Des Rolph
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Brisbane News Magazine - Review by Phil Brown

The view from above

Flying high over an Australian desert inspired Desley Rolph’s latest series of paintings

During a hot air balloon ride over the desert near Alice Springs in 2005, Brisbane artist Desley Rolph had an epiphany. Floating silently above the vast, red centre she surveyed the vision splendid and it resonated to the very depths of her soul.

That epic landscape forms the dramatic backdrop for the narratives in her latest exhibition, Women from the Desert & Their Stories, now showing at Robyn Bauer Studio Gallery in Paddington.

In some works the landscape is the sole subject, without human intervention. In One of Sixty Magic Minutes Desley celebrates her balloon ride and, working from photos taken on the jaunt, she recreates the view from above.

“It was such a magical experience and it was so silent and beautiful up there,” Desley recalls. “And while we were floating above the landscape someone said ‘look out there’ and we could see the shadow of the balloon on the ground.”

In the painting, the black shape of the balloon seems stark against the red earth.

In other works in this show, the landscape is featured as the setting for human stories, some real, some imagined.

Inspired both by Aboriginal myths and the struggles of early European pioneers Desley explores the relationship between these people and the land.
“With the coming of the first settlers also came the testing of the human spirit for both the settlers and the indigenous people,” Desley says. “Pioneering women found themselves thrown into a harsh environment and they had to quickly adapt or perish.

Likewise indigenous women were faced with an existence that was turned upside down, when life as they had known it came to an abrupt end.”

Desley celebrates the fortitude of both in
a number of works, most strikingly in the haunting I Know She Lingers. This is an ethereal portrait of her great grandmother Elizabeth Mary Ellen Heslop, who died tragically in the desert near Winton.
“She died helping her husband build a fence and he had to bury her out there,” Desley says. “The headstone is still there and I hope to visit it one day.” In this work she suggests that her grandmother’s spirit is still connected to the land where she lies buried. This spiritual presence, which seems to represent the eternal feminine, is strong in a number of works. It is accentuated by another presence, that of the mysterious Min Min lights.

Min Min lights are unusual light formations that are occasionally reported in outback Australia. Various explanations have been given for this phenomenon from optical illusions to luminescent insects to geophysical phenomena.Whatever the explanation they are an intriguing mystery and mentions of these lights can also be found in Aboriginal stories. In indigenous culture they are thought to be evidence of the presence of spirits of the dead. For Desley, Min Min lights suggest a mysterious and even supernatural dimension to the landscape. In the painting Journey with Cockatoo a figure is ascending heavenwards accompanied by a white cockatoo and attendant Min Min lights which seem to have some kind of angelic quality. In this way Desley aligns herself with indigenous spirituality.

Indigenous women feature in a number of the works, mostly as imagined or mythological figures. The European figures were inspired by Desley’s own family connections and by the book Great Pioneer Women of the Outback by Brisbane author Suzanna De Vries.

In Remembering Georgiana Molloy Desley pays homage to one of the women featured in De Vries’ book, an amateur botanist who collected and chronicled the vibrant wildflowers of Western Australia throughout her life. In the painting Molloy floats, with flowers, above the landscape.

Desley seems to suspend her subjects, literally and metaphorically, between heaven and earth in the spiritual heartland of this vast continent.