Gallery: "Desert Paintings" catalogue note by Sarah Raphael |
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"Desert Paintings" catalogue note by Sarah Raphael

For many years I had a yearning to visit the Australian outback — to inhabit an unknown landscape, devoid of familiar forms, foliage or artistic iconography; to be shocked into re-seeing the world as a stranger might, through innocent eyes. I was able to realise this ambition in 1994 when the Villiers David Foundation awarded me the Villiers David Prize, thus allowing me the funds, and giving me the excuse, for taking six weeks away from home to wander, as I had so long dreamed of, in the baked bush of Australia.

I had the opportunity to do things which can only be done when there is no-one but oneself to be concerned with. I slept by a campfire in the freezing desert night. I awoke to the widest horizon of dawn available on this planet. I painted all day, without interruption, squinting at forms which altered with the racing sun, shadows tripping over each other as the day would arc all too soon back into night. I sat in the aborigine pub in Alice Springs, ankle deep in spilt beer. I drew the great aboriginal painter Clifford Possum among his many cousins and grandchildren in the dry Ross River bed. Larapinta children with huge tragic eyes posed for me near a tree under which one of them had been born.

None of these things could have happened to me had I not been given this very generous award. The pictures I made on returning to my London studio are not intended as any kind of travelogue. But they do spring directly from the experience, however transmuted in the making, of gazing for the first time upon such an ancient landscape.

Nor indeed could I have managed without Piers Hammick, who was my guide, navigator, camp-maker, culinary campfire alchemist and friend in the wilderness. His infuriating obsession with maps forced me to learn about the geological history of what I was looking at, which added immeasurably to what I was able to perceive of the potency of that landscape.

Spending time in the desert is notorious for bringing on wild attacks of lyricism, flashbacks of which can be experienced for, I suspect, years afterwards. Back in London I can only wonder at my good fortune in having been given those six weeks.

Above all, I could not have gone at all but for my husband, Nick, who pushed me through passport control at Heathrow, and never reminded me, upon my return, of how exhausting it is to care for two small children for six weeks when they are missing their mother. To all three who waited at home, a printed word of thanks.

— March 1995
(Desert Paintings exhibition catalogue, Agnew's Gallery, London)