Shirley Macnamara / Indjalandji/Alyawarr / Australia b.1949 / Skullcap 2013 / Spinifex (Triodia pungens), red ochre, emu feathers, spinifex resin and synthetic polymer fixative / 14 x 21cm (diam.) / Purchased 2014 with funds from Gina Fairfax through the Queensland Art Gallery I Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © The artist

Shirley Macnamara
Skullcap 2013

On Display: QAG, Gallery 14

Shirley Macnamara’s Skullcap is reminiscent of a customary Aboriginal women’s funerary rite, in which the heads of women mourners were plastered with white clay or burnt gypsum to form a heavy cap, worn for some time after a death.

Covered with emu feathers, this cap focuses attention on the largely unrecognised fate of Aboriginal soldiers who died fighting for their country in World War One. The emu feathers allude to the decorative plumes on the Australian soldiers’ slouch hats.

Around 1000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are estimated to have fought in World War One. However, only rarely did the Australian army note a soldier’s Aboriginality in his attestation paper, so the real number could be much higher.1


1 Australian War Memorial. ‘Aboriginal service during the First World War’. <>, accessed July 2019.

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 late 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. What is your first impression of Skullcap? Why do you think Macnamara chose emu feathers?

2. Shirley Macnamara has reflected here on a culturally significant ritual. What do you think she wants the audience to understand about this rite?

Classroom Activities

Design and construct a hat or cap that represents an important personal memory. Use recycled and natural materials that have personal significance to you or to the memory. Consider how you will attach your materials.