Monday, October 10, 2022

The Opal Byway

Photography | Brian Rope

The Opal Byway | Rachael Maude

M16 Artspace | 30 SEPTEMBER - 16 OCTOBER 2022

Rachael Maude is an independent artist who works with film photography and traditional darkroom practices.

The Opal Byway is Maude’s high quality analogue photography essay exploring the unique experience of life in the community of Yowah. Where? I hear you asking. 

Yowah is in western Queensland, 938 Km west of Brisbane and 132 Km west of Cunnamulla. It is known for its opal mining and numerous opal fields that lie around the town - including the Yowah Nut, a local type of opal distinctive to the region.

The road to Yowah, known as The Opal Byway, takes you through a collection of small opal mining communities, including Quilpie and Eromanga. Yowah is at the end of the road. It is remote and inside a vast cattle station. But it has a successful annual Opal Festival on the third weekend of July. You can read about it, and the town itself, on a Facebook page or at

Opal mining has long attracted non-conformers and outliers. In the opal fields you can encounter every kind of person, each with a compelling story about what drew them there. During a visit to the 2018 Festival, Maude became fascinated with the lifestyle of the locals and saw a special opportunity to capture an intimate look at their work and daily life.

As part of her later artist residency in Yowah, Maude shot continuously over a 6-month period, hand-processed negatives, and established a darkroom and studio, from which she printed all the works shown in this exhibition. The print quality of these black and white images is very good. And the stories told by each image are most interesting.

This body of work aims to introduce viewers to the individual experience of this isolated and eccentric community. You’ll learn much about Yowah and its small community by visiting this exhibition and taking it all in.

So, what is there to see? There are people – diverse members of this small community. Miners obviously, but also others such as the ceramicist and timber carver with a famous name who uses opal level clay and found native timbers.

Rachael Maude - Eddie McGuire in his studio

Some residents have been there for many years and not found any opals. Others have done very well and travel the world for months every year marketing their gemstones.

There are three children - brothers Jaiden, Cooper and James - who travel to attend school over an hour away in Eulo. There are places – mullock heaps of dumped mining rubble, beautiful patterns in the ground created by dried runoff, cutting sheds, underground offices and mines.

Rachael Maude - Ray's office

There are hardy gidgee trees, including one at the town rubbish tip, which emit beautiful aromas when fallen ones are burned as winter firewood.

Rachael Maude - Lone Gidgee Tree

There are pieces of mining equipment – including trommels, rickety hoists, buckets and a Caldwell drill that is expensive and dangerous.

Rachael Maude - Explorations

This is an eccentric yet strongly connected and self-sufficient community creatively problem solving as necessary to keep operational – some members diligently keeping records of finds, others drinking cold beer, all using Artesian Basin water.

Rachael Maude - Fred at his opal hut

Each image tells a different part of the fascinating story of this small community of about one hundred persons in this remote place. There is Dean who lives with his horse Nikki – literally. Each resident has their own unique, unconventional, probably non-conforming life story.

Rachael Maude - Dean & Nikki

When she exhibited these works at Yowah, virtually the entire community came along to see it over a shared barbecue – and purchased pieces from the show. No wonder Maude plans to return to explore Yowah further and spend more time with her established friends.

This review was first published by The Canberra Times online here on 5/10/22 and in print on page 19 of the paper on 10/10/22. It is also available on the author's blog here.