Desert Life, the art of Central Australia, review of new exhibition

SarahTreeWalking into Desert Life, an exhibition by Sarah Brown which opened yesterday at the M16Artspace in Canberra is like being transported to Alice Springs. Except perhaps that the carefully-controlled temperature in the gallery is more moderate.

It is a strange language that is often used to describe the Red Centre. People talk of the dead heart of Australia.  Of arid wasteland. Of a vast nothingness. As anyone who has lived there will attest, and as Sarah’s work shows, nothing is further from the truth. Her paintings portray not only the unique colours and shapes and space of Central Australia, although that alone is an extraordinary feat. But also the rich abundance of life there is, if only we choose to see it.

To look at her paintings is to feel the sting of the spinifex spike if spinafexyou accidentally brush bare skin against it, to see the history of the earth in the walls of the MacDonnell Ranges. It is to need your sunglasses to look at the startling whiteness of the towering ghost gums against the bluest of blue skies. It is definitely not empty. Or dead. It is mysterious and magical and unique. And Sarah’s paintings convey that truth.

I first met Sarah when I went to interview her for a newspaper feature article.  We met at her home which is as charming, colourful and unorthodox as she is. Quite apart from the very large dog which spent most of the interview on my lap, it has a labyrinth-like layout including a secret cellar. Scattered almost carelessly around the home were beautiful paintings of land that was a mirror of the country I had walked through that morning, and every morning.

Although she has been painting since her teens, and has had several exhibitions and won a number of awards, her work as a nurse in some of the most remote areas of Australia and the raising of three children impacted on her output. It was her move to Alice Springs, nine years ago, and her job as CEO of the Western Desert Dialysis cooperative health initiative that provided new impetus.

Western Desert Dialysis is an inspirational organization dedicated to putting dialysis beds and full-time nurses into some of the most remote communities in the world in Central Australia. This means that those community members who need treatment for renal disease, and there is a tragically high incidence of renal disease among Indigenous Australians, can return to country and receive culturally appropriate, high-quality care on their land surrounded by family.

Before this program, the only option was to journey to main centers like Alice Springs resulting in dislocation and the consequent loss of cultural engagement and connection to family and country. The impact of the absence of community members, particularly the elders, was felt just as strongly within the communities where there was an irreplaceable loss of knowledge of country, ceremony, story and law.

Appropriately, the program, which has so far put staffed dialysis beds into four communities with more on the way, was started up with more than a million dollars in seed money that came from an auction of paintings by senior Pintupi men commissioned by the Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd which continues an active supporter.

Mixing every day, as she does, with some of the most important artists in the world, people who have a unique sense of land and tradition, it would have been easy for sarah to be overwhelmed into inaction. Instead, she is prolific and unique. As Sarah herself says of her artwork ‘’ . . . mine come from a long tradition of European landscape painters. They are about light and form and colour. But for me each of these paintings also hold memories. ‘’ Memories not only of the country that anyone who has visited the Red Centre will recognise immediately but also of parts that very few people ever get to see, and accompanied by the traditional and spiritual owners of that land.

Desert Life by Sarah Brown is on at M16 Artspace, Canberra until 28th July 2013. Ten per cent of the proceeds of sales will go to Western Desert Dialysis. For more information on the great work being done there visit

1 Comment

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