Pintupi Painting, Alice Springs News

It wasn’t until after I finished the last entry on Pintupi painting that I realized how timely it might have been, given that a major exhibition of work from Kintore and Kiwirrkura opened at the Papunya Tula Gallery in Alice Springs on November 18. The trans-Pacific post being what it is, the announcement didn’t arrive until days I posted the essay, and I actually first learned of it from a review in the Alice Springs News. The News actually ran two pieces on the show, one the week before and one the week after the opening. Kieran Finnane, who regularly covers the Aboriginal beat for the weekly paper, gave a well-informed preview of the show, which was “directed at local collectors and includes the ‘best of the best’ in the small to medium range.” Patrick Tjungurrayi and his wife Miriam Napanangka were on hand for the opening, and the News featured a lovely photo of the two artists–Patrick with dreadlocks– seated in front of Patrick’s large canvas, which occupied the back wall of the Gallery. Judith Ryan opened the show, stealing some of my thunder by remarking that the art is “profoundly political.” So if I was a bit late in making my own contribution to the show, at least I can claim to be traveling along the same path as the renowned curator in my analysis.

I have to confess that I am an avid, if sometimes irregular, reader of the Alice Springs News in its online edition. It’s certainly an excellent source of news about what’s happening at Papunya Tula and at the Araluen Art Centre (now closed on Sundays for lack of funding!) From my vantage point across the Pacific, it’s really one of the best and most consistent sources of reviews of Aboriginal art exhibitions: if there’s a major show in Alice, the News will carry a decent review of it, at least as informative and well-written as anything that occasionally appears in the Age or the Sydney Morning Herald

And I’ve complained here before about how poorly indexed those papers are. And how poor their online representation of Aboriginal art is. I subscribe to a news alert service from the Fairfax Publishing group that regularly sends me a notice of any story containing the keywords “aboriginal” and “art.” Usually, when one of these alerts pops up in my mailbox, I go straight to the online edition to see if I can find the story. About eight times out of ten, I can’t locate it. So I wind up taking a chance and laying out $2.20 per article to the Fairfax digital delivery service to gain access to the text. Sometimes it turns out to be worth it. But it burns me that their online Arts sections only rarely present these articles.

But I digress again. The real reason that I’m such a fan of the Alice Springs News is that it has, in contrast to the metropolitans, the most extensive coverage of all manner of Aboriginal issues of any online newspaper from Australia, and that means a lot to me over here in the States. This week’s edition (November 30) has a long series of articles about the controversy concerning Claire Martin’s proposed amendment to the Land Rights Act that could result in national parks in the Territory being turned over to Aboriginal ownership, an update on the allegations of fiscal irresponsibility on the part of the Papunya Council, and a letter to the editor protesting the sorry state of the Araluen Centre’s budget. 

Another reason that I love to read the News is that it’s often quite ugly. For years they had a weekly columnist who wrote regular diatribes about the “anti-social element” in town. I find much of their coverage of Aboriginal issues to be small-minded, embarrassingly provincial, and unabashedly colonial. The current stories about the “handover” of park lands to Aboriginal owners are full of quite blatant assumptions that the land of the Territory belongs to the Territorians (narrowly defined), and other stories frequently share the assumption of terra nullius as a sort of Divine Right of Whitemen. Over the years I’ve probably sent more hate mail to the editor of the News than to any other journalist on the planet. Thankfully, I can say he’s never printed any of it.

But there is also sympathetic, intelligent, and in-depth reporting on social issues affecting the area’s Aboriginal people, often written by Ms. Finnane. A couple of years ago there was a long series of articles about communities’ attempt to beat the grog, and on the horrible effects that loopholes in the laws concerning the sale of alcohol have had on indigenous people around Alice. 

The journalism is never bland, and the sympathies (or antipathies) of the writers are almost always quite evident. While I don’t agree with a lot of what’s said, I do think the writing is generally quite honest, and certainly never disingenuous. If they want you to think badly about indigenous people over a given issue, they don’t make any bones about it. I hate the racism that appears so often in its pages, but have to love the fact that I can’t get quite as undiluted a dose of it anywhere else. 

I’m sure part of the reason I love the Alice Springs News is the romance of Alice for a Yank like me. I’ve made six trips to Australia in the last fifteen years, and Alice has been on the itinerary every time. It was in Alice that I first came face to face with an Aboriginal person, and bought my first painting. On a tour out through the Western Macdonnells I heard Dreamtime stories for the first time and saw the ancestor’s bodies transformed into landscape. I was introduced to Long Jack Phillipus in Papunya Tula, the first time I met one of the great artists. I saw people camped in the riverbed with cartons of VB scattered all around, and heard stories about deaths in custody and deaths in hospital. On the commons across from the old Papunya Tula space I’ve seen people sitting in the shade on a December afternoon, men literally pissing away the day, and women dancing, bare-breasted and painted up, as part of a protest over the elimination of bilingual education in the schools. And when I read the News, all that comes alive for me. Like the town itself, the newspaper is fascinating, perplexing, ugly, boring, exotic, friendly, and intriguing. Often times, it’s the next best thing to being in Australia itself.

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