Anna-Wili Highfield’s art career began outside the gallery system. Her whimsical and spirited sculptures of animals, originally stitched from cotton rag paper, were commissioned by the luxury brand Hermès to populate their windows from Sydney to Istanbul. This led to local and international commissions, which even included making a jaguar for a Mexican politician.

For her exhibition Companions at Olsen Gallery, Sydney, Highfield is creating sculptures in her iconic style, but which are more minimal in construction. “I’ve been using ceramics and brass, wax and plaster in this show. The treatment is the same, but there’s probably a bit more permanence,” she says. This body of work takes its cue from ancient Sumerian votive statuettes from present-day Iraq. “Votive statuettes are quite small, they have oversized stone eyes which I just love, and they’re all looking up,” says Highfield. “The idea is that they’re a stand-in for the presence of worshippers. That’s the part that I’m drawn to – that you can make statues or sculptures that stand in for yourself.”

In these works, Highfield draws out animal characteristics that might resonate with the audience. “The animals carry different presences,” she says. “A kangaroo looks vigilant and strong, and dogs have a longing about them – a dependable, longing look. Goats are so well recognised, but they are also very much the ‘other’. I’m calling the show Companions because I like the idea that they have these individual energies and are friendly pieces.” She speaks of her studio as full of ‘friends’. “There is a companionable nature about a whole lot of the sculptures,” she says. “It feels like I’m filling the room with friendly energies, and that’s what I want to create in the gallery.”

Anna-Wili Highfield
Olsen Gallery
13 November–7 December

This article was originally published in the November/December 2019 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Preview Words by Zara Sigglekow