Alice Forever Changes

They say that if you see the Todd River flow three times you’ll never leave Alice Springs again.I’ve seen water in the Todd twice, and I haven’t given up hoping.

I first arrived in Alice Springs nearly twenty years ago during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, after eight cyclone-struck days in Cairns. After the humidity, the rains, the lowering clouds of the coast, the sharpness and dazzle of color, of sky and rock in Alice made me feel like I was being born again. And every time I return I understand all over again what the romance of the Outback is all about. Although it was curiosity about Aboriginal art that prompted that first trip to Australia, it wasn’t until we arrived in Alice that the curiosity took root and grew into interest and eventually blossomed into passion.

So, for the moment, coming back to Alice (as opposed to never leaving it) has its charms.

The best of these charms always seem to center on Papunya Tula Artists. We’ve gotten past the stage now where we’ll spend all afternoon sprawled on the floor looking at every single canvas spread out to entice potential customers. Our knowledge of Papunya Tula painting has grown to the point where such an education is no longer critical to an appreciation of the works that have been hung on the walls; our knees have grown old enough to protest at the mere thought of it.

Other pleasures have replaced those earlier ones. Chief among them is the chance to have lunch with Daphne Williams, now that she’s no longer running the shop and can be tempted into an extended chat off the premises. There’s always news to catch up on, stories about children and complaints about complaining knees to share. Casual talk about paintings that we’ve seen in the shop, or more serious talk about changes in government (in both our countries) somehow always seem to lead Daphne into stories that reach back into her time managing PTA. She never fails to astonish me with her simple, matter-of-fact delivery: what I might have thought of as momentous history is, in Daphne’s telling, just another day at the office, and one in which she herself always plays an ancillary role. The good woman redefines modesty.

Catching up with the rest of the staff in the gallery always feels like a homecoming of sorts as well, and meeting new members of the crew offers the promise of friendships to come. Paul Sweeney was looking dapper and distinguished: that touch of gray at the temples suits him. We missed Brigida, but caught Marg and had the pleasure of being introduced to Charmaine, who was charming indeed, warm, and welcoming. We were honored this year to have Luke and Sarita invite us to their home for tea on Saturday afternoon; we got so caught up in swapping stories that they almost forgot to vote!

Ben, Sarita, and Daphne say “Barramundi!”

If Papunya Tula represents a constant in our Alice Springs adventures, much else changes from visit to visit. One of the most startling changes on the Todd Mall in recent years has been the growing distancing of “fine art” galleries from tourist emporia. Twenty years ago you could buy paintings by recognizable Indigenous artists in the same shop that sold boomerangs and ersatz didjeridus. This year we noticed a proliferation of white-wall galleries throughout the town center, although almost every wall was covered with variations on the Utopian bush leaves motif or with reprocessed imagery from Minnie Pwerle’s catalog.

The most dramatic of these changes is surely what I jokingly referred to as the “Mbantua Subdvision” of the Todd Mall. The modest storefront on Gregory Terrace long ago expanded into a museum and cultural centre. Now Tim Jennings is expanding his frontage onto the Todd Mall itself. The man is a genius at marketing, there is no doubt. He offers paintings from Utopia in a wide range of formats and sizes, from tiny paintings that straddle the line between starter and souvenir to small swatch-like designs that grow progressively larger until they become panels and standard canvases. It’s a brilliant concept. And, now, writing from Darwin, I’ve seen his similar store in the Holiday Inn. In between, I was tempted at the Alice Springs airport by a Mbantua-brand Greeny Petyarre mousepad.

The Todd River itself looked to be deserted most of the time that we crossed over it. I couldn’t tell whether winter or policing explained that change in the townscape. There were plenty of Aboriginal people around town itself, gathered as always in front of the Church on the mall or enjoying the winter sun on greenswards elsewhere around town. 

We managed to catch up with John Oster over lunch at the Alice Plaza, and trekked out to the Araluen Galleries to buy beanies and revisit the Papunya School Boards. Ros Premont was in Gallery Gondwana on Friday, looking fantastic, and showing off a dramatic new set of works from Adrian Robertson and Billy Benn. 

Somehow, we never made it to all the other places on our list–except to the Post Office, where we crossed paths again with Charmaine while I mailed off the collection of books that had been increasingly expanding my suitcase since Melbourne. There will be lots of reading for me to report on in the months ahead. (Book of the moment is Benjamin Genocchio’s Dollar Dreaming: inside the Aborginal art world.)

All too soon, as always, it was off to the airport. You can imagine my surprise when I heard someone calling my name on the way to the gate. No one ever recognizes me in an airport, least of all in a tiny one halfway around the world from home. But indeed, it was Edwina Circuitt from Warakurna Artists, along with Judith and Mrs. Porter. They were between connections and heading off to spend a couple of hours with friends in town. We only had a few minutes to catch up before my flight to Darwin was called, but those few minutes gave me a taste of the week to come in the Top End.

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