and displays a passionate relationship with the land. Nalda’s practice respectfully weaves her own stories with those of Australia’s traditional owners and injects her knowledge of history and mythology along the way. Art is her outlet. “You put your life into it. Your tragedy and your ecstasy.”
Nalda is a force to be reckoned with in the Australian art scene and her teachings have inspired countless new artists. She has conducted workshops in all corners of Australia and taken her skills overseas to India and South Africa.
Nalda Searles lives in Perth and still regularly travels to the Western Desert.