The stitching and weaving of fabrics and grasses are among the most ancient forms of making art, decoration, clothing and shelters. For some scholars, these activities are the very basis of civilisation, as skills in organising materials carry over into the making of society itself.
Local artist Nalda Searles is one of the world's leading textile artists, yet her creations are some of the most humble you are likely to see. Her Courting Cushions are made of hay sewn into circular shapes.
They are enigmatic, looking like something from the 19th century, yet also completely different to anything you have seen before. Such original shapes are the mark of a great artist.
Searles' works allude to a rich universe of intricately made materials, a place in which things are gentle and soft, yet also slightly disturbing. There is a creature that looks like a cat, yet walks on a doll's hands and bristles with spikes of the balga grass tree.
There is a dark overcoat sewn with hanging stones, as if worn by a character from a Samuel Beckett play. There are also beautiful blankets and dresses, bones sewn into baskets, and vessels made out of human hair. Of importance in all of these works is the fibrous quality of the materials, that catch the gaze with their tactility and texture.
It is a sign of the esteem in which Searles is held around Australia that this exhibition is the last stop of a four-year tour around the country.
It is appropriate to end the tour in WA because many of these works have come from Searles' experiences camping to the east of Kalgoorlie, where she grew up. She has travelled extensively, giving fibre workshops in remote Aboriginal communities, and she helped start the now world- famous Tjanpi Desert Weavers organisation.
Tjanpi means dry grass, and refers mostly to the spinifex and other native grasses from which remote women make work. Searles, however, often makes work out of hay, or what she calls meadow fodder.
While spinifex is a harsh, rough grass, hay lends sculptures of a siphon and skull a certain softness, a gentle beauty. The siphon hangs in its own frame from the ceiling and is lined with a red fabric that invites us into its warm interior, its shape alluding to the water that would flow through.
These are not easy works that can be taken in at a glance. Many of them invite meditation, as their forms are both subtle and mysterious, opening and closing into themselves.
They are brave works, not only in their use of materials more commonly used by Aboriginal artists, but in their audacious originality. One of the most striking works in this show is a blanket armed with pieces of balga bark.
The blanket seems to offer both comfort and protection, as it might wrap a fragile body while warning off attackers with its polished wood.
These are the kinds of paradoxes that capture the mind.
Nalda Searles: Drifting in My Own Land is at the Alcoa Mandurah Art Gallery, Mandurah Performing Arts Centre, Ormsby Terrace, until January 13 when Searles will give a talk at 2.30pm.