Matilda Davis on the environmental destruction of Country

Matilda Davis’s The White Man’s Web emerged out of the Badjala/Batjala artist’s memories of environmental destruction in the vicinity of her coastal home during childhood and adolescence.

“I first thought about making this work as a teenager after seeing discarded crab pots with juvenile milbi [turtles] and shovelnose rays stuck in them,” says Davis. “When I was a kid, I would visit the islands of Korrawinga [the Great Sandy Strait], seeing bird skeletons with their stomachs filled with plastic, birds with fishing line bound around their feet and young mangroves being strangled.”

The White Man’s Web is a single large-scale installation crafted from dead birri (mangroves), milbi, fish skeletons, bird skulls and, Davis says, “the white man’s trash” that she has collected.

Matilda Davis, The White Man’s Web, 2024. Installation view: Hervey Bay Regional Gallery. Photography: Kimmy Thomsen.

“Over the years the decline in culturally and ecologically significant species has had a big impact on me. When we go fishing and crabbing you don’t get much anymore. This work is about confronting how colonialism and capitalism impacts Country and, inherently, Indigenous communities and the ability to practise culture.”

The exhibition is a landmark show for the emerging Indigenous artist, who counts Fiona Foley and local artist Joel Barney among her influences. Up until now, her focus has been more on small-scale paintings using materials sourced from Country. In these earlier works Davis’s art emphasises “positive experiences on Country, my connection to Country and how my ancestors communicate to me through Country”.

“Whereas this project is about what threatens those cultural connections,” says Davis. “This work is also a departure from what I normally produce in its scale and the centrality of mass-produced rubbish.”

The White Man’s Web
Matilda Davis
Hervey Bay Regional Gallery
11 May—30 June

This article was originally published in the May/June 2024 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Preview Words by Barnaby Smith