Sunday 18 September 2011

A Festival Like Alice 1

I'm on my very first visit to the Northern Territory, and I've gone right to the centre of Australia - Alice Springs. In a few hours on Thursday morning I was transported from a chilly tram stop on Bourke Street, Melbourne, to the hot dry red-dust environment of Alice Springs. And all without producing a passport.

I'm primarily here as a guest of the Alice Desert Festival, an annual week of cultural events which this year runs from 9 to 18 September. Alice may be a small town but as it rarely rains here, it gives the festival organisers great scope in staging outdoor events in spectacular locations.

Joining the dots

But more of the outdoors later. The first thing I attended was actually a low-key indoor event at the Ngurratjuta Art Centre. It's a fairly humble place, being tucked away at the back of a building in an industrial part of town. Within its grounds, however, is an impressive art gallery showcasing watercolour work by local Aboriginal painters.

The centre's workshop is open to indigenous artists to use for free, including materials, with the centre taking a commission from art sold. The centre has a particular goal of encouraging the continuation of the style of artwork made famous by Albert Namatjira, and I noticed the surname 'Namatjira' on some of the artists' lockers around the walls.

The festival session invited visitors to try either watercolour painting or dot painting for ourselves; and of course we all chose the dot painting. Having been shown how to make dots of various sizes using either wooden skewers or the end of a paint brush, we were then reminded that it wasn't an abstract exercise - the works should tell a story.

Here's my first effort, not bad for a beginner I thought:

And if you're wondering what the story is - it involves a group of wild camels I encountered on the road to Hermannsburg the previous day (can you spot them in the art?). Here's a pic from real life:

Olive and pink by sunset

For my second festival event, I walked through a river to get to the venue. To be precise, it was the dry riverbed of the Todd River, and it was the quickest route from my hotel to the Olive Pink Botanic Garden, where the play The First Garden was being premiered.

You may reasonably assume that 'Olive Pink' refers to the colours of vegetation or landscape, but in fact she was an early Aboriginal rights activist and former anthropologist who decided to create a garden of native plants in Alice Springs, with the help of Warlpiri man Johnny Tjampitjinpa.

She lived within the park until her death at 1975, aged 91. She was a remarkable and strong-willed woman whose life story is well worth reading.

The compact cast of three actors (playing five characters) did a great job of portraying the high points of her life within the reserve, though delivery tended to the melodramatic at times, due to the necessity of projecting as clearly as possible in an open space.

Natasha Raja, co-writer of the play with Christopher Raja, convincingly portrayed both Pink's force of character and her stubborn refusal to be beholden to anyone; while Scott Fraser neatly cast light on her personality as both down-to-earth helper Henry Wardlaw and the ghost of her would-be fiancee who was killed at Gallipoli.

Also impressive was Eshua Bolton, an indigenous actor originally from New South Wales, who ranged from the youthful excesses of the young boy Tasman to the calm and thoughtful personality of Tjampitjinpa.

The setting, of course, was perfect - gum trees, bird calls, and a bluff of pink rock rising up behind the set with its humble hut. Remarkably, I was told afterward that the section of the garden in which the play was being staged was roughly the area in which Olive Pink had lived. I wonder what she would have made of it?

Next: Choral voices in a gorge, and bush foods for dinner... [Read the next instalment here]

The First Garden continues to 25 September; for more details of the Alice Desert Festival, click here. Disclosure time: On this trip I was hosted by Tourism NT.

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