An Adventurous Broad Abroad – Art in Alice

It was wonderful to experience Alice Springs in their shoulder season. Although there is a vibrant tourist trade throughout the year, this period between seasons is relatively quiet and some retail shops will close in a few weeks as owners head south to wait out the scorching summer in cooler climes.

I spent a leisurely morning learning a bit about Aboriginal art in a lovely gallery that will be closed up by the weeks end. I liked this gallery – Aboriginal Art World – very much for their support and concern for Aboriginal artists and for their understanding of the culture. They carry only Aboriginal art so they have a good knowledge of the quality of each piece and, more importantly they are committed to paying a fair price to the artists.

It being so quiet, the dealer was happy to chat at length about the vibrant and complex paintings. To some these Aborigine pieces might look like pretty colors in repetitive patterns but each painting represents a story passed through generations – stories of ceremonies, places or in some cases images and messages that helped the Aboriginal people to survive for thousands of years in country considered uninhabitable.

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This painting by Peter Overs is of emu dreaming. The story that this painting depicts will have been passed through generations since the ‘dreaming time’ when Aboriginals believe the land was given to them. These tracks tell an intricate story about the movement of emu through the land, the direction of the tracks forming a kind of map and each block indicating landmarks or the terrain through which the emu travelled.

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Most Aboriginals paint from an aerial perspective, illustrating what they would see if they were looking down from above. I found this information particularly exciting, as I recognized many of the textures and patterns in the paintings as those I had seen in the landscape of Kakadu National Park when I flew over it in a small plane a week earlier.

I drooled over this spectacular piece by Gracie Ward but I had neither the wall space to display it nor the budget to rationalize buying it. Many of the best Aboriginal artists are women and they typically paint women’s experiences. The Aborigine are nomadic, walking great distances and stopping only when they reach a water source. This is where women would have time to hold their ceremonies and tell their stories so their paintings often depict water holes. The circles in this painting represent water, perhaps salt or gypsum pans and the black circle might be a spring. The repeated patterns are the landscape as seen from above, in this case two mountains or rock hills and the green lines running through the piece represent the women’s path as they moved through their ceremony.

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Because the paintings of up and coming Aboriginal artist, Betty Mbitjana are recognizable for their bright images of women’s breasts in ceremonial painted stripes, the gallery refers to her as “Betty Boobs”. Her stories also center around water holes and the small circles represent bush melons, an important staple in Aboriginal life.

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I knew when I left the gallery that I would be back for one of Betty’s pieces. I chose this one in the reds and oranges of the desert and was very pleased that the gallery provided me with a photo of Betty signing it.

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I stayed at a bed and breakfast for part of my time in Alice Springs and the host, a long-time resident of Alice invited me to join her one evening for the opening of an art exhibit. This gave me an opportunity to see a side of this remote but sophisticated town that I hadn’t expected.

In spite of the cool evening there was a pretty good crowd gathered outside the ‘Watch This Space’ gallery sipping on wine, and munching on slices of home made quiches and pastries.

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The well-attended exhibit, titled Metal and Mud is a first-time collaboration between two friends – potter, Amanda McMillan and metal artist, Brigida Stewart.

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This is the largest piece and the anchor of the exhibit – The Long Journey – about relationships and stopping places. Brigida explained how the collaboration worked, with Amanda laying out a work table with her imaginative clay pieces and then Brigida picking out those she felt she could work with.

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This series of pieces apparently caused some anguish from the free-spirited Amanda as the pieces came together…”She trying to put me in a box!”

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I learned during the course of the evening that these women had each had some serious challenges in life and some of that anguish was evident in their pieces. I quite liked two pieces that spoke to me of the turmoil in lives filled with conflicting priorities, and of being compelled sometimes to just run and hide.

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A long time friend of the artists did an eloquent introduction of the exhibit and referred to this piece – Copper Fox – as a ‘mix of playful minds’.

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If you stop in to Alice Springs and are looking for this gallery, just look for the knitted tree.

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