Archive | February, 2017

Rover Thomas

24 Feb


When I put up this photo of me at Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia standing next to Rover Thomas’s “Cyclone Tracy” on my Facebook page, I wrote that if I could have any painting in the world, this is the one I would choose.  What a response of perplexed and dismayed objection I received! The reaction reminded me of the kind of responses I used to get from some people about a Jackson Pollock or other abstract painting–from “you can have it” to “can I choose a different one?” While my statement may have been a bit of hyperbole–aesthetically, I probably would prefer an Emily Kngwarreye to gaze upon for the rest of my days, and it would be near sacrilege and certainly disrespectful to remove Rover’s landmark painting from its native land–for me, the work has such power as an unprecedented record of a historic artistic moment that I am always overcome with tingling emotion whenever I see it. Here’s what Wally Caruana, then Curator of Aboriginal Art at the National Gallery of Australia, wrote about it:

When he was a lad, Thomas was taken from his home in the Great Sandy Desert, north along the Canning Stock Route, to work on cattle stations in the eastern Kimberley, where he spent some 40 years as a stockman and fencer. However by the late 1960s and early 1970s, a number of social and cultural upheavals occurred across the Kimberley: cattle-station owners dismissed hundreds of Aboriginal workers who moved to the fringes of white townships where they established camps, and ceremonial life was on the wane. Then on Christmas Eve 1974, Cyclone Tracy destroyed Darwin. The city was regarded by Aboriginal people of the Kimberley as the centre of European culture and, as cyclones, rain and storms are usually associated with ancestral Rainbow Serpents, elders interpreted the event as the ancestors warning Aboriginal people to reinvigorate their cultural practices.

Consequently a number of ceremonies were performed for a lay public in an act of cultural affirmation. By 1975 Thomas had settled at Warmun and here he had a dream visitation by the spirit of an aunt who had died as a result of injuries sustained in a car crash on a road flooded by Cyclone Tracy. The woman was being flown to hospital in Perth but she died when the aeroplane was above Broome in the western Kimberley. From here her spirit travelled across the Kimberley, visiting sacred and historical sites along the way until she reached her home in the east where she witnessed the Rainbow Serpent destroying Darwin. The narrative became the basis for the Kurirr Kurirr ceremony that the spirit of Thomas’s aunt had revealed to him.

By tradition, Thomas did not paint any of the early boards carried by performers in the Kurirr Kurirr—this responsibility fell to his uncle, Paddy Jaminji, who was the first of the Kurirr Kurirr painters. Between them, these two artists were the leading figures in the establishment of the modern East Kimberley painting movement, which is now known worldwide.

The paintings made for the Kurirr Kurirr were usually composed of a few basic shapes, as their meanings would be elaborated in the ceremony. Paintings related to the narrative of the cyclone but not made for use in ceremony tend to be more complex: the original icon for Cyclone Tracy over Darwin approximates a simple bold U-shape; however Thomas’s large canvas, Cyclone Tracy 1991, painted separately to the ceremony, displays a further articulation of the shape of the cyclone and the winds carrying the dust and sand that feed into it.

This piece, then, was the result of Rover Thomas’s epiphany about the meaning of Cyclone Tracy to his people: that they needed to return to their traditions and ceremonies. In creating this work, Thomas, along with a few others, began an entire stylistic direction now associated with the Kimberley region’s Aboriginal groups. He went on to paint whole series of canvases delineating aspects of his land and its ceremonies.  He was revered by his people, and became one of the leading figures in the creation of Aboriginal art as–to paraphrase the late Robert Hughes–the last great modern art movement.

My favorite story about Thomas involves my ANU colleague and grand man of Australian art history Sasha Grishin. One time he had the privilege to accompany Rover Thomas while he was given a tour of the NGA. The artist was by this time quite frail and in a wheelchair. When he came to Mark Rothko’s work, Thomas stopped and examined it for a while; then he said to Sasha, “that white fella paint like me, but he don’t know how to use black.”


Mark Rothko, 1957 #20, 1957. Image rights copyright Kate Rothko Prizel &Christopher Rothko/ARS. Licensed by Viscopy

I hope this helps people understand why Rover Thomas’s work, and especially his “Cyclone Tracy”  speaks to me so strongly. It is the visual manifestation of a spiritual experience, with immense significance stemming from a devastating recent event in the lives of all Australians.  Thomas’s intuitive expression of the disaster and its meaning for him and his people is, to my mind, simply magisterial .


19 Feb

Let me begin this segment by stating two irrefutable facts about Canberra:

  1. Canberra is truly the Bush Capital. Australian flora and fauna are everywhere, with cockatoo flocks in the backyard, as well as the occasional kangaroo in the carport.
  2. It was a great place to raise a boy. Sports ovals of every kind for at least 5 different codes of football and various other activities from baseball to basketball to fencing are in abundance.

That being said, our past experiences in the Australian Capital made our return this time a bit angst-ridden. Not all trips down Memory Lane bring up happy or pleasant reminiscences. (I have written about our trials in Canberra in my blog entry on September 6, . Drastic cuts in government funding have only increased the pressure on the cultural institutions and universities that we have loved. But that’s a story for another time ). Those feelings were probably initiated by the fact that we began our Canberra visit in Queanbeyan, the place where we lived when we decided we had to leave Australia. Except for a newly modernized Woolworth’s supermarket, the town looked about the same as it had before. Sadly, our funny little house–which had been a corner shop originally, and we had really fixed up both inside and outside–had been neglected, though we were heartened to see that the bushes and trees we planted were still there, but the garden itself was a mess.

Australia is also experiencing one of its hottest summers on record (climate change, anyone?), and Canberra, which normally never stayed simmering for too long, was sweltering.  This did not improve our mood at all.

p1240264But oh, there were so many friends!  Tony Cristofaro, fruiterer extraordinaire, was still spruiking away at Fyshwick Markets, looking unchanged at the age of 81. His daughter Lisa had been my student at ANU–and now her oldest is starting uni!  Oh, my, how old are we???

We stayed first at Carol Croce’s house–the same place, by the way, that I had my last drink 21 years ago!  We have known Carol since ANU Housing days in Garran, when she and her family arrived from Madison, Wisconsin.  She went on to work very successfully for Australian NGOs, and her daughter Chloe, who was 6 when we first met, is now running organizations aiding the homeless in Melbourne.  Carol looks fabulous, and has certainly found her niche in Canberra.

Maggie Brady, whose house we stayed in in Mystery Bay, also generously hosted us at herp1240343 Canberra house, filled with Aboriginal art, and SOME air conditioning. George worked with Maggie at AIATISIS, and we have hosted her at our house in Pasadena. We planned wonderful meals, and went to a concert at the National Gallery of Art after which we viewed the museum’s extraordinary Aboriginal art collection (more on that later, when I write about Rover Thomas). Maggie takes up every offer to experience what many cultural opportunities Canberra has to offer, so she was a good reminder to us of what a cultural life one can have in the city.

My old friend Chris Bettle–one of the only old intellectuals I know who won’t use a computer and has no cell phone, so can only be reached by actual letters–was so kind to introduce me at last to Humphrey McQueen, one of Australia’s only public intellectuals, author of many books, and the one who criticized my appointment to the ANU faculty back in 1990 (I agreed with him: why were they hiring an American woman to teach Australian art?).  We had a very lively and thought-provoking conversation over tea and cakes in


Chris Bettle and Humphrey McQueen

“Civic,” as downtown Canberra is known. He was delightful. One of the most interesting aspects of Canberra is that it’s very easy to get to know everyone, including all the artists, writers, and intellectuals.

We also had lunch at the National Library with my old colleague (from the English department) Gillian Russell, who filled me in on events of the last decade at the ANU and elsewhere (not a pretty story). It was really lovely to see her again, and to hear of her current writing project on the history of ephemera. She writes brilliantly.

As does my friend and colleague Gael Newton, now retired as Curator of Photography at the NGA. (She also recounted some of the horror stories of recent cuts to the arts and cultural institutions by the Australian government.) Gael can really be considered one of the founders of Australian photographic history, and continues to write and is involved in exhibitions, and still has her eye out for photographic treasures. Her focus for the last few years has been photography in Southeast Asia, but she still has her hand in Australian topics, too.  She and her husband Paul had us over for lunch at their air-conditioned houseeegaelnewton_canberra (you can see a thread here–it was so hot that finding A/C was a mandatory endeavor), where I could gaze in awe at the prodigiousness of Gael’s archives, the volumes through which she is now trying to wade. We are exactly the same age, and are confronting the tasks at the end of careers in different ways but with the same sense of nostalgia and rumination. Her archives, however, are much more important and contain singular documents from most of the leading figures in Australian art of the 20th century.

George also worked at AIATSIS with Ros Percival, married to Keith, who are dinky-di old working-class lefties–a category that hardly exists in America anymore. Ros had, unfortunately, broken a vertebra in her back, so was a bit laid up, but they kindly invited us over for lunch in their Queanbeyan house.  They haven’t changed one iota. What a relief.

Finally, it was a treat to visit our old Yarralumla friends Andy & Noelle Waugh and their now quickly expanding family of children, grandchildren, boyfriends and wives. They now live in Duffy, on the edge of Canberra where the “Perfect Storm” fire of 2003 came to their back door. As you can see from the photos, almost everyone in the family is a redhead, as are the family pets! Great fun to see them again.

Once we started feeling less alienated after having such inviting and warm visits with old friends, we ventured out to our favorite Canberra places, the Botanic Gardens and the NGA.  The Gardens was the scene of many family expeditions, including one when a kookaburra came swooshing down and grabbed a piece of chicken right out of Max’s hand. The water dragons are still there, and a new native bee house, as well as a section for The Red Desert plants, has been added. And still an excellent bookshop.

If it hadn’t been so beastly hot–up to 42 C. degrees, or 108 F.degrees–we might have wanted to stay longer, but we really had to go.  In the end, when we totted up all that Canberra has to offer against our personal anxieties evoked by the place, it really is the right size and has enough cultural attractions to make it a very livable town.  Unfortunately, the housing prices are astronomical now–a small and not particularly attractive house in an inner suburb that sold for $170,000 in the mid 90s is now valued at over $800,000!  So Canberra is out of the picture as a retirement venue for us.  Nonetheless, we wouldn’t mind going back for visits if the opportunities arose.  As for our considerations of Australia as a whole: I will wait to discuss them once we have finished our other travels to Mexico and in Europe again.  Stay tuned!

The South Coast

10 Feb

Oh, my, so behind on the travelogue! Let me try to summarize our two weeks along the South Coast after we left Ulladulla/Kings Point.  The photos above are of the gorgeous beaches in and around Mystery Bay. Our friend Maggie Brady let us stay in her wonderful summer house there, and we liked it so much we stayed for almost two weeks! Mystery Bay is about 10 km from Narooma, the biggest town in the area. It is very popular with Canberrans–3 hours away–as a place to escape the inland heat and, if fortunate enough, to buy a getaway house.  Maggie and her late husband Alan were able to buy their house many years ago, when the prices were not so impossible. She has been very generous in allowing us to stay here. We like it because, unlike so many other houses that Australians build along the coast, it really is in the bush, designed to be unpretentious but functional, and it blends into the landscape. (It was designed by a German, and you can tell!)

The only drawback: there is no internet, no cell phone, no shops in Mystery Bay!  It really is, then, a getaway, but not conducive to long-time stays, unless one figures out how to get some reception.  A lot of the time we would walk up the hill, and then could make a phone call, and we had a portable WiFi device that worked some of the time.  This was indeed a good place to be for the lamentable period of the inauguration and the first disastrous weeks of the new U.S. presidency.

We saw some animals that we rarely had seen in the past: at 1080 Beach, the beautiful beach shown above, swamp wallabies roam calmly, undisturbed by people. And for me, most excitingly, ECHIDNAS are all over the place!  I think we had only seen one echidna in the wild before this:

In case you wonder what an echidna is, they are one of only 5 monotremes in the world–that is, egg-laying mammals–including the platypus.  Covered in spines, somewhat like a hedgehog, they will curl up in an impenetrable ball if harassed. They appeared in the front garden in Mystery Bay, sniffling around the vegetation, in the late afternoon.

As for the reason Mystery Bay is so named, here is the explanation, on a plaque at the beach:


The prevailing suspicion is that they were done in by miners who didn’t want to pay their assessed taxes!

Along with gorgeous beaches and fabulous fish, the South Coast region around Narooma includes temperate rain forests, at least one of which has been tended by the State Forestry Division.  It provides a magical walk through fern gullies and feathery palms.

Because of the lack of internet at our digs, we spent a lot of time at the Narooma Public Library–we weren’t the only ones!  The place was buzzing with activity, from children’s reading hour to art presentations.  Public libraries–the last openly free service to the public.  A godsend to the communities they serve! And here, outside the windows, I could watch the lorikeets sitting in the most beautiful grevilleas.

In our search for affordable housing–remember, that was part of the original purpose for making this trip–we had been advised to check out Bermagui, where we had been told old Canberra lefties were starting to retire, so there was a livelier cultural scene than its earlier phases could provide.  This is the town made famous by Zane Grey, who discovered it as a gateway to magnificent deep-sea fishing. We had visited the place often when we lived in Canberra. Somehow, we were not impressed. The wonderful old Bermagui Hotel is so tarted up it was virtually unrecognizable from its previous appearance as a small-town gem of a hotel, and we really didn’t see much of a cultural buzz anywhere. Never mind, our friend Tonia did introduce us to an amazingly good gelato shop there. Prices for housing were a little bit lower than further north up the coast (we did find that as soon as the rail line ended in Nowra, the prices of real estate began to drop)–but still fairly high for our tastes.

Finally, we decided to drive down to Mallacoota, in nostalgic recognition of a family expedition of many years ago.  When we were beginning our work on The Blue Guide in about 1992, we were in Melbourne, and were advised to visit the most isolated point in Victoria at Mallacoota. Max, at 10, was with us when we set off to go there.  We thoroughly miscalculated the amount of time the drive would take (this was in the days before Google Maps).  As it became apparent that we were still hours from our destination, Max began to whimper from hunger.  By the time we got to our hotel, it was absolutely pitch dark out and there were NO places open that had food.  The clerk at our hotel suggested we visit the golf club, which might still be open.  We made a beeline there, arriving just as they were closing. They let us have a prawn cocktail, which Max promptly devoured, and then roosongolfcourse2_mallacootaimmediately fell asleep.  In memory of this occasion we did revisit the golf club, only to find mediocre food at exorbitant (to us) prices. But there were still kangaroos on the golf course!

We had a splendid time in Mallacoota–stayed in a lovely AirBnB apartment on Bottom Lake, a bit to the south of the village proper. The village is indeed isolated, reached from Princes Highway after a winding 13-km. road.  According to Wikipedia, its year-round population is 970, a figure that swells to 8,000 in the summer. An enormous campground dominates the town. But the area is just stunning, with flocks of rare grey-headed flying foxes (they weren’t in residence when we were there, but we went to a very informative and well-attended talk about them, put on by the University of the Third Age, a very active group of older residents of the area), and magnificent gum trees. The larger image below is of the most venerable Mallacoota Gum, of which there are only 38 individual specimens left.

But our biggest excitement in Mallacoota came on a walk through the Croajingolong National Park, a section of which skirted the lake where we were staying. After a nice but rather uneventful trek up to The Narrows of the inlet, we were walking back to the car, when George yelled, “Erika, get your camera out quick!”  There in our path was an enormous goanna–at least 4 feet long, and flicking out his tongue furiously.

We kept our distance until he finally galumphed off to the water. We had never seen such a goanna so close by!  They are apparently quite common in this national park. Very exciting.

After two days in this little corner of Victoria–far too isolated to consider moving there permanently–we headed out up the Monaro Highway for Canberra.  The South Coast is a beautiful merging of sea and forest, green and clear blue waters, and still rather removed from what passes as “modern” civilization. That has distinct advantages, but for those of us in need of some cultural institutions–and at least reliable internet–it really is too far (Narooma is 5 hours from Sydney, 8 hours from Melbourne, 4 hours from Canberra). Definitely worth a visit, and we are so thankful that we had the opportunity to stay there for a while.

Immigrating to Australia

6 Feb

As promised, we will be looking into the procedures for seeking refuge in other countries should things in the U.S. under Trump become intolerable. Today we went to the desk-front office of Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection (that last little dismaying bit about “border protection” has been added in the last few paranoid years here, coinciding with the government’s horrendous treatment of desperate refugees trying to enter Australia by boat. Just an aside to let you know that the whole Western world seems to be going insanely xenophobic….). We presented ourselves as naturalized Australian citizens who would be moving back here, chiefly because of the election of Donald Trump, and asked for information on procedures for immigration by other Americans into the country.

First, the good news:  we as Australian citizens would be able to sponsor family members to enter the country and apply for permanent residency (although there are quotas, and it seems that every application is handled on an individual basis).  And Max (our son), as an Australian citizen, would have no trouble bringing his non-Australian wife and child; she would also be able to get work permits and permanent residency status easily once she was here.  But here’s the bad news:  we as Australian citizens would have no ability to sponsor friends or anyone else; they would simply have to apply through normal channels, following the procedures laid out on the Department’s website,  The cost of applications is much higher than it was when we applied, and the categories are more restricted. But if you are white, have money, and have desirable skills, it is still possible to be accepted. As of yet, Americans fleeing Trump’s America do not qualify for refugee status, but we will continue to monitor that situation.

There are now several categories of tourist and working visas, most of which allow for visits of up to 3 months, some for entry several times within a year, up to 3 months at a time. Word is that getting citizenship is far more complicated and much more expensive than when we became citizens. At that time in the early 1990s, we just had to have been in the country continuously for 2 years (this is after having working visas and permanent residency status). I think we also had to take a small test of some kind, agreeing to swear allegiance to the Queen of Australia, but I do remember that we weren’t even asked to sing “Advance Australia Fair,” the national anthem, of which I had memorized all the words in anticipation of having to sing it to pass the citizenship test

Advance Australia Fair!