Broken Hill has been dubbed, variously, the Capital of the Outback, the Oasis of the West and Silver City. Built with mining machinery but more recently overtaken by easels and brushes, chisels and lenses, it’s been transformed into an artist’s haven. And for a town in the supposed “outback”, it’s a great deal closer than you think…
Many of us think of the term “outback” as belonging to that most harsh and remote part of the country in our fierce red centre – it’s difficult to tell for sure where the outback begins, even if there’s little doubt that that’s where it ends. But according to Melbourne photojournalist Richard Shaw, some of the very best of outback Australia can be found much closer at hand.
Take Broken Hill in the far west of New South Wales, a mere 48 kilometres from the South Australian border. Its relative proximity to Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, at the convergence of the Barrier and Silver City Highways, has seen it dubbed the “accessible outback”, making it one of those towns that’s perennially closer than it seems.
“It’s the quintessential outback town,” says Shaw, a frequent visitor to the area. Owing its existence to subsurface deposits of silver, zinc and lead, the character-oozing mining outpost is brimming with classic wide-balconied pubs, corrugated-iron miners’ cottages and other examples of centuries-old architecture. But while mining may have given the town life, the past 20-odd years has seen an interesting changing of the guard in Broken Hill.
Led by the legendary Brushmen of the Bush of the 1960s and ’70s, including locals Pro Hart, Jack Absolom, and Eric Minchin – now household names – it’s fine art that sees the town maintain its bright spot on the map. The richness of the locale, its unique colours, its startling clarity of light . . . scores of erstwhile artists have descended on Broken Hill, setting out to capture the vibrant imagery in and around town, whether it be the beautiful landscapes at nearby Lake Menindee, the harshness of everyday life in the region, man’s influence on the environment or the inherently wry humour that pervades local outback culture. Today, with countless murals, sculpture sites, and galleries around town, art isn’t just part of Broken Hill’s landscape but an integral part of its identity.
Silverton, a small former mining town on the western outskirts of Broken Hill, is a prime example of the manner in which art is impacting and redefining the region. Several houses, churches and buildings on the brink of collapse have been transformed into art galleries – each one as creative as the works displayed within; the near-ghost town has itself become an artwork.
Shaw, like countless others, has been deeply affected by his visits to Broken Hill and – having spent the past three years working in China – it’s that feeling of being immersed in our rural remote that he misses the most keenly. “The outback is really what sets Australia apart from the rest of the world,” he says.
“It’s not just the wide open spaces, the serenity, or the radiantly beautiful colours of the outback, but the unique breed of people who live out here, and their way of life.”