In Conversation with Zak Tilley

AUSTRALIA Living Land expresses the temper of the Australian landscape. Three emerging Australian artists –  Zak Tilley, Harriet Goodall and Meg Walters explore Australia’s wrath and serenity, which, at this moment, seems raw and fragile yet holds a deep and resounding beauty. The richness of Australia’s ochre, fragile bush and lush vegetation are unified here to mark the bold and complex character of Australia.

Otomys Contemporary’s Megan Dicks speaks with Zak Tilley about his practice.


Your work lures us in to experience the Australian outback, to feel its raw color, cool rivers, wildlife and rocky canyons. How is it that you know the rugged beauty of this land so well?

That is an interesting question – I wouldn’t say I know the land as well as I’d like to. I grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney and am more familiar with the temperate Eucalypt forests of the Blue Mountains and the coastal scrub of the east coast. My works, particularly my most recent work around Mparntwe (Alice Springs), are a visual response to the landscape that I now call home. These paintings depict my initial (and somewhat unfamiliar) interactions with the landscape. This is particularly through the lens of my settler heritage which I find an interesting way to explore colonialism and perceptions of the landscape, belong and not belonging.


Australia is believed to be the oldest continent in the world and in many ways the heart and soul of this country lies in her quiet, isolated and sacred center. You’ve been living in Alice Springs for one year now – how does the environmental and cultural landscape inform your practice?

Central Australia has made a huge impact on my practice, particularly philosophically. It has made me question a lot of aspects of my practice, most notably intent and sensitivity. My works have become more critical of my relationship with the landscape, as a way to navigate the guilt of appreciation of a land – a land who’s history of neglect, abuse and removal from its traditional owners and custodians, is intertwined with my settler heritage.


Can you give us an insight to your art practice? I mostly like to paint studies plein air, depending on how bad the flies are – and the heat.

These works are gouache and oil pastel on paper. I then take them back to the studio and amalgamate my experience on larger surfaces of usually ply, and  sometimes canvas. I am incredibly inspired by the colours of the landscape, especially out here (in Central Australia). The vibrancy of my palette reflects that, but also, I use these often oversaturated colours to depict that sense of dreamlike wonder when one is in awe, viewing and admiring a truly unique and incredibly majestic landscape.


This past summer in Australia has left indelible scars on communities, wildlife and the land. How has this impacted on your body of work for the group exhibition Australia Living Land?

The works I have painted for this exhibition depict my various encounters with the Australian landscape this summer, from thick smoke haze and pyro cumulonimbus storms on the south coast, to dust storms, and flooding of the rivers in Central Australia. My depiction of recent climate events are limited in my works due to sensitivity of communities, and my own processing, and everything I have painted has been from my  experiences on the South Coast.


Although your work embraces the temperament and striking natural beauty of this country. I believe your art practice is exploring something deeper than the visual. 

Yes, my practice is a critical analysis and personal investigation of my relationship with the Australian landscape. I suppose this is and will always be through an inevitable lens of colonialism, whether it be climatic, identity, or other environmental issues that I am depicting. However, there is always hope that my work sparks at least conversation with someone or anyone that views it, or helps my viewers think more deeply and sensitively about their place and their intent in the Australian landscape.

February 8, 2020