Saturday, September 4, 2010

On to Alice Springs

More or less rested, more or less adjusted to missing a day and walking upside down...we boarded an airplane for Alice Springs. It is easy to forget that Australia is a country and a continent. Flying to Alice Springs was like flying to Los Angeles...lots fasterthan driving.Flying over vast landscapes of changing colors, over chemical lakes, sand dunes, mountain ranges...all severe. You can see the water courses from the air, even where there is no visible water: follow the trail of the plants.
Alice Springs was begun in the 19th century with a telegraph station at a spring that was subsequently named after the station master's wife, Alice. At the telegraph station I became more interested in the birds. I looked through Judy's good binoculars at this gallah, the ubiquitous bird of down under. They steal food even more blatantly than the seagulls.
The station was the center of operations for communication, mail, medicine, commerce that was brought in by the Europeans. This was one of the areas where there was little hunting of the Aboriginals, thankfully, although their lives were changed for the worse through disease, abuse, and the destruction of their ecologically sensitive and sacred lands. Throughout the history of the Europeans in Australia, there was a mis-understanding of how Aboriginal society worked, and indeed, worked well. The Aboriginal world view was essentially spiritual with the land as sacred and cared for with serious responsibility by those who were mature enough and wise enough to hold the stories and the rituals that would maintain the land in the Dreamtime, the present and the future all at once.Time, for the Australian Aboriginal was circular and ongoing, much like the Inuit.
There are over 300 language groups (tribes) of Aboriginal peoples. The languages can be remarkably different...not just dialects. Language, symbol and sign language were used to communicate over territories. Aboriginal art was part of the communication systems. Today it is on canvas and in bright colors, painted for the burgeoning art market. However, its roots remain practical : describing food sources and locations, seasonal changes, rituals and ceremonies or stories necessary for the maintenance of the land, in some areas mortuary concerns are also a topic. Shields and barks were carved or burned with information that identified your language group, your territory, your family affiliations (sometimes called skin groups) and acted as your passport or calling card. Sometimes bodies were painted with this information as well to help insure safe travels through foreign territories.
As soon as we entered Alice Springs we went to Mbantua Gallery. Mbantua is one of many, many galleries in town. As far as I can tell they all have honest relations with the artists. Most of them give the artists their materials and purchase the finished product outright and pay a further fee upon sale of the painting from the gallery. the painting above is the one I bought.It is by Pauline Morgan Petyarre. Pauline speaks little English. She has been painting for about 10 years. This piece refers to the Pencil Yam Story of the dreamtime, where 2 seeds were born creating 2 different species of pencil yam. The tubers are an important food source and the plant also attracts kangaroos. Pauline and her people perform increase ceremonies to ensure the productivity of the yam.
Alice Springs is a dusty, windy place, raw looking. It was quite cool, since it was winter, but you can feel in your bones that summer would be a scorcher! The air was desert dry, most of us had bloody noses by the time we left the area a few days later. The whole center of town is devoted to Aboriginal arts. It is BIG BUSINESS. The different galleries represent artists from different area, but dominantly in desert dot style here. Many are either fully Aboriginal owned or have boards of directors which include the artists. The galleries are mostly attached to art centers in the outback which function as production facility, store, bank, medical supply, welfare...Art is the primary employment, especially for the women, in the outback areas that maintain a more traditional or isolated lifestyle. Supposedly it is well controlled and not exploitive.
Before we went to Bojangles Pub for a mixed grill of crocodile,bison (water buffalo), kangaroo, camel & emu, we fed the rock wallabies at the Heavitree Gap Outback Lodge. It claims to be a premier resort, but in the looks like an old style Holiday Inn motel. It is situated at a gap in the McDonnell Ranges where black footed rock wallabies live. At sunset, they descend from their rocky home to eat. It you sit very still and remain very quiet, they will feed from your hand. One young girl communed with "her" wallaby for such a long time that she could stroke it. Two wallabies had joeys in the pouch. It was interesting to see them contract the pouch to protect their young when alarmed. I had never thought of the pouch as having volitional muscles! I thought it was just a stretchy pocket of skin.
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