There Is No Town Like Alice

Mt GillenLet’s backtrack a week or so to Alice Springs, although the memories seem tame now by comparison to the rush of Darwin’s events.  We arrived on the midday flight from Sydney, which gave us just enough time to drop our bags at the Chifley and set out for Papunya Tula, always the first port of call in Alice.

On the walk up there we passed Imparja and Bojangles, getting the feeling that Alice never really changes much.  But once we reached the mall, the alterations that time makes started to appear: a new shop a featuring authentic Aboriginal art where the long-lived and storied Arunta Bookshop used to be, the disappearance (never really confirmed by close inspection) of Boomerang, the closing (!) of the CAAMA shop on the Todd Mall.  A phone call the next morning confirmed that CAAMA no longer operates a retail outlet in Alice, but sells their CD’s out of a special rack in Murray Neck in the Alice Plaza.  But what about the books, I wondered.  Well, later we discovered that Red Kangaroo has filled in the gap nicely, adding kilos to our luggage.

And so to Papunya Tula, where we were immediately accosted by Ben Danks, who’s back on staff for some months to come.  I was surprised that he recognized me: we only met once, three years ago.  But that was a feeling I later grew accustomed to in Darwin, where people I’d never met came up and introduced themselves with complete confidence that they had found the fellow they were looking for.  (I’d been wondering if it was time to update the six-year-old photo of myself that I use on the blog and Facebook and Twitter, but I guess I’m still right with that one.)

Ben made us feel instantly welcome, introducing us to the new staff who’ve come along since our last visit and to Patrick Tjungurrayi, who was in town getting a medical checkup.  But frankly, Patrick looked great and had four kungkas fussing over him at that precise moment.  Pretty soon Mr. Sweeney himself came in and the work began of catching up on the news, hearing the plans for PTA’s booth at the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair, reporting on what we’d see on the road to Alice, and inspecting the work on display on the gallery’s walls.

The mix was as vibrant as ever, although small works predominated in this hang, perhaps to appeal more to the casual visitor dropping in from a conference or a stint at the Casino.  One of the things that I liked about seeing so many works on the wall was the ability to suss out who’s painting and what they’re up to these days without having to flip through the piles of canvases on the floor.  That was an occupation I relished in my younger and suppler days: it was the greatest art school in Australia then and may still be today.  But my older joints are grateful for the ability to scan eighty works on the walls without bending down.

There was a real gem hiding in plain sight in the front room.  It was a classic line-and-circle composition in black and white, but very roughly painted and small, only 61 by 55 cms.  When I couldn’t guess who had done it, Ben dropped the penny for me and told me that Willy Tjungurrayi was painting for the company again and living out in Kintore.  He comes to the painting shed every morning and hangs out with the other tjilpi, with Hilary Tjapangati and Morris Gibson.  Willy is frail and so far has only painted small canvases, but they are thrilling things to see.   Many years ago, Yala Yala (I think) painted some black and white Old Man Dreamings that told the story of a tjilpi who was left behind by his people in a rudimentary wurley; a great wind came along, blew the shelter to bits, and finished off the old man.  These new works of Willy’s have a bit of that feel of last days to them.  But they go not with a bang, nor with a whimper, but gently, with a sigh, with acceptance of and at the end.  The black lines offer the impression of things breaking down, fading at the edges of the composition, running away into the white dots like a desert river disappearing into the sand.  It should be a sad painting, but somehow it is glorious instead.  Perhaps that it the magic a great artist has wrought.

The following morning we set out for our visit Dallas Gold at Raft Artspace since he’s moved to Alice Springs.  He is located in an industrial crescent that holds promise of becoming an arts district–but at this point it’s still only a promise.  Dallas was in the midst of hanging his new show from Ernabella Arts, lifting canvases onto the walls and painting up the stands that the ceramics will sit on. Nonetheless, he found time to fill us in on his story so far in Alice Springs while providing a tutorial on recent developments in painting from Ernabella.  In retrospect it was an especially relevant educational experience, for there was a Dickie Minyintiri painting that, while not as large as the one that won the NATSIAA a few days later, was perhaps lovelier.  Interestingly, on the wall opposite Dickie’s painting was a large canvas by Pepai Carroll who, together with his wife Milyika, would stand for Dickie at the awards ceremony.

We also got to see some works from exhibitions past at Raft, and paid special heed to what Dallas selected for our viewing.  Dallas never pushes a painting on a customer, or waxes ecstatic about an artist.  He’s more likely to pull out something from the back room that you’ve never seen before and say, “Good one, that.” If you agree, and agree to buy, the odds are better than even that in five years you’ll own an early masterpiece by a sought-after painter.  I’m still ruing the moment from my Austrade trip in 2007 when Dallas showed me work by this “new fellow” by the name of Harry Tjutjuna.

No trip to Alice is complete without multiple visits to Papunya Tula, and so we returned there in the afternoon for one last round of investigations and gossip, including some time chatting with Daphne.  We had many other opportunities to catch up with old friends while we were in town.  Stephen Williamson and Sam Togni had us out to their home nestled in between the glorious hills of the Macdonnels for dinner one night, and we braved the mobs at Casa Nostra (well worth it, by the way) to spend an evening with Apolline Kohen.  We also managed an after-hours tour of the exhibition of Central and Western Desert painting at Araluen.  Beginning with the dual genesis in Hermannsburg and Papunya a few decades apart, the show draws on the extensive holdings of the Araluen Galleries to set forth a brief history of desert painting.  What distinguishes this show is the quality of work on display: every canvas is a masterpiece.

Todd River GumIn short, though it was indeed a short trip, Alice was as beautiful and wondrous as ever.  One of the main reasons that we stay at the Chifley each time we come to town is for the opportunity to catch the morning light on the red hills, or filtering through the palms onto the galahs that are patiently picking through the grass for breakfast.  The sunset light on the old gums in the Todd as we walk over the bridge back to the motel after a full day’s adventure in Artland is hard to beat, too.  People talk about “Mediterranean light” or “California light” but for me there’s nothing as special as the light in Alice Springs: it always fills me with joy, just to be there, squinting in its brilliance on a winter’s day.  There really is no town like Alice; there’s only the real thing.

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