Proud Gunai woman and multidisciplinary artist Kirli Saunders recently showcased her first solo exhibition RETURNING at the Southern Highlands Artisans Collective  (SHAC) in Robertson, NSW.

Speaking with the National Indigenous Times, Saunders explained her motives in becoming an artists.

“My inspiration comes from being a First Nations woman growing up in settler colonial Australia and feeling like our stories were not at the front,” she said.

Saunders continued stating that due to not seeing her culture front and centre she took it upon herself to share her own cultural stories in the form of her work as an artist, writer, teacher and consultant.

A powerful inspiration for Saunders, is to blend those “two worlds”.

This blending took the shape of RETURNING.

The exhibition, at the SHAC Gallery in the Southern Highlands, is the Gunai artist’s way of “bringing together poetry and art to create visual poetry across a range of mediums to truth tell, to talk about feminism and about decolonisation” .

“I chose the SHAC Gallery in the Southern Highlands because I was raised on Gundungurra Ngurra Country, and it’s a space that hadn’t had a First Nation’s artist ever,” she said.

Saunders’ work shines at the SHAC, with a possum skin cloak draped over a she-oak branch being the very first work to welcome guests.

The branch itself is sentimental to Saunders as her father personally selected the tree and  cut down the branch for his daughter on a bush walk and the cloak was made by Saunders and respected Elder, Aunty Lorreta Parsley.

“The cloak does not have my story on the inside. I wanted to talk about this idea of an unfinished thing, of this story that’s not yet finished,” she said.

“The story that’s not yet written – because our story isn’t finished.”

Kirli Saunders in possum Skin Cloak. Photograph by Tad Souden 2021.

Another key theme explored in Saunders’ RETURNING exhibition is feminism.

Growing up Saunders was surrounded by staunchly strong matriarchal women in her life and community, one in particular being her Aunty Velma Mulcahy who raised and nurtured her.

“For me, feminism is about embodying matriarchal wisdom that our women have gifted us, and ensuring that we are honoured, respected, cared for and have equal opportunity in a world that hasn’t been available to us because of settler-colonial systems which oppress First Nations People, Queer People, People with Disabilities and Lived Experiences that we have,” she said.

The works showcased in Saunders exhibition is a visual response to poems from a collection titled RETURNING. The exhibition’s current context is about honouring connection to Country, community and Kinship and sharing the Gunai woman’s journey of decolonising herself with others.

“Returning for me was about coming back to a truer self, coming back to who I am when I’m not living out the identity prescribed to me as a Black woman in Australia.”

With 2021 days from finished, Saunders has a busy 2022 already.

With more exhibitions coming up, Saunders is also working on a new children’s book Our Dreaming with illustrator Dub Leffler through Scholoastic. She is also preparing for her collaboration with Merrigong Theatre & Playwriting, where she will be working on her first solo play Going Home.

Saunders is extremely excited about her future works and is eager to share them with others.

“I’m so excited to be around my family and I hope everyone gets some time out on Country with their family too.”

By Eelemarni Close-Brown