Q. What do I have to do to get a cup of coffee in this lame-ass restaurant? A#1 – No worries, mate. A#2 – Blow me. After stuffing the car with our ever-expanding collection of baggage, we make our way to the National Gallery of Art through Canberra’s leafy boulevards. Ali marvels at my cavalier disregard of signage when I drive directly up onto the curb, instead of the obvious entrance ramp to the parking garage. “Dad!”
The National Gallery is an airy, inviting, rather discombobulated building. Its Aboriginal collection is extraordinary. We are quiet and focused, except to whisper, “Is that a snake?” Each piece shimmers with antiquity. The mystery of dreamlines, the incredibly ancient oral traditions, confront us. We know nothing.
Also astonishing are the watercolors of Albert Namatjira, an indigenous artist working during the first half of the 20th century. The mastery and luster of his painting is wholly within the Western tradition, yet somehow, the medium of watercolor perfectly captures the tension between the outback’s saturated palette and the light that transmutes it before your eyes.
His is a tragic story. Born in 1902, Namatjira spent his youth living with his family in an Aboriginal mission near Alice Springs. As a young man, he showed startling promise as painter and in 1938, his first exhibition sold out. Fame and money followed, but as an Aboriginal, Namatjira could neither lease property nor buy a house, among countless other prohibitions. Public outrage led to his being granted full citizenship in 1957. It took another ten years for basic rights to be granted to all Aboriginal people.
As a citizen, he could now buy alcohol. Aboriginal custom dictates that a person must share bounty with friends. In 1958, he was charged with supplying alcohol to other native people. The court did not believe his denial, sentencing him to two months in prison. Namatjira emerged a broken man and died in 1959. The National Gallery devotes a room solely to his extraordinary work.
Another of the glories of the National Gallery is Jackson Pollock’s ‘Blue Poles’ bought in 1973 for $1.3 million AUD, at the time the highest price paid for a contemporary American painting. Much controversy surrounded the transaction, however, today ‘Blue Poles’ is acknowledged to be Pollock’s supreme masterpiece. The electricity of the painting, its vibrancy and presence, is markedly different from the murky turbulence of a lot of his work.
Sydney will be today’s destination. Finally, we will surrender the car we rented with so much hassle in Adelaide; trusty, old shitmobile that it has become. Ali’s at the wheel and dealing with the GPS, as well. This is not a problem until we enter Sydney city limits and everything goes to shit. The highways in Sydney vanish into tunnels at a moment’s notice. GPS goes kablooey. Recalculate Nightmare! At a stoplight, we manage the scurrying ‘driver switch’ stunt. Though our search is cross-eyed convoluted, we eventually do arrive at the Hertz office. But there’s no street parking. We accomplish that, but when we enter the office, the counter staff disappears as if on cue. The miracle will be if I can keep my wits about me. “Drop-offs around the back,” is the take-away from this encounter. Done. Now can we flag a taxi? It’s only rush hour. After a series of silly, fruitless moves from one side of the street to the other and one corner to the other, a fucking cab does stop.
Moments later, we’re deposited at Simpson’s Hotel in the Potts Point neighborhood, a beautiful and serene Arts & Crafts-style house converted into a hotel after considerable renovation. Again, with the three-flight schlep of the monster suitcase. Ali has been assigned to Barbara’s Room. I get Number Nine. I’ve reserved a table at Yellow, a notable vegetarian restaurant around the corner. The food is pretty wonderful; only the weird wilted radicchio disappoints.