Stark contrast


I can’t believe that a week ago I was in Alice Springs; it seems like a dream. I’ve gone from this:


… to this:


And from this:


… to this:


It’s grand to be back!

I don’t like Aboriginal art


It’s a lament I’ve heard often over the years. In the popular imagination Aboriginal art, as a broad generic descriptor, is either Top End X-ray style or Centralian dot-dot stuff. Usually the inland work is imagined as circles with dots around them, executed in a palette of browns. Sadly, this pretty accurately describes a lot of the stuff being hawked on the lawns outside Flynn Church in Todd Mall, or sold in bulk by attractive-looking outlets such as this:


Peeps: it need not be so. I’ve just returned from the Araluen Arts Centre where I saw two exhibitions that had me mesmerised. The breadth of media and subject matter and pure quality was absolutely captivating. Sorry about the crummy iPhone photos, but have a scroll down.

Tiger Yaltangki, Desert Safari:


Louise Daniels, Alice Springs baseball grand final (acrylic on car bonnet!):


Matjangka Norris, Minyma Mamu Inma:


Colin Watson, Nyangatja Ngayulu. Ngayulu Colin-ny. This is me. I am Colin:

I am Colin

David Frank, Policeman Story:


Judy Long, Ngulu – Seed Story:


Vincent Namatjira, The Indulkana Tigers:


Billy Yunkurra Atkins, Animals at Kumpupirntily (Lake Disappointment):


Kaylene Whiskey, Closing Time at Mintabie:


Maybe you’re more of a 3D or sculpture kind of person.










What a wonderful, vibrant world! What’s not to like?


Friday foto


Freezer section, Eastside Shops.

Kangaroo tails: mmm!


Silk purses


I couldn’t make it to the launch of Trevor Dickinson’s Merewether tunnel mural, but I did see the NBN news clip. In it, Trevor said, “It’s really good to be able to alter an environment by doing a painting”.

merewether tunnel opening

I think his tunnel is one of the rare examples of public art actually doing that. This week I was reminded of how public art is so often dragooned in when poorly conceived developments go badly wrong.

In the winter of 1985 I was wending my way up the Queensland coast. I remember being struck by the appearance of every town: their main streets had been closed off, covered in red pavers and made into pedestrian malls. I imagine that there was some good theorising behind this, a reclaim the streets concept to get folk walking to high street retailers. As is so often the case, the reality failed to match the optimism of the architects’ drawings. Other forces were at work.

I made my way inland, to Alice Springs. Imagine my pleasure when I came across Todd Street, a bustling focus of the town. And imagine my horror when I turned off that very same Todd Street and into a side road to be confronted by … 64 pallets of red pavers.

The Alice is one of dozens of towns that has since partially reopened its mall to traffic, but by the time this happened the world had moved on. The northern end of Todd Mall is not unlike Newcastle West. So “something” had to be done. A bubbler and a seat referencing postwar Scandinavian furniture was an obvious start …


… followed by seats that perhaps reference the McDonnell Ranges …


… and some exotically decorated street lights …


It’s churlish to criticise the seats, the bubbler, the street light. Each of these pieces of functional public art was thoughtfully designed and well produced, unlike the environment in which it sat.

These nicely rusted shade structures, for example. They look great … but … but … what do they do? They’ve been plonked in a transit zone where no one (and I checked) even pauses, let alone stops, to idle beneath their cleverly angled wings. Perhaps this is because they, sadly, are themselves in complete shade for most of the day, dwarfed by the hideous shopping centre that they’re somehow supposed to be enhancing. It’s beyond mad.


Ah, but that shopping centre. Oh yes. It is truly one of the ugliest and most dysfunctional buildings I’ve ever been in, anywhere. Inside, it’s an easy-clean, tiled nightmare. Most shops are empty, the only life being around the cluster of chicken outlets that make up the “food court”. It’s like being in a gigantic men’s toilet that serves fried chicken.


What on earth to do? Why don’t people want to shop here? I know! Let’s get some local artists to paint a mural!


This is a double (even triple) whammy. Not only does the mall actually look worse, but the mural is diminished too. But to get the full effect of this atrocity one needs to stand back and … um … just kind of look around the pillar, the one that has the directions to the toilets on it. At least that way you can get both the fibreglass emu and the fibreglass roo and the … er … pioneer (?) seat in frame. (But don’t actually sit on the seat. Or pat the roo. Or look at the mural. We have tape and bollards to stop that kind of malarkey.)


Newcastle architectural watchdog Swamp Life has commented on the crimes of our town. I think that there’s the opportunity for a sub-branch of Swamp Life-style criticism: that for public art disasters executed in an attempt to redeem an architectural disgrace.

Over to you, Swamp Life!

Trees are lovely


They’re lovely everywhere, but Alice Springs trees are particularly lovely.

River red gums – gnarled and mottled.


They’re the old men of the riverbed.


They’ve seen it all come and go.


And white woods against a low-slung hill at sunset.



Attack of the 14-foot bird


If an Englishman’s home is his castle, an Australian’s home is his fortress.

As a new arrival in Alice Springs I was offered a tip on home security. Get a mongrel pup and pay some blackfella a carton of green cans to come round and give it a hiding. The pup will never forget the hiding and, for the rest of its days, will bark like a maniac at every blackfella that comes within a hundred yards of your fence.*

I was reminded of this when seeing the “snarl windows” on fences when walking into town.


For many years a large proportion of Alice Springs homes were built by Territory Housing and so complied with Darwin’s building regulations. This meant a three-foot high cyclone mesh fence, to which folk bolted a few posts and some iron sheets. But the bottom part was always left open, thereby allowing the dog a bloody good opportunity to go for your ankles and scare the bejaysus out of any passer-by.


Does this happen in all outback towns?

Thankfully, some sort of progress has been made. Maybe mongrel pups are getting harder to come by, or people aren’t prepared to pay the carton of green cans required for training purposes, but this piece of backyard sculpture certainly scared the hell out of this whitefella!




* A reader recently emailed me to ask, “Did you actually do that?!” I promise: I didn’t. And I avoided the generous giver of advice thereafter.



1986. In a secondhand bookshop in Guadalajara I pick up a copy of Bernal Diaz’s conquistador journal, The Conquest of New Spain. It’s a remarkable book, and it feels all the more remarkable to be reading it as I bus along dusty roads to towns that still wear the tiles and mosaics of colonial Spain on their public buildings. What puzzles me is the ease with which Cortes’s small band subjugate an empire; what unnerves me is the conquistadors’ utter self-belief in their mission.


2014. Pension day in Alice Springs. It’s hot, and the queue of people to get into the Riverside Bar of the Todd Tavern is pressed against the narrow strip of shade by the drive-thru. They’re twitching to be inside, the rhythmic thud of music and the laughter taunting them. Through paper-cut slits a security guard eyes the queue, controls the door. He’s past his prime, he’s grossly overweight, but the authority of his whiteness is enough to cow the crowd. For the first time in years I think of Bernal Diaz.

I go to a meeting. It’s boring and I don’t want to be there. I wonder why I bother to sit through it: I’m in my fifties and I should have the presence of mind and self-confidence to just get up and walk out, but I don’t.

An hour later I’m in a diesel ute and we rumble past the Riverside bar. The queue’s gone and red tape skirts the drive-thru; a lost thong and a bloody T-shirt are on the ground; the small, numbered cones that the police put next to items of evidence are scattered about. A cameraman from the local news service wrestles with a tripod.

Later, my dull commitments filled, I head back to the creek to see what happened earlier. I feel uneasy about this transparent act of voyeurism, but not uneasy enough to detour. When I get there the tape has gone, the thong and T-shirt have gone, the number cones have gone. The driveway has been hosed down and the dirt and cracker dust smells of wetness. Did it even happen?

The sun’s hot on my back but I feel utterly glum. The word “bleak” conjures up Dickens and Hogarth, the smog-filled slums of the East End. I can’t reconcile it to the eye-achingly blue sky of Wills Terrace on this pension day afternoon. And yet it’s the only word that fits.


Report: Centralian Advocate. Woman stabbed outside ‘animal bar’.