Sera Waters: Domestic arts

Sera Waters, Telling Tales on Terry Towelling Fashioning locals, 2016 17, towel, wool, cotton, bedsheet, velvet, trim. Courtesy the artist and Hugo Michell Gallery. Photo: Grant Hancock
Sera Waters, Telling Tales on Terry Towelling Fashioning locals, 2016‑17, towel, wool, cotton, bedsheet, velvet, trim. Courtesy the artist and Hugo Michell Gallery. Photo: Grant Hancock

Titling an exhibition for a contemporary art space Domestic Arts is a bold move. The words conjure an out-of-date framing of home chores, from cooking and cleaning to “the gentle crafts” and the construction of this as the domain of women and “women’s work.” It irks of a chauvinistic condescending tone, and carries several centuries of references to publications and schools dedicated to the tutelage of feminine ideals and other forms of women’s oppression. It is a title that made me distinctly uncomfortable. Yet that is exactly what Adelaide‑based artist Sera Waters intended. “[D]iscomfort and unsettledness is necessary,” she notes, and this new body of work presented in Domestic Arts is an articulation of just why.[1]

Originally a student of painting, Waters began working with textiles—specifically hand‑embroidery techniques that her female forebears may have learned—as a means of expanding her vocabulary to better articulate personal and historical reflections, in a subversive and destabilising manner. “My Nana never embroidered anything bad—only the niceties of life, not the reality,” Waters mused not long after she returned to Australia from studying Western European stitching techniques at the Royal School of Needlework at Hampton Court Palace in England in 2006.[2] By contrast, in the relatively recent twentieth-century traditions of the “subversive stitch,” Waters applied her newly honed fine skills to the depictions of crime scenes, butchered meats, large knives and the rise in use of methamphetamine. Waters’ works since this time have, in various conceptual and material capacities, reflected on “memories of dramas,” particularly those that have occurred within her home state of South Australia.[3]

Waters has sought out personal stories—about her English, Irish, Scottish and German forbears, from colonial to contemporary times—and their junctures with the collective histories of Australian settlement. For the most part, this is so as to unpack and destabilise her place in contemporary Australia as a woman, and specifically as a white woman living on Kaurna land; “a present-day beneficiary of settler colonisation.”[4] Waters explains that she finds the most impetus to make when encountering holes in recorded narratives, especially those that make her uneasy: “I try to see details which have been overlooked or hidden. When I am ready, I use my (historicallyinformed) imagination to fill in gaps, make connections across time, re-imagine these histories with all of their knotty tangles intact.”[5]

As an artist, writer, and lecturer, it quickly became apparent in researching Waters and her works in Domestic Arts that across all three areas of her practice, language and making are inherently entwined. Over the past decade her written practice has also developed a distinct fluidity between literal and metaphorical material references: she speaks of the historical, personal and political issues with which she engages as “tangled legacies”, and her desire in presenting new works underpinned by “an opportunity to examine the threads that have been inherited from the past, to intentionally reset their course.”[6] 

At the time of writing, Waters is at the pointy end of her doctorate candidature at the University of South Australia where she is in the midst of both making and writing about her practice. The evidence of her research net being cast widely across multiple disciplines—memory studies, social histories, personal ancestry, feminisms, craft and textile theory, and settler colonial studies—is apparent in the rich conceptual layering in Domestic Arts. While each work could be discussed from these multiple perspectives, as a mere introduction to the depth and breadth of Domestic Arts this essay draws out key works as examples of just four broad “threads”: memory and embodied knowledge; whiteness and privilege; environmental legacies of colonisation; time and labour. Woven throughout, is a consideration of the conceptual significance of Waters’ medium.

When Waters began to speak about the works being developed for Domestic Arts, she used phrases like “stories absorbed by” and “stains seeping out.” Then, as the images began to trickle through, it began to feel uncannily like Waters was not in fact stitching into her fabrics, but rather drawing forth stories already embedded within their fibres. For this body of work, almost all of her textiles are found, second hand or inherited—ranging from sheets and towels to discarded needlework. “I am using the very stuff which makes homes comforting and safe, to disturb them.”[7] Selected for this dual “homely” and “unhomely” sensibility, these are the kinds of familiar textiles that Maxine Bristow has described as bearing witness to our lives through proximity to our bodies, and are thus able to provide us with “convincing testimony, not because they are evident and physically constrain or enable but often precisely because we do not see them.”[8]

Peter Stallybrass has similarly said that the “life of textiles … takes on a ghostly existence, emerging to prominence, or even to consciousness, only at moments of crisis.”[9] While Waters’ re-contextualisation of ubiquitous everyday materials within bold conceptual parameters provokes us to “see” them in Domestic Arts, her colour palette of mustards, greens and white also adds a provocatively periodic filter, tinged with nostalgia not for one particular era but for multiple times and peoples past.

Sera Waters, Leaky Sleep of the Sullied, 2017, found bedspread, hand-dyed bed sheets, cotton, stuffing, rope, found handles. Courtesy the artist and Hugo Michell Gallery. Photo: Grant Hancock
Sera Waters, Leaky Sleep of the Sullied, 2017, found bedspread, hand-dyed bed sheets, cotton, stuffing, rope, found handles. Courtesy the artist and Hugo Michell Gallery. Photo: Grant Hancock

Leaky Sleep Of The Sullied (2017) is an incredibly personal work comprising a patchwork made from sheets once owned by Waters’ grandmother, which she believes may have also belonged to her great grandmother. Overlaid on a mustard-hued bedspread—complete with ruffled flounce—each small hexagon of hand‑dyed, fleshy toned cotton creates the pixelated form of a figure hunched in an attempt to protect and conceal. Waters’ late grandmother embroidered the “pleasant and traditional subjects of flora and fauna” so as to present an ideal femininity that revealed nothing of her “tough time growing up.”[10] 

Waters knows the vague shapes of the secrets her grandmother held, but nothing of what she really endured. “She contained all of that stuff so as not to pass it on,” Waters notes. “In a way that’s a touching legacy, but what damage did that do?”[11]Waters speaks of this homage to her grandmother as an evocation of the “stained self,” an inescapable blemish on the bed linen of the secrets retained by the unconscious “that you can’t escape at night time.”[12] “Cloth holds the sometimes unbearable gift of memory,” Jenni Sorkin writes, and “[s]tains are nearly impossible to hide.”[13] In this regard, Leaky Sleep of the Sullied speaks more broadly to memory studies research into embodied knowledge, inherited trauma and sets the tone for her broader investigation of what Waters has termed “genealogical ghostscapes.”

Looking at the lineages of certain relatives becomes a way for Waters to consider what legacies have been “passed along willingly, handed down invisibly, buried beneath muted layers, or [that] haunt the present in the ghosts of the disavowed.”[14] Exposing herself to this information is also, Waters explains, about “becoming aware of my own complicity too—that I am a carrier of these legacies. It is an unsettling of the self through investigating embodied knowledge.” Waters’ engagement with ideas of memory and remembering has informed much of the way she approaches her practice, “[it] is for me as much about forgetting as it is remembering,” she states, “what we have lopped off, or what was deemed too messy for that linear narrative that fits a perspective of [white] Australia.”[15]

Sera Waters, Basking, 2016-17, linen, cotton, sequins, tablecloth, handmade glow in the dark beads. Courtesy the artist and Hugo Michell Gallery. Photo: Grant Hancock
Sera Waters, Basking, 2016-17, linen, cotton, sequins, tablecloth, handmade glow in the dark beads. Courtesy the artist and Hugo Michell Gallery. Photo: Grant Hancock

In Basking (2017), Waters makes particular reference to the narratives, hidden histories and privilege of Wilhelmina, her great-great-grandmother. “Wilhelmina, the knot at the centre of this family tangle, is symbolic,” Waters explains, “of the knot of Australia’s continuing settler colonial inheritance, as it intersects and becomes entwined around shifting terrains of gender, race and socio‑economic situations.”[16] While Wilhelmina’s husband managed a farm regionally during the first half of the twentieth century, she lived with her daughters in a home they called The Nest, located in the coastal town of Robe, South Australia. In Basking, using her signature finely hand‑embroidered technique—ironically in this context known as “black work” —Waters has depicted Wilhelmina’s countenance in shades of white cotton on a white linen cloth. The delicacy of the stitches gives the impression that the image is a part of the very texture of the fabric, and the pristine cloth is scattered with shimmering sequins and flanked by a golden halo of tablecloth.

Contrary to the omission of women from “numerous early twentieth century documents,” Waters found this image among Wilhelmina’s photo albums, which include predominantly images “of women, by women.”[17] Waters acknowledges the significance of being able to ascertain the role of Wilhelmina as a feisty female role model from these albums, backed up by other historical material, and has considered that she would have considerably battled the gendered expectations of her time.[18] But in this context Waters also addresses the privilege afforded Wilhelmina, asking what other narratives and hidden histories have been unwittingly (or wittingly) misconstrued or whitewashed by absence rather than presence, including those of Wilhelmina’s Aboriginal domestic servants.[19]

Robe is on the land of the Bunganditj people yet, as Waters observes, “[a]s far as these photographs show, the culture of the Bunganditj did not concern Wilhelmina and her family, who prioritised their imported culture, their storymaking upon this land, their white family narratives most highly.”[20] These albums align with a period in which multitudes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families continued to be shattered by the legislated removal of their children, and the era over which the White Australia policy held political and social sway.[21] The shimmering whiteness of this portrayal of Wilhelmina is accordingly no accident.

Banner of Mine (2017) began in part as a reference to Wilhelmina, prompted by an image of “a mother’s union, or feminist union of the early 1900s,” conducting their meeting in front of a banner reading “Cultivate an All Australian Outlook,” which Waters encountered on the cover of a publication titled Loving Protection?Australian Feminism and Aboriginal Women’s Rights.[22] “Many of those women remind me so much of my great‑great‑grandmother, and her sense of (often misplaced) loving protection as a mother in Australia. Her idea of cultivation was undoubtedly coloured by her white and middle‑class station in life.”[23]

Sera Waters, Banner of Mine, 2017, towels, woollen blanket, trim, glow in the dark thread, metallic thread, cotton, brass poles. Courtesy the artist and Hugo Michell Gallery. Photo: Grant Hancock
Sera Waters, Banner of Mine, 2017, towels, woollen blanket, trim, glow in the dark thread, metallic thread, cotton, brass poles. Courtesy the artist and Hugo Michell Gallery. Photo: Grant Hancock

Banner of Mine is comprised of secondhand white towels, a patchwork of white cloth hewn roughly in the shape of the state of South Australia. It is in direct reference to a map charting colonial mines, and to mark these locations Waters quoted from the kitsch domestic mail-order aesthetic of his and hers towels, outsourcing the machine embroidery in shimmering gold thread of the word “Mine”. Rather than the once glorified, gilded colonial national narrative of mining’s might and prosperity, this work alludes to Waters’ discomfort at her implication by heredity in these acts of occupation, displacement and environmental degradation. The large white banner leans conspicuously against the white wall. Abandoned by its champions and sagging between its two golden poles, it reflects the state of political limbo regarding Aboriginal sovereignty and land rights; a metaphorical elephant in the room.

Towels, Waters explained early on, have a distinctive role in this body of work for their capacity to metaphorically convey ideas of “soaking up” or “absorbing” history, particularly that of the domestic realm.[24] They are also so evocative of the connection with the human body that in this context perhaps the towel also suggests the “airing of one’s dirty laundry.” The Telling Tales on Terry Towelling series (2016–17) comprises embroidered figurative references to environmental and social legacies of the past that emerge from, and recede into the colours, textures and patterns of vintage towels, including those owned by her grandparents. Here, such issues as the loss of bird species at Lake Fellmongery due to wool-processing pollution and Waters’ speculation on the role of her Wilhelmina in the extinction of the Toolache Wallaby are neatly displayed like oversized souvenir tea towels.[25]

Palms, Waters notes, are another striking marker of white settlement across South Australia, with many of the non‑native species planted at the foundation of homes in colonial outposts during the nineteenth- and early-twentieth centuries.[26] Palm trees are the centre piece of Colonial Beacons (2017), Waters’ grand wallpaper that depicts an idyllic sunset scene in the garden of The Nest. As a serendipitous result of flash photography, the ghostly bright white form of a large palm tree appears to be ripping through the centre of the wallpaper. Scaled to appear like a view out of the (non-existent) back window of the ACE Open exhibition space, the wallpaper is in fact printed from an image of the long-stitch study Waters made after the original photograph; a photographic reproduction of a stitched homage to the darkness underpinning this apparently idyllic landscape.

Sera Waters, Colonial Beacons 2017, printed wallpaper. Courtesy the artist and Hugo Michell Gallery. Photo: Grant Hancock

The long-stitched original form of Colonial Beacons is a reference to the de-skilling in embroidery, as an “art of domesticity” in the late-twentieth century. The aesthetic borrows from the DIY stitch‑by‑numbers kits of the 1980s that offered the desired look of the handmade for the increasingly time poor, and possibly untrained, embroiderer. Waters has written lucidly and passionately on the social histories of these kits, particularly those produced by Semco for the Australian market in the 1980s, with their Hans Heysenesque Federation-era pastoral scenes that speak to the wilful denial of a settler population celebrating the bicentenary of colonisation in a decade dominated by issues of Aboriginal land rights.[27]

Boundary Wreath (2017) similarly presents a deflated, or misshapen homage to these out‑dated forms of domestic needlework decoration and domestic gardens as another form of claiming space. The work comprises a collage of non-native flower fragments from needlework kits—a reference to her forebears’ gardens, such as that of her grandfather, who “jumped ship from Germany and came here and planted a rose garden in The Riverland, which is very arid country,” then subsequently won awards for it.[28] As a “wreath,” this work offers a particular kind of remembrance for the time invested in such gardens, but also conversely for the ecosystems and lives affected by such non-native growth. “It is a very common claiming practice that we see as ‘nice’ rather than staking territory and stealing land.”[29]

Boundary Wreath can also be viewed as an homage to the invisible labour of home-making, and to the time of the unknown makers whose discarded needlecrafts Waters describes feeling compelled to collect, as they seemed like “lost souls in the op-shop.”[30] As with ideas of memory, every work in Domestic Arts can be considered in relation to Waters’ interest in an embodiment of labour and time. Indeed, by 2010, Waters expressed that one of her main mediums had in fact become time, and that her performative desire to work with the labour-intensive medium of embroidery had evolved from the desire to “make time” in her practice to better reflect on her place in the contemporary world.[31]

Sera Waters, Boundary Wreath, 2017, found woollen needleworks, wool, velveteen, beanfill, hooks. Courtesy the artist and Hugo Michell Gallery. Photo: Grant Hancock
Sera Waters, Boundary Wreath, 2017, found woollen needleworks, wool, velveteen, beanfill, hooks. Courtesy the artist and Hugo Michell Gallery. Photo: Grant Hancock

Waters has expressed unease about reducing the concept of time in her practice to a literal reference to the hours invested in making a work.[32] While hours and minutes can offer us as viewers a kind of empathetic comprehension of the investment, this establishes a complicated framework for the value judgement of a work of art made with a craft‑based medium. Hours and minutes push a work of art towards what Rozsika Parker has described as simply “work,” which in turn provokes “the stereotype realm that labour and time, ‘patience,’ go into embroidery but not much else.”[33] Waters has explained that in what she terms “repetitive crafting” approaches to making art, she is more interested in the potential to reveal a “transference of energy, through its suspension materially within artworks.”[34]

Working with found materials, repetitive crafting, time, memory and language, Waters does indeed harness a distinct energy in Domestic Arts. The genius of her unsettling title is that it lays bare at the outset the discomfort carried by the cultural baggage of times past, especially those with unresolved legacies in the present. In this major new body of work, Waters leaves us with an “opportunity to examine the threads that have been inherited from the past,” as an open-ended prompt for discussions about how we might best “intentionally reset their course.”[35]



  1. ^ Sera Waters, Embroidering Ghostscapes, unpublished paper, presented at Heritage, the Now and the Future of Embroidery conference (Hand & Lock 250th year celebration). Carriageworks, Sydney. April 6, 2017
  2. ^  Waters quoted in Hemmings, Jessica, “The Dark Side,” Embroidery, September/October issue, 2009, p.24
  3. ^ Ibid
  4. ^ Sera Waters, Women of the Nest: legacies from the home-front of settler colonial South Australia, unpublished paper, presented at Intersections: 3rd Annual Interdisciplinary Gender and Sexuality Studies Conference, UniSA, Adelaide, September 19–20, 2016. Waters is quoting Susan Best, “Reparative Aesthetics: Witnessing in Contemporary Art Photography,” London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016
  5. ^ Waters, Embroidering Ghostscapes 
  6. ^ Waters, Women of the Nest
  7. ^ Waters, Embroidering Ghostscapes 
  8. ^ Maxine Bristow,  “Continuity of Touch: Textile as Silent Witness” in The Textile Reader, ed. Jessica Hemmings, London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012, p. 45 
  9. ^ Peter Stallybrass, “Worn Worlds: Clothes, Mourning and the Life of things,”The Textile Reader, 2012, p.71 
  10. ^ Waters quoted in Hemmings, Embroidery, 2009; conversation with the author, 10 April 2017 
  11. ^ Conversation, 10 April 2017
  12. ^ Ibid
  13. ^ Jenni Sorkin, “Stain: on cloth, Stigma, and Shame,” The Textile Reader, 2012, pp. 60–61 
  14. ^ Waters, Women of the Nest 
  15. ^ Conversation, 10 April 2017 
  16. ^ Waters, Women of the Nest 
  17. ^ Ibid 
  18. ^ Conversation, 10 April 2017; and Waters, Women of the Nest 
  19. ^  Conversation, 10 April and 8 June 2017, Waters referred to questions she had about these relationships with the Stolen Wages generations. She also spoke about the complexity of the information she has uncovered about these people employed by Wilhelmina and the responsibilities and sensitivities she has moving forward with such information 
  20. ^ Waters, Women of the Nest
  21. ^ Conversation, 10 April 2017 
  22. ^  Correspondence with author, 1 June 2017
  23. ^  F. Paisley, Loving Protection? Australian Feminism and Aboriginal Women’s Rights 1919–1939, Melbourne University Press, 2000 
  24. ^  Conversation, 10 April 2017 
  25. ^ Ibid
  26. ^ Ibid
  27. ^  Conversation, 10 April 2017
  28. ^ Sera Waters, “Inside the outback: An exploration of domesticated landscapes in Semco’s Long Stitch Originals series of the 1980s”, craft + design enquiry, no. 7, 2015, pp. 21–48: 
  29. ^ Conversation, 10 April 2017 
  30. ^ Correspondence with author, 8 June 2017
  31. ^  Ibid 
  32. ^ Waters in interview, Sasha Grbich, Adelaide Central School of Art: 
  33. ^ Sera Waters, “Repetitive crafting: The shared aesthetic of time in Australian contemporary art”, craft + design enquiry, no. 4, 2012, p. 71:, accessed 10 May 2017 
  34. ^ Rozsika Parker, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the making of the Feminine, rev. edn, London: L. B. Tauris, 2010, pp.5–6
  35. ^  Waters, Women of the Nest.

Miriam Kelly is a senior curator at Artbank. This catalogue essay was first published for the ACE Open South Australian Artist Commission 2017 monograph series to coincide with the exhibition Sera Waters: Domestic Arts at ACE Open, Adelaide, 21 July – 26 August 2017.