Exhibition review: Heather Wunjarra Koowootha, Cairns Art Gallery

Moving away from her hallmark lithographs to the flora of her Peoples and Country, Koowootha's new series is a must-see.

Heather Koowootha’s delicate and knowledge-rich Botanicals series introduces audiences to the native plants, edible fruits and vegetables of her Peoples and Country. The exhibition is a powerful insight into the complex knowledge systems around botanicals, held by Traditional Owners and Custodians – such as her and her kin. 

Koowootha’s original works are drawn and coloured/painted by hand, featuring ample text – notes of explanation, detailing her personal connection to, and the significance and uses of, each plant identified in her series. Bold colours of fine detail magnify the presence of these natural gifts.

A Yidinji and Wik-Mungkan woman, Koowootha can be described as the “perfect” artist – affable, informative through her works, passionate and demonstrating masterful execution of varied techniques, which include sculpture, painting and lithograph printing. For an artist steady and stellar in her practice, Koowootha’s Botanicals are seemingly a new direction for her – a departure from her hallmark emotive lithography portraiture. Though they stand as quintessentially her unique expressions. 

Botanicals have ever been beloved by artists and art lovers across the country and throughout time, in part due to the undying curiosity around the known world and what’s still unknown. Unknown to a colonial past – which overlooked the ingenuity and genius of Traditional Owners, of First Peoples – agriculture, horticulture and the culinary industries are now turning their heads towards this ancient wisdom and sustainable knowledge of harvest, usages and propagation. And, while these spaces are booming with “innovation”, Koowootha answers the call in a remarkable fashion – answering the questions scarcely posed to her peoples (from those who instead laud the likes of Joseph Banks and his ilk). 

Koowootha speaks to the curiosity of wider Australia in a reverent way, the way only a Custodian-cum-artist can – through storytelling and fine depiction of detail. Further, she speaks to the glory of her peoples and the bounty of their rich and rewarding Country. More importantly, she speaks of all this in a way that matters to her, and her voice is intrinsic throughout the collection.

Read: Exhibition review: Pantini Kalijarrala Ngatiki, Wapami Kalijarra Wirliyala, Suzanne O’Connell Gallery

Heather Wunjarra Koowootha: Botanicals is a must-see show for all those who wish to learn more about the natural world and Indigenous worldviews. Or even for those who simply love plants!

Heather Wunjarra Koowootha: Botanicals is on show at the Cairns Art Gallery until 22 October 2023; free.

This review is published under the Amplify Collective, an initiative supported by The Walkley Foundation and made possible through funding from the Meta Australian News Fund.

Jack Wilkie-Jans is an Indigenous affairs advocate (and qualified Politologist), Indigenous arts worker, arts writer, and emerging multimedia artist (abstract painter, filmmaker, and photographer). Born in Gimuy/Cairns, he hails from Weipa and Mapoon (Teppathiggi and Tjungundji), Cape York Peninsula; and, has ancestral links to England and Scotland (Wilkie), Vanuatu (Ling), Denmark (Jans), and the Gulf of Carpentaria (Waanji).