High art and life forms

Trip Start Jul 27, 2009
Trip End Nov 07, 2009

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Flag of Australia  , Northern Territory,
Thursday, August 20, 2009

Returning to Earth from the surface of the moon at Henbury, we crash landed in Alice Springs, where we timed our visit to take in the Henley-on-Todd Regatta, famous the world over.

Alec writes:
We watched a boat race. It wasn't an ordinary boat race which you sailed.  It was a race where you had to make big boats that you put your feet underneath, and then you ran along the riverbed.   The only time they cancelled the race [in previous years] was when there was water in the river. 

and Hilary continues
When we went to Alice Springs we watched the Henley on Todd boat races.  The boat races weren’t the ordinary ones where you had to sail on water.  They were actually a different sort where you had to make your very own boats with holes in the bottom so you could poke your legs through and run along the river bed.  The Henley on Todd is an extremely big event.  Beforehand there is a parade where lots of funny cars drive down the main street of Alice Springs throwing out lollies and toys, which is a kid's dream.  We saw some people with shopping bags stuffed with toys and lollies.  We got a big collection of lollies.  I also got two stuffed toys: an ibis and a bear. [The children were at the very start of the parade, where they were showered with the bounty from every car from the National Variety Bash as it passed.  Was this merely an accident, or childish rat-cunning?]

By the boat races there is some food stalls and a couple of games.  One of the games is the dunking.  What you have to do is slide out on a thick metal pole with some foam bats and hit your partner so that they fall into a water tank full of water.  I went on with Alec.

Perhaps even more fascinating was our trip to the Desert Park, where we loved the Nocturnal animal house, and a talk from an Arrente ranger about Aboriginal desert life.

Hilary says:
We went to a talk at the Desert Park about Aboriginal survival.  We learnt a lot of interesting things, including what the aborigines ate, how they processed the food, how they hunted and some jobs that they had to do and what they should look after.

And Alec says:
At the nocturnal house in the Desert Park there was a legless lizard and a scorpion.  The scorpion was very deadly but we couldn’t find it. 

A man told us about how Aborigines survive in the desert.  There was spear thrower.  It looked a bit like a cricket bat.  It was a long spade kind of thing with a point at the end.  You put your spear on the point and then you force your hand forward and your spear would come shooting off the end.  Don’t forget to hold onto the spear thrower!  And it was called a Woomera.

While Alec, the engineer, focused on the mechanical, the talk also included an explanation of Arrente kinship customs, which our guide explained as a mechanism allowing survival of relatively small tribes (about 100 people) by ensuring that marriages only took place between individuals who were distantly related.  This avoided the perils associated with interbreeding in a limited gene pool (eg. the Royal families of Europe). These details fascinated our anthropologist, Hilary, who can give you a much more extensive explanation than our notes here.

Another highlight of Alice Springs for the young was feeding wallabies. 
Alec writes:
At camp we fed the wallabies.  If a wallaby is scared it sort of jumps back.  When a wallaby eats it looks up then eats some more.  Some of the greedy wallabies ate quickly and then hopped away.

Alec little realised the mortal danger he was in...

Simon and Carrie enjoyed getting to know a little of the local art scene.  The hype is that Alice Springs has more art galleries per person than any other city in the world.  We kicked off with a visit to the Mbantua Gallery, which is the agent for the artists of the Utopia community.  These are mainly women, who entered the art scene in the 1980s, producing batiks.  They now have a strong tradition of painting on canvas.  Famous names from this community include Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Minnie Pwerle, and Gloria Petyarre.

We then went to the Araluen Arts Centre, where we looked at the collection of Hermannsberg School watercolours.  Albert Namatjira was its famous exponent, whose works are beautiful despite their status as 1950s aesthetic clichés and anthropological anomolies.  His work lead to the widespread tradition of watercolour landscape painting in the community.  The children were fascinated and appalled when told that in 195 he was the among the first Aborigines to become Australian citizens, that this required an act of parliament, and that in some states Aborigines who became Australian citizens were, bizarrely, no longer allowed to associate with other Aborigines.  We discussed the 1967 Referendum and what this meant for Aborigines in Australia. We also watched a documentary about Geoff Barden and the birth of the Papunya painting movement.  These events took place in the early 1970s, only about 5 years after the referendum.  One of the early Papunya artists is quoted as saying that when their paintings began to sell it was the first time ever that while folk had paid any respect to anything to do with them.

Back in Alice, we visited the Papunya Tula Gallery, which is the agent for contemporary Papunya Tula works, and purchased our own piece of Australian art history, which you will see adorning our walls soon.  Carrie was moved by the significance of the contemporary Aboriginal art movement: hitherto it had seemed a good thing that we white city folk could see and enjoy these fabulous pieces of art. But far more significant is the idea that Aboriginal communities are using painting with modern materials as a powerful way of perpetuating their visual and oral culture, in the face of apparent social dissolution as depicted nightly on our television screens.

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