Katie West: Living well

Katie west wildflowers
Katie West and wildflowers of Yindjibarndi country, Nyinart Yinda artist in residence program, July 2017. Image courtesy of Juluwarlu Aboriginal Corporation

Muhlu means “cool time” and garwarrn means “hot time” in Yindjibarndi language. During muhlu I work with a hot natural dyeing process, collecting leaves, flowers and bark, to bundle up in fabric, prepared to be placed in a pot of water and left to boil on the fire. During the season there are many fires and many resulting pieces of fabric infused with place, the colour and smell of the country where I have been walking and collecting. The slower process of solar dying happens in garwarrn, when it is too hot to have a fire. Once again leaves, flowers and bark are bundled together, but this time are placed in glass jars of water. The jars are sealed and left in a sunny spot. Over a number of weeks the tannins migrate from plant material to organic fabric fibres.

Through these repetitive actions I become absorbed in the meditative qualities of the tasks, the environment and seasonal changes. A state of flow follows where all senses become engaged. Knowledge of plants and place is gained through moments to watch, smell, touch, and listen. My first attempt to translate this kind of sensory experience into an installation work was in developing Decolonist (2016). I hoped that by putting native plants in the same room as the symbols of Australian national identity these symbols might become grounded. What does this country feel like, sound like, and smell like? What would Australian national identity feel like if it were founded on both the history and ecology of this landmass? Where do we human beings fit in this ecology?

Bundles of fabric dyeing on the fire, Nyinart Yinda artist in residence program, July 2017. Image couresty of Juluwarlu Aborginal Corporation 
Muhlu Garrwarn (detail), glass jars, bawa (water), watharn (green leaves ), birditha (dry leaves), jurdubirri (native flower), burlaawa (non-native flower), birra (bark). Photo:Lucia Rossi 
Muhlu Garrwarn (detail), bush-dyed fabric, yirrarla (calico), cotton thread, jirri (needle). Photo: Lucia Rossi

While Decolonist was pitched at a broader social context, it is bound with a grief I carry, inherited through my mother’s experience as one of the Stolen Generations. It also privileges my gravitation towards forms of making and presenting that engage more than one sense. Guided by an inkling that this is the way life might have been—the way my mother, siblings and I would have learnt about our place in Yindjibarndi country, learning about the world through daily interactions between members of an extended family of people, plants, animals and landforms. Decolonist is a work firmly positioned within a human‑made social world that is the Western conception of the nation state. It was the beginning of imagining a contemporary reality that might reflect the custodial ethics practised by our ancestors.

Haudenosaunee‑French woman Laura Hall uses the term “Indigenous aesthetic” to describe creative practice grounded in culture and community, entwined with the responsibilities of living well in the ecologies we inherit from our old people.[1] By this logic my body and those of other Yindjibarndi people are a continuation of Yindjibarndi country; the artwork we make is the result of generations of our people tending to the health and wellbeing of country in a spirit of co-becoming that is the biosphere.

Katie West, Muhlu Garrwarn scores. Photo: Lucia Rossi

The ways of knowing, being and doing imposed upon country for the last 230 years are modes of existence that grew from an ecology far from here. It takes time to find our place. Too many years of non‑recognition means there are many relationships in need of repair. Audre Lord writes: “You cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools.”[2] The tools to repair relationships were already here in the objects our old people fashioned with their hands and the seasonal practices that regenerate country. A close proximity between our human bodies and our environment was always maintained. We did not overreach. Instead we returned to the same places to resume the work of others before us and used our hands to grinding the same stones to make flour. We worked the same grasses, to make the same threads, to make the same fishing nets and baskets.

Working as an artist involves solitude, but it is the relationships with others that make our practices tangible. Nyinyart is the Yindjibarndi value of supporting one another, Yinda means deep permanent pool of water. Last year I had the opportunity to reconnect with my Yindjibarndi kin through the Nyinyart Yinda artist-in-residence program with Juluwarlu Aboriginal Corporation in Roebourne. I was able to share my natural dying practice, with nanas, sisters, and cousins and become familiar with the plants that grow on Yindjibarndi country. These are relationships that will also grow with time. Being an artist is the way I am carving a path home, working toward the moment where it will feel as if I am simply resuming the work of those before me. Working at the pace of our old people and tending to good relations with non‑human kin is where I wish to dwell.

Decolonist, 2016 installation view, West Space for Next Wave Festival 2016. Photo: Christo Crocker


  1. ^ Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin, Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies, London: Open Humanities Press, n. p. 2015
  2. ^ Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, n. p. 1984.

As well as her individual practice Katie West has an ongoing collaborative project with artist Fayen D’Evie, Museum Incognita, which revisits concealed or obscured histories. Katie recently completed a Master of Contemporary Art from the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne, where she was the recipient of the Dominik Mersch Gallery Award and the Falls Creek Resort Indigenous Award.