Sera Waters

As a descendant of early South Australian settler colonists, Sera Waters works with historical textile practices to explore questions of colonialism, First Nations displacement, and climate change. Her new body of work, Future Traditions, weaves traditional with contemporary to create narratives of potential futures through revisiting the past.

Julianne reviewed 'Future Traditions' in Issue 62 of Artist Profile.

Sera Waters’s significance as a leading South Australian artist was firmly cemented in 2022 with two major projects exhibited at the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA). Her series Storied Sail Cloths, 2021, was included in the 2022 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Free/State, curated by Sebastian Goldspink, and in November her solo project Sera Waters: Future Traditions was launched in AGSA Gallery 8.

Sera Waters: Future Traditions brings together several years of exploration, investigation, and making supported by the 2020 Guildhouse Fellowship. Waters is known for her methodical research and revitalisation of traditional textile and sewing practices, and the Fellowship enabled time for reflection and creative development. The focus of this project — in which Waters is artist, collector, and curator — is to imagine a future for us all, where ancient traditions can craft hope in the face of climate change.

The beginning of the exhibition is created almost as a ceremonial welcoming, where a wreath is hung at the entrance, fashioned from long pink-and-white satin gloves, stuffing, and buttons. Titled Got You, 2022, it immediately focusses the viewer to a feminine hold or greeting, where six disembodied, delicate arms and hands create an eerie, yet gentle and soft, embrace. As a feminist artist, Waters aims to re-frame womens’ clothing and garments into symbols of connection, empowerment, and story-telling. The wreath acts as a prologue to the construction of the exhibition as eight chapters: the “future traditions” — precisely placed and hung assemblages of Waters’s own work together with printed wallpapers, artefacts, and objects borrowed from AGSA and Adelaide’s historical institutions.

The eight future traditions have the headings “Familiar Activism,” “Soft Comfort,” “Conductors and Shields,” “Great Decelerators,” “Patterns,” “Mass Making-do,” “Time-travelling,” and “Displaying Hope.” They each have a story to tell and encourage a slow and meandering pace. They ask the viewer to stop, read, look carefully at minute details and to consider the connection between, say, a nineteenth-century embroidered portrait and a 1980s koala clutch purse. The artist as collector and curator is so evident here; every object has been researched, studied, and chosen for its place within a narrative structure.

The notion of care is central to Waters’s practice, and in this project she is particularly focussed on caring for land and environment. Waters asks how an artist can contribute to reducing the impact of climate change and to ensuring a sustainable future. These questions are the threads and narratives through the exhibition’s eight chapters, and she invites the audience to consider how they too may care and be responsible for their impact on their own environments.

An additional layer of care is in how Waters carefully approaches the placement and installation of the varied objects. As an artist working with historical and traditional materials, she is a meticulous researcher and archivist, and is acutely aware of the preservation of ephemera and artefacts. Within the installation space, the thoughtfulness and attention to detail is evident in every configuration of an item or hanging of a textile artwork. Each piece is in dialogue with another, such as the samplers as part of “Time-travelling.” Sewing samplers are embroidery or cross-stitching produced as examples of achievement and skill in needlework. Waters includes her own Survivalist Sampler #3, 2022, alongside Sampler, 1866, by Catherine Hains. She brings the two together as a bridge from past to present and says, “Importantly, domestic textiles hold intergenerational links in their stitches and their traditions, and these connect us all across time.”

There is an intimacy and hush about the gallery space, as though we have entered a cabinet of curiosities. The walls and ceiling are painted black and the lighting is very low, which creates a kind of reverence: hushed tones and whispers. The darkness of the space is perhaps too oppressive for the delicacy, artistry, narrative flow, and even humour present throughout the exhibition. While Waters’s themes explore the effects of European settlement, colonial culture, and First Nations displacement, she also celebrates and recognises resilience, survival, and the importance of human and social connection.

Waters is consciously asking her audience to slow down, to ask questions about what legacies we are leaving for coming generations. In an era obsessed by growth, how do we, as a culture and a society, return to sustainable and restorative practices? In “Great Decelerators,” Waters writes in the accompanying panel “ . . . needlework can reinstate traditions of bodily pace, rhythm and ancestral time. Basic stitches such as running stitch rely upon rhythm and pace, which align with bodies, the in and out of the needle and the in and out of breath . . . This future tradition asks how the pace of textile waste and mass production can be slowed through repurposing, repetitive stitches, noticing and removing ourselves from the ever-increasing acceleration of capitalist, extractivist and production culture.”

In a time when artists are compelled to address and engage with strategies for planetary survival, Waters’s activism turns to the past and the methods that have been forged in adversity. She celebrates earlier eras where everything was recycled, mended, repurposed, and repaired. Waters skilfully brings these sensibilities and techniques into the modern day as a strategy to challenge throw-away culture and economies of large-scale manufacturing.

Waters encourages the belief that we all have the power to make change, and that every person can contribute to creating a future. Towel Power, 2022, constructed from materials including an old towel, felt, found fabric, and tassels, is a rallying cry. In the form of a trade union banner, the hand-sewn words “The Resistance of Regular People” invite her audience to find their own forms of action, whether that be picking up the sewing needle, upcycling unwanted clothing, taking to the streets, or even attending an art exhibition to look at the past to see a way forward.

Sera Waters: Future Traditions
26 November 2022 – 16 April 2023
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

This review was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 62

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