Shirley Macnamara / Indjalandji/Alyawarr / Australia b.1949 / Erkel (vessel) 2010 / Twined spinifex (Triodia pungens), red ochre, galah feathers, nylon thread and synthetic polymer fixative / 14 x 31 x 25cm / Purchased 2010 with funds from the Bequest of Grace Davies and Nell Davies through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © The artist

Shirley Macnamara
Erkel (vessel) 2010

Not Currently on Display

Motivated by a desire to work with materials from her surroundings, Shirley Macnamara found inspiration in the tough, resilient spinifex plant. Traditionally, spinifex could be the basis of a makeshift shelter or humpy, while its resin was used to bind spearheads, as well as for medicinal purposes. However, as Macnamara states: ‘I am not using traditional knowledge, just my own curiosity.’1

Strand by strand, Macnamara shapes and twists the spinifex strands into forms that are both tough and graceful. In Erkel she continues to explore the shapes that arise organically from her chosen material. Sometimes, Macnamara will use feathers shed by passing galahs, or rich ochres pasted on in contrasting textures, adding extra dimensions to the works.


1 Shirley Macnamara and Anneke Silver. ‘Spinifex, ochres and the land: Anneke Silver interviews Shirley Macnamara’. Periphery, no. 33, Summer 1997–98, pp.28-9.

Shirley Macnamara runs a thriving cattle property with her son and his family near Mount Isa in western Queensland. She has close ties with Camooweal and the surrounding country through her mother’s Indjalandji people, and with Alyawarr lands, particularly Lake Nash, through her father.

Macnamara started painting in 1987, but began to experiment with weaving in 1992. She is well known for the guutu (vessels) she makes using combinations of synthetic and natural materials. In particular, she likes to work with spinifex (Triodia pungens), a tough, spikey native grass commonly found in the driest parts of Australia.

Spinifex’s long roots help keep the soil together so that the sand does not spread and create more desert. For Macnamara, spinifex embodies strength and utility, and she uses it to create tactile sculptures that reflect her surroundings, culture and history, as well as personal experiences and memories.

Discussion Questions

1. The spinifex Macnamara uses to create her vessels reflects the culture and history of her own people. Is there a plant that your family has a connection with or likes to grow?

Classroom Activities

Use paper and charcoal, chalk, or crayons to create rubbings from a range of textured surfaces around the classroom or school grounds. Use the rubbings to create a collage in response to one of Shirley Macnamara’s vessels.