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Reviews/Visual Art

‘We hold you close’ – a cup of tea with your art

29 March 2022

More than an exhibition, ‘We hold you close’ is an invitation to participate in the spirit and culture of this land, discovers Ilona McGuire.

‘We hold you close’, Katie West ·
Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts ·

Wandering into the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA) from the bustling streets of Northbridge, I am embraced by sudden calm and the sounds of birdsong. At first glimpse, it feels like I have stumbled upon an oasis.

An exhibit from the We hold you close exhibition, pictured is fabric banners hang in front of a screen that is filled with a pink cloud and purple sky. In the centre, an oval features a person making string. We can't see their face, just their legs and hands.
Pastel hues and earthy tones swirl through hand-dyed banners in ‘We hold you close’. Photo: Cole Baxter

Scattered with pillows and laced with overhanging drapery, this sanctuary is “We hold you close”, a new exhibition by Yindjibarndi York-based artist Katie West, and her largest and most ambitious to date. Featuring textiles that have been hand-dyed with locally sourced plant matter, West’s installations create a welcoming space that, she says, acknowledges and honours family, friends, ancestors, and Country.

Curated by Eloise Sweetman, “We hold you close” is divided into three sections, each of which includes a cluster of cushions on which to sit. The aforementioned birdsong is part of a soundscape by composer Simon Charles that moves through the three galleries; chirrups, pattering rain, crackling fire, footsteps through the bush are interspersed with gentle strings.

In the main gallery space is the titular installation, We hold you close. Here, pastel hues and earthy tones swirl through hand-dyed fabric banners that hang from the ceiling. On a screen in front of the cushions, projected footage shows West’s hands twisting and pulling to create string. As you sit under the long, draped fabric banners, that gently wave with the flow of passers-by, it feels as though West has decided to join you.

Featured on those banners are embroidered representations of dillybags, traditionally woven bags created from natural fibres, commonly made and used by First Nations people across Australia. West explains she has not inherited this process of making, because of disruptions to the sharing of cultural knowledge. In particular, her mother was part of the Stolen Generations. Despite this, West powerfully reclaims her cultural birthright, in her own way, with the resources she has.

In the adjoining spaces, participants are welcome to pour themselves a cup of tea (Tea for We hold you close) or make string out of repurposed fabrics (Space to make string), while sinking into those lovely big cushions.

In a filmed interview, also on display at PICA, West explains that “We Hold You Close” is a space for intimate interactions, “the kind … that get created between people when you’re doing something like making string together.” Making string with plant fibre, she explains, is an activity that her ancestors practised. In paying homage to this practice, she “holds them close”.

Though very much about the personal and interpersonal, the work is also quietly political. West’s deliberate decision to allow viewers to touch everything in the show is a way of decolonising the space, exploring what decolonised museum spaces might be and feel like.

We hold you close exhibit artist Katie West, she stands and works on an art piece made of coloured string.
Quietly political: Katie West with her work ‘Space to make string’. Photo: Bo Wong

As a First Nations woman myself, of Noongar and Kungarakan descent, I felt especially connected to this world West has created for us. I sank into the cushion and suddenly had no desire to leave any time soon. I could feel myself wanting to deeply contemplate my life, family who I miss, Kungarakan Country that I miss, and scribble it all in my diary whilst I sat there.

Though I chose to enter this work without prior knowledge of its themes, I found myself considering exactly the ideas that West says she seeks to convey. I understand it and feel it deeply; as a practising artist I too have created works that directly call to my ancestors, for the same reasons. The yearning is there, the desires we feel as we navigate a world rooted in colonialism. We attempt to build new ways of connecting with our spirit and culture, reclaiming something that we know is still there in spirit, whether it’s by drinking bush tea, making string or decolonising a space.

Katie West’s exhibition invites all visitors to join in that reclamation, to “hold close” the spirit and culture of this Country.

“We hold you close” continues at PICA, as part of Perth Festival, until 24 April 2022.

Disclosure: Ilona McGuire will be exhibiting work at PICA’s 2022 “Hatched” exhibition, which opens in May.

Pictured top is one of Katie West’s banners from her installation ‘We hold you close’. Photo: Cole Baxter

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Author —
Ilona McGuire

Ilona McGuire is a proud Noongar (Whadjuk, Ballardong, Yuat) and Kungarakan woman. Her ancestry extends from Whadjuk Boodja to the Fitzmaurice region of the Northern Territory. A mixed-media contemporary artist, Ilona's drone light show, Moombaki, headlined the 2021 Fremantle Biennale. Ilona’s favourite playground equipment is the flying fox.

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