I recently attended the Venice Biennale and then visited other European cities. I saw such interesting and sometimes great contemporary art that I thought I should blog about the highlights.

Established in 1895, the Venice Biennale is the oldest and most prestigious in the world. The 57th International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia runs until November 26th 2017.

Australian Pavilion, showing the work Vigil from Tracey Moffatt’s MY HORIZON. Photograph by John Gollings

Australia’s representative this year is Tracey Moffatt and having known her since 1984 and watched her career with fascination, like many others, I wanted to attend the opening.

A magical day began with the hauntingly beautiful voice of Deborah Cheetham singing in an Aboriginal language.  Tracey  Moffatt’s  MY HORIZON  consists of 2 evocative photographic bodies of work Passage and Body Remembers, and two new video works, Vigil and The White Ghosts Sailed In.


Passage by Tracey Moffatt from MY HORIZON. Photograph by John Gollings.

According to art critic Holland Cotter for the New York Times the Biennale is “tame” and “does not reflect a drastically changed world, and it fails to cohere”. Tracey Moffatt however, was singled out as one of the few artists to leave a “lasting impression” with her work touching on the tragedy of mass social displacement, past and present.

In the latest Artlink magazine Djon Mundine writes about MY HORIZON and Tracey Moffatt here.

The Biennale offers a very diverse selection of artists – I was lucky to catch a talk by Mark Bradford, the lively US artist, but many others, from all over the world and working in many mediums, were not well known to me. Older women like Romania’s Greta Bratescu and the UK’s Phyllida Barlow were given overdue recognition. (Elizabeth Cummings in Australia aged 80+ is also finally getting the recognition she deserves and her exhibition Elizabeth Cummings: Interior Landscapes at the SH Ervin Gallery, Sydney runs until 23 July).

The formal Biennale is in a park called the Giardini.  30 countries have pavilions there, and another 29 are available to other countries.  The artists of some participating countries are also exhibited in other parts of Venice.

But the International Art Exhibition also includes a curated exhibition, in 2017 entitled Viva Arte Viva, and is a selection of many artists from all over the world.  This is situated in the Central Pavilion (in the Giardini), and a short walk away, at the Arsenale, the old shipyard and armory buildings.

The Arsenale provides an intriguing long walk through huge and wonderful buildings with many interesting artists of all ages and working in many mediums, and some collaborations and community projects.  Indigenous artists and African countries are quite well represented.

from Emissaries by Lisa Reihana

The centrepiece of New Zealand artist Lisa Reihana’s Emissaries is a huge screen panorama of the arrival of Captain Cook in the Pacific.  Lisa’s In Pursuit of Venus was described as the best artwork in Venice by the Sunday Times critic and a “witty mix of live action and cunning special effects” that unfolds “in a riveting animated sequence”.

In the latest Artlink magazine Nicholas Thomas writes here about Lisa Reihana and how her work is an animated digital recreation of a giant French wallpaper, Les Sauvages de la Pacifique.  This wallpaper was printed in 1804-6 and was a romanticised imagining of Oceania.

Some critics have been unkind about Damien Hirst’s 50 million pound effort Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable with extraordinary supposed “salvaged” treasures from the monumental to the exquisitely tiny and precious. These are exhibited throughout Punta Della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi, two superb Venetian buildings owned by François Pinault.  Hirst’s colossal and menacing bronze Demon – 18 metres high and up to the third floor in the forecourt of the Palazzo Grassi, is unforgettable.

Demon by Damien Hirst. Image sourced from Culto.latercera.com.

Other excellent exhibitions are scattered through the city and some people have come to Venice especially to see Philip Guston and The Poet’s exhibition which is at Gallerie dell’ Accademia di Venezia until 3 September 2017.

Lorenzo Quinn - Biennale site - big hands

Lorenzo Quinn, Venice Biennale. Image sourced from The Telegraph.

20 million tourists visit Venice each year and Venetians don’t think they can absorb any more. Opposition to giant cruise liners is growing as they disgorge thousands of daytrippers that do not necessarily contribute to the economy, and the ships damage the lagoon.

Lake Como May 2017, Ace Bourke

I finally visited Lake Como and it was as lovely as I imagined. It was wonderful being in Europe again and spending time in beautiful cities, and leisurely visiting art galleries and museums with friends. I loved reading the newspapers which were full of the French and British elections and then unfortunately the terror attacks. Despite the tensions and political upheavals, people overall seemed to be primarily enjoying summer. With heightened security concerns, long queues at airports were understandable but seemingly interminable.


African mask by Romuald Hazoumè

PARIS: This African mask by Romuald Hazoumè was made from discarded biros he found each day.  He is one of many artists in a most exciting exhibition at the Fondation Louis Vuitton: ART/AFRICA The new workshop. It consists of three components: a private collection begun in 1989 by Jean Pigozzi; a curated exhibition of South African artists; and African works from the Louis Vuitton collection.  It is a fascinating exhibition: an imaginative and innovative use of materials; many mediums; a chance to see/share their world view; and a melding of traditional influences and new interpretations and directions.

Writing  recently about this exhibition, The Economist claimed that contemporary African art was “the next big thing” – replacing the interest in Chinese art, and it certainly has a unique imaginative creativity and vitality.

Frank Gehry’s Fondation Louis Vuitton by Ace Bourke

Architect Frank Gehry’s Louis Vuitton Fondation is undoubtedly very beautiful and a signature building.  It took 10 years to build and was apparently technologically challenging. Some buildings can be about the ego of the architect or the client, and can overwhelm the central purpose, and I think in this case some exhibition space for art was sacrificed.  Arken, south of Copenhagen was renovated in 2008, and is both an interesting and utilitarian museum of art.  In London people complained that the extension to the Tate Modern did not achieve a great deal.

The Fondazione Prada in Milan is also a strong architectural statement but I found it dark, austere and unwelcoming.  Milan was yet another historic and attractive Italian city, but with some new and exciting architecture.

Milan by Ace Bourke

I finally made it to Musée du quai Branly in Paris to see the museum where in 2013 Australian Aboriginal art had been incorporated architecturally into spaces in the building, including the cloud series by Michael Riley.  Also at this museum I saw an eclectic exhibition Picasso Primitif  (until 3 July) with paintings by him and objects that he had owned or had influenced him.  There was also a very precious exhibition La Pierre sacrée des Māori of jade objects sacred and sometimes magical to New Zealand Maoris (until 1st October).

The museum’s collection of traditional and indigenous cultural objects from all over the world is superb. Unfortunately, Australian Aboriginal art is exhibited rather badly, especially a group of bark paintings.  For decades now in Australia Aboriginal art has not been exhibited ethnographically, but as contemporary art in art galleries and museums.

In Paris I also visited art dealer Hervé Perdriolle who I initially met through a shared admiration for the work of the late Indian artist Jangargh Singh Shyam. He gave me a copy of his handsome and comprehensive book Indian Contemporary Art which concentrates on tribal artists.

The Pompidou Centre, Paris by Ace Bourke

The Pompidou Centre is 40 years old, and although a little tired looking is still a very striking building that invigorated the whole area. Until 14 August there is a very impressive exhibition covering the long career of photographer Walker Evans (USA 1905 – 1967).  Well known for his portraits of ordinary people, he was a very versatile and wide ranging photographer. There was also an exhibition of the black and white photographs of Czech Joseph Koudelka who Michael Riley often said had particularly influenced him.

Hokusai’s The Great Wave

LONDON: HOKUSAI: Beyond the Great Wave at the British Museum (until 13 August) is a very comprehensive exhibition of the work of the Japanese artist Hokusai. Life presented him with many challenges over his long but always productive career.  The commission in 1830 and success of the Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji woodblock prints was a very welcome respite from financial hardship and family pressures for Hokusai.

The NGV in Melbourne is also showing Hokusai  (21 July – 15 October) which also includes The Great Wave, probably the most famous Japanese work of art. This exhibition also spans his entire life with 150 works including woodblock prints, rare paintings on silk, and hand painted manga.

In 1996 I saw a definitive Alberto Giacometti  1901 – 1966 exhibition in London at the Royal Academy of Arts. GIACOMETTI at the Tate Modern until 10 September 2017 is a smaller but intelligently curated and selected exhibition of sculptures and drawings. You can read The Sunday Times review of the exhibition here.

Battle of Britain by Grayson Perry

I was fortunate to just catch DAVID HOCKNEY: 60 YEARS at the Tate Britain, but I missed Grayson Perry’s The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! which is now on at the Serpentine until 10 September. Read his amusing and informative article about popularity in the art world in The Guardian here.

Henning Larsen’s Opera House, Copenhagen

COPENHAGEN: Copenhagen was another lovely city with beautiful old architecture and the addition of exciting new buildings. I was extremely lucky to see South African artist William Kentridge’s extensive multi media exhibition THICK TIME at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art north of Copenhagen before it closed. It may have been the best and most absorbing exhibition I saw in Europe, and he is one of the world’s greatest living artists.

The museum is situated in beautiful gardens looking out to sea across to Sweden with strategically placed sculpture by Alexander Calder, Henry Moore etc.  Lunch in the restaurant was delicious  – I found it surprisingly hard as a vegetarian in Europe.  The museum shop was full of an extensive range of superb world renowned Scandinavian design. Denmark has recently topped the Social Progress Index – a survey of the best places to live. I asked a friend “what underpins the Danish economy?”.  “Know-how”.

William Kentridge, THICK TIME

LIONS: With World Lion Day coming up on August 10th and Christian’s birthday on the 12th August I will blog about how enjoyable it was to recently catch up in London with friends very involved with Christian the lion.

The killing fields: Conservation Rangers from an anti-poaching unit work with locals to evacuate the bodies of four mountain gorillas killed in mysterious circumstances in July 2007. Photo: Brent Stirton.

The killing fields: Conservation Rangers from an anti-poaching unit work with locals to evacuate the bodies of four mountain gorillas killed in mysterious circumstances in July 2007. Photograph by Brent Stirton, 2007.

Wildlife photographer Brent Stirton has won the Wildlife Photojournalist of the Year award for 2014, for the second year in a row.  See here for a selection of Stirton’s work including Living with Lions, a series of photographs addressing the contentious issue of farming lions for Canned Hunting in Africa.  A warning: some of these photographs are very graphic and upsetting.

TONY THE TIGER: See this recent “raw video” of Tony the Tiger in his cage at the increasingly notorious truckstop in Louisiana filmed 22 October 2014.  Tony eats in a desultory way…and then quietly moves to a more shaded (and hopefully more private) part of his cage.  How much longer will he be in this cage?  He deserves a better life and we have to keep fighting for him.

first image

Day 1 – Willy wagtail with eggs in the nest

WILLY: Again this year some of us have been anxiously following the lives of Willy the wagtail and her chicks in the garden of Sylvia Ross in Sydney.  Luckily Sylvia is an excellent artist and photographer and she is going to publish a small book of  her daily photographs (or post on Facebook) entitled  in Plain Sight – 28 Days.  The mother tries to protect her three chicks from various dangers – from extreme heat to other birds such as currawongs, for 14 days as an egg, and 14 days after hatching.

2nd image

AUSTRALIA/ CLIMATE CHANGE: Our PM recently declared to the world that “coal was good for humanity”.  Predictably, the Renewable Energy Target is to be lowered.  A climate change denier (Richard Warburton) was selected to head the review into the RET, and PM Abbott is doing his best to destroy the renewable energy market. This is at a time when there is a new wave of international momentum to act…


Mother protecting a chick from heat

It is very depressing having a government in denial about climate change and proud of abolishing a carbon tax while many countries in the world are moving in the opposite direction. The government has invented a pretend solution “Direct Action”, where the government PAYS the big polluters to cut emissions if they want to!  This has now passed parliament. I have not read one reputable economist, scientist, expert, or commentator – excluding some journos working for Rupert Murdoch of course – that support this scheme.  There has been no modelling, no costings, no explanations….

During intense and dangerous bushfires last year our PM even disputed the fact that fires and extreme weather conditions were becoming more frequent and intense.


Mother on guard

ACF: Geoffrey Cousins has just been appointed head of the Australian Conservation Fund, the country’s largest environmental lobby.  He sees the primary purpose of the ACF at the moment is to lead the opposition to the government’s “shameful” lack of action on climate change and environmental issues. Cousins is interesting – a successful conservative advertising/business man who even advised John Howard in office, but  who cares deeply about the environment.  He has shown in the past to be a formidable opponent – he led the successful campaign against a pulp mill on the Derwent River in Tasmania, and against the Woodside gas hub in the Kimberley, West Australia.  He was a young teacher at my school but has erased this from his CV….

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The only survivor

DIVESTMENT: There was a furore when the Australian National University decided to divest their shares in fossil fuel companies from their portfolio. This is growing as a movement – from the Rockefellers to Stanford University. Let’s hope coal becomes a “stranded asset” soon.  Apparently coal still supplies 82% of the world’s energy needs and is regarded as “cheap” – although the infrastructure surrounding it is actually very expensive compared to some other energy sources.

In a recent survey of Australian business company directors, 50% rated the government’s performance as “poor” or “very poor”. This is a very alarming statistic for a government supposedly close to business. The ill-conceived  and very badly received budget is still struggling to get through parliament.

Day 14 - Willy wagtail

About to leave the nest

IPCC: The latest report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change states unequivocally that fossil fuels must be phased out by the end of the century.  I think a majority of people believe urgent action is required. With Obama, the EU, China and many other countries now seriously committed, and UN meetings coming up in Lima then Paris, Australia is very much “on the wrong side of history”.

Despite Australia’s best efforts to exclude it, climate change just made it on to the agenda for the upcoming G20 meeting of world leaders in Brisbane next weekend.  This meeting could be interesting in many ways – from various protests to our PM’s juvenile threat to “shirt- front” Russia’s Putin.

As I lay back on my Ancestral Land, 2013, Courtesy Tracey Moffatt, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, GOMA

From the series ‘As I lay back on my Ancestral Land’, Tracey Moffatt 2013, Digital Print. Courtesy  Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, GOMA.

TRACEY MOFFATT: I recently went to Brisbane for the opening of Tracey Moffatt’s exhibition Spirited at the Gallery of Modern Art.  I follow her career with fascination.  Many of the art works referenced places and memories from Tracey growing up in suburban Brisbane, Queensland, and her family connections to land. She has a new video series Art Calls where she interviews artists or people that interest her by skype. The interviews are very informative and often amusing and will soon be on ABC online.


CATS & KAKADU:  There are apparently 20 million feral cats in Australia, and it is claimed they kill 75 million mammals each day (that’s 4 mammals per cat).  The new Commissioner for Threatened Species is turning his attention to the Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory where the loss of so many animals is attributed to feral cats, foxes and fires.  Apparently fire management is completely out of date, and there are too many weeds contributing to “inappropriate” fires which then leave threatened species exposed and  unprotected.  I can foresee a time when cats are going to be banned or are to be entirely kept  inside – watching cartoons on television!

RICHARD FLANAGAN: Congratulations to Richard Flanagan for winning the Man Booker prize for his book The Narrow Road to the Deep North. In his acceptance speech he said the environmental record and support for the coal industry by our present government made him “ashamed to be Australian”.

Well done champion cyclist Cadel Evans for supporting wind farms in South Australia, a state that is serious about renewable energy.

Also congratulations to that extraordinary young girl Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan and Kailash Satyarthi from India for sharing the Nobel Peace Prize.  Asylum-seeker/refugee advocate Julian Burnside QC from Melbourne has just won the 2014 Sydney Peace Prize.

EBOLA: Ebola has to be tackled at its source which is the three African countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. The still inadequate global response has been yet another failure by the international community, and even initially by the World Health Organisation. While the Australian Government was itching to go and drop “humanitarian” weapons in Iraq, it has equivocated over responding to this terrible disease.  The government has finally been shamed into donating a field hospital in Sierra Leone. The government still seems reluctant to send Australian medical personnel although hundreds have volunteered.  It now emerges that we were asked months ago by the USA,UK and some African countries to do more…

Mark Zuckerberg has generously given $27.05 million and Paul Allen (Microsoft) $100 million.

Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pours soil into the hands of traditional land owner Vincent Lingiari, Northern Territory

Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pours soil into the hands of traditional land owner Vincent Lingiari, Northern Territory. Photograph by Mervyn Bishop.

WHITLAM: A former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam recently died at 98.  He reformed the Labor Party and won power for them in 1972 after 23 years in opposition.  He initiated many policies and reforms that we take for granted today.  There are too many to list but they include free tertiary education (which transformed many lives), free healthcare, Aboriginal land rights and he was one of the first leaders to visit and recognise China.  Whitlam changed Australia.

On his death both sides of parliament spoke graciously about him, and many of them seemed to have been politicised by him – either way!  His achievements in a few short years make our current leaders and representatives look timid and mediocre. We have been reminded of what real leadership looked like.  Words commonly used to describe him were “brave”, “courageous”, and “visionary”.  Whitlam was dismissed by the Governor General in 1975 and this remains highly controversial today. He was replaced by Malcolm Fraser who I did not regard as a good Prime Minister, but who has seemingly become less conservative and been a more effective and engaged elder statesman than Whitlam.

Unfortunately there was a world economic downturn as Whitlam implemented many of his reforms and policies, and while Whitlam is justifiably criticised for his haste and economic management, the next (Fraser) government inherited a zero net government debt.

Blue Poles by Jackson Pollock 1952

Blue Poles by Jackson Pollock 1952. Courtesy National Gallery of Australia

At the recent memorial service Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson’s spoke very eloquently about what Whitlam initiated and achieved for Aboriginal people.  Pearson also noted that Whitlam who had an upper-middle class background was intent on giving everyone more equal opportunities.  The actress Kate Blanchett said it was Whitlam’s changes to education that allowed her to discover acting, and that she also benefited from his enlightened attitude to the role of women in society, Australia’s cultural life and our place in the world.  The painting Blue Poles is a good example of Whitlam’s contribution to Australia’s cultural life. It was a huge scandal when he permitted the National Gallery of Australia to purchase Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles for $1.3 million in 1973.  The painting has since become a “destination” at the NGA,  and is now valued anywhere between $30 to $100 million dollars.

Melanie Griffith with her pet lion, Neil, in 1970s. Image courtesy The LIFE Picture Collection/Gett Michael Rougier

Melanie Griffith with her pet lion, Neil, in 1970s. Image courtesy The LIFE Picture Collection/Gett Michael Rougier

I love this photograph of Melanie Griffith who grew up with this lion Neil in the 1970s.  Neil is so beautiful,and I love all the photographs of course (see here), especially her sleeping with the lion – or the lion tail hanging down from the bed!  Her mother Tippi Hedren (who starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds) founded The Roar Foundation in 1983 to support the Shambala Preserve in California to educate about the “dangers of private ownership of exotic animals”.

Tippi Hedron with pet lion, Neil

Tippi Hedren with pet lion, Neil

MELBOURNE CUP: We have just had  the running of the Melbourne Cup, described as “the race that stops a nation”. Horses are so beautiful and magnificent and my sister and I enjoyed riding when we were young.  As I watched the races during the day I wondered if the horses liked racing and were naturally competitive.  I suspect some do love it.  While some horses before and after their races looked around and appeared to enjoy the crowd and the attention, others were more skittish.  There are always love stories, like the 2 men who always accompany the 9 year old Red Cadeaux on his world travels and who said he is the nicest, loveliest horse. He came second for the third time!

Admire Rakti

Admire Rakti

The German horse Protectionist won very convincingly, but the favourite Admire Rakti from Japan, after a very fast first half of the race carrying the top weight, faded to last place.  He returned to his stall, sank to his knees and died. He had had a heart attack.  Like many other people I am still very shocked and quite depressed by this.  Another horse Araldo was “spooked” after the race by a flag waved in his face and  he broke a leg and had to be put down. A horse also died after this race last year.

While some of the horses are loved and pampered, my main criticisms are:  many horses never succeed or break down from being raced too young (or in inappropriate races) and are sent to the knackery; the use of the whip is cruel; and “jumps” racing is just too dangerous.  Is horse racing just yet another example of us using animals cruelly for our own entertainment?

Racing is also highly dangerous for the jockeys and  two female riders have died in Australia in the last few weeks.


On a cheerier note, my sister recently found this photograph of my first cat.  I found him in the vacant allotment next door when I was about 10.  He was probably “feral” and was quite rough and tough. I loved him and admired his independent spirit.  We always had dogs in our family, but my favourite book when very young was Orlando the Marmalade Cat.  This cat was my introduction to the wonderful world of cats and I have had at least one cat in my life ever since!

Thanks to Deb, Tim, Francois and Sylvia Ross especially for sending some of the images used on this blog, and to many others for your emails, news and images.

Giraffes in the Evening Light

Giraffes in the Evening Light. Photo by Nick Brandt. Courtesy: http://www.sourcephotographica.com.au/nickbrandt.html

I can’t wait to see another exhibition of the superb photographs of East African animals and landscapes by Nick Brandt. The exhibition will also include new releases of his iconic images and will be on exhibition in Brisbane 18-29 April 2012 at 19 James Street, Fortitude Valley and 19-27 May, Shapiro Galleries 62 Queen Street, Woollahra in Sydney.  While the photographs are so beautiful, there is an inherent sadness and poignancy – much of what we see is vanishing.

After a rainy summer we are having a lovely “Indian summer”, although the nights are beginning to get colder. I saw a black snake this week on my afternoon walk however and I am very much looking forward to them hibernating. I envy all of you in the Northern hemisphere now going into spring, especially after what seems to have been a very cold winter.

I am writing this awkwardly with one of my cats on the desk half lying on the key board – a favourite position of his I wouldn’t dream of interfering with. His sister prefers to watch television. I have been answering emails (tardily – post a virus and subsequent new laptop) from many of you through both the blog and the website and I am just amazed at the interest in Christian and the emotion he still generates. Please keep sending me stories about your own animals, or YouTube links of cats (or dogs!), or what Christian means to you. I’m sure we are building an invaluable archive.

Madeline recently emailed me and said Christian’s story had been “life changing” for her, and I’d love her to describe exactly how. It has been for me – twice – once when we met him, and now again with the YouTube phenomenon of the last few years.

Peter O'Doherty - Siamese

Peter O'Doherty, Siamese, in The Animal Show with other leading artists at King Street Gallery on William St, Sydney until 28 April.

For more works included in The Animal Show see here.

I was lucky enough to catch up with Jeffrey Masson and his young family when they were in Sydney. We visited the recently renovated Museum of Contemporary of Art Australia – as have 4600 people a day.  Walking through the museum I talked far too much about artists I know and love – including Tracey Moffatt, Gordon Bennett, Daniel Boyd, Ildako Kovacs, Jon Lewis and Tim Johnson.  We watched some of  Christian Marclay’s The Clock – 24 hours literally through references to the time in films.  Jeffrey’s young sons couldn’t see the point of it – where was the story?  It was more a labour of love/research exercise/editing triumph – although of course one is amused by some of the clips. Jack Nicholson singing?

TRACEY MOFFATT: I do think Tracey Moffatt has done much more interesting, amusing and moving works with her Found Film montages.  They “go somewhere, and say something”.  In New York there is about to be a Tracey Moffatt Film Retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art with a Public Talk by Tracey at 7pm on May 7th.  Her quite rare and clever public appearances are usually “performances” not to be missed!  It has been fascinating watching her career unfold, and she entirely deserves this extraordinary honour, and Australia should be very proud of her.

Over coffee and tea in the new roof-top cafe with stunning harbour views, Jeffrey Masson asked me to recount Christian’s story to his sons.  I would have preferred to hear more from him – he gave me tantalising snippets of new research in the field of animal behaviour, and we will just have to keep reading his blogs and wait for his next publication.

Aboriginal Rock Art. Kangaroos. 1500 - 1910

Aboriginal Rock Art. Kangaroos. 1500 - 1910

Images of ancient Aboriginal rock art can now be seen online with other great galleries of the world through Google’s Art Project and Griffith University.

ABORIGINAL INTERVENTION: Before animal welfare and rights issues again become more prominent in my life, my prime concern had been the inequality of life and social injustice suffered by most Aborigines in Australia. I worked in the field of Aboriginal art as a curator as it began to fascinate the world in the 1980s and 1990s. I met many artists, made many friends, and regularly visited remote Aboriginal communities. While these years have been the most interesting and probably the most important of my career, and Aboriginal art has rightly been recognised as one of the most extraordinary and important art movements in the world in the twentieth century, it is depressing to say, apart from some major achievements, conditions for most Aboriginal people have not improved, indeed may have deteriorated.

While I may complain about the behaviour of other countries (for example Israel and their systematic encroachment house by house of Palestinian land),  my own country Australia has been criticised just as severely in UN reports for human rights abuses on our original inhabitants.

Old Red Crocodiles

Aboriginal Rock Art. Old Red Crocodiles. 4000BC - 2000BC.

Without going into a detailed account of our tragic settler/Aboriginal history, my bete noire then PM John Howard suddenly over one weekend it seemed, invented THE INTERVENTION into Aboriginal communities, ostensibly over child abuse.  This was the same PM who in 2000 cleverly derailed a fleeting window of opportunity for meaningful reconciliation between black and white Australians when 300,000 people walked over the Sydney Harbour Bridge. He also derailed a movement towards Australia becoming a Republic.

This Intervention was a misguided and ultimately unsuccessful vote catcher for red-necks for an upcoming election which I was thrilled he lost – even ignominiously losing his own seat.  Because of the difficult nature of Aboriginal issues, it is one of the few subjects that have bi-partisan support (like our alliance with the US where we obediently follow them into any dumb war going).  The incoming government continued this paternalistic intervention and intends to extend it.

According to an Aboriginal friend in the Northern Territory, the situation in her community has just got worse and  many of their own initiatives and efforts of self determination have been shelved. Consequently I attended the showing of a film “Living the Intervention” followed by a panel discussion with Aboriginal community representatives and John Pilger among others. The Intervention was imposed without ANY consultation with the communities at all. This immediately alienated many of them, and of course they had no opportunity to express what needs and assistance they knew their communities urgently required – from a police presence, to adequate housing, education etc.

The Intervention is a “one size fits all” which is not tailored to the very different circumstances in various communities. One has to admit that some aspects have the support of some people and some communities – which may include alcohol restrictions or income quarantining. But various aspects contravene UN Human Rights, and the Intervention has also been described as yet another land grab with ‘leases’ of 40 or 90 years on land, and I don’t understand how these leases co-exist with the Land Rights Act of 1976.

“We don’t just want solidarity (from white people) – we want action” – Galiwinku elder

Aboriginal Rock Art. Early X-Ray Figure Panel. -2000 - -1

Aboriginal Rock Art. Early X-Ray Figure Panel. 2000BC - 1BC.

John Pilger urged a march on Canberra to bang on doors (which sounded curiously old fashioned) while others spoke about disunity among Aboriginal leaders or that several of them were regarded as apologists.  I’m old enough to have witnessed the effective leadership and charisma of the late Charles Perkins for example, and I’m wondering when some new voices will emerge.

The government is not interested in maintaining  the out-station movement where in the 1970s smaller Aboriginal family/clan groups returned to live on their ancestral land and people were much happier and healthier. The government has specified “growth centres” where Aborigines will  be forced to move to. There is no easy answer and conditions were bad before the Intervention. It is expensive to deliver all the services that as Australian citizens (only since 1967!) Aborigines are entitled to – but there is no economic base and limited employment prospects for many of these communities.

For a good news story and a dramatic turnaround in a troubled remote Aboriginal community called Wadeye, see Nicolas Rothwell’s A township reborn under a spreading tree in The Australian April 7-8 (page 19 Inquirer). I think it can still be viewed if you have a subscription to the The Australian online.  Many factors have contributed: imaginative Aboriginal leadership mindful of traditions; a new style of governance; local employment; intensive public funding; and strict discipline, especially for anyone hoping to play with the Wadeye Magic, now a leading Australian Rules football team. Many other remote communities aren’t so lucky and at the moment there is an appalling epidemic of copy cat youth suicides.

Muckaty nuclear dump photo by Jagath Dheerasekara.

Muckaty Station, NT. Photo by Jagath Dheerasekara.

Muckaty Station, another remote Aboriginal community, risks being the site for Australia’s nuclear waste dump despite opposition from most of the traditional owners in the community. Again with rare bi-partisan support the Federal Parliament recently passed the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010. The decision is being challenged in the Federal Court. Jagath Dheerasekara’s photographic series Manuwangku: Under the Nuclear Cloud has been part of FotoFreo in West Australia and will be seen in Sydney as part of the Head On Photo Festival from 1 May.

VALE: Jimmy Little the first Aboriginal to receive mainstream success with his music died recently. The recipient of many awards, Jimmy was a tireless worker for the rights and lives of Aboriginal people. He believed in the “soft sell” rather than taking to the streets in protest – “don’t mistake kindness and gentleness for weakness”.

MIDDLE EAST: The charade of the UN truce in Syria is just buying Assad time unfortunately with no cease fire or withdrawal of troops.  I don’t think the approximate 27,000 refugees that have fled to Turkey will be returning home soon.  300,000 people have been displaced, and a million people urgently need humanitarian aid.  Suburbs of Homs look obliterated. As discussed before, I’ll never understand all the complexities and proxies in relation to Syria – like the relationship between Turkey and Iran, but the Syrian regime seems to be protected by its strategic significance. Apparently the best chance is for a revolt from within the military.

The Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt went to Washington in suits and with Powerpoint Presentations to try and secure ongoing funding, and to reassure the US of their democratic rather than Islamic intentions. One wonders – does the military, with their own agendas,  actually act as a useful buffer against extreme Islamification in situations like this? What happened in Turkey?  I realise how little I know about the region historically. How did those religious minorities gain iron control over majority populations – for example, Iraq, Yemen and Syria to name just a few. Was this part of a colonial carve up or a divide and rule strategy?

POLITICS: A comment was recently left on the blog saying the Republican Presidential candidates were concerned about environmental issues  which I doubt very much and have seen no reports about. Even our conservative politician Malcolm Turnbull described them as influenced by “climate change denialists”.  Who is interested in debating issues like abortion or contraception that one thought were dealt with in the 1960s?  The only other US Republican issues reported in our press were God and guns, and “moderate” used as a derogatory word.

A recent national poll in Australia reported that we crave  ” a leader with a clear vision”.

BOB BROWN: An extraordinary politician Bob Brown resigned unexpectedly this week. He is 67 and has been in the Senate for 16 years. He is a fascinating man: an environmental and anti-war activist also concerned with our treatment of asylum seekers; a doctor who lives with his gay partner; and he has been the rarest of politicians – honest!  On many issues he has been the sole conscience of Australia.  He has been both naive and wily as a politician.  He has taken the Greens Party to a position of unprecedented power in the present hung parliament and with a balance of power in the Senate.  However he blocked the original Emissions Trading Scheme in 2010 – missing a unique opportunity when the public were fleetingly in favour of it, and this led to the downfall and replacement of several political leaders.

His “carbon tax” deal with Julia Gillard to form government may ultimately cost her government as it is perceived as her broken election promise.  Get over it I say – circumstances change. Two sex scandals and a disgruntled Independent are currently also threatening her slim majority.

Bob’s replacement is an articulate woman called Christine Milne who has been described as hard as “poured concrete” which I’m sure is not a compliment.   She seems to have a grasp of economics – and she talks about the sustainable “new” economy.  On the unexpected sudden withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan next year (announced on the day after The Taliban attacked Kabul), she said that we should bring our troops home immediately, and the war “had been a failure on all levels”.

GEORGE SOROS: As the SMH said “The eurozone has just ploughed on with the same old set of failed policies” with attention switching from Greece to Spain.  Commenting on the European Central Bank George Soros said “the fundamental problems have not been resolved, the gap between creditor and debtor countries continues to widen. The crisis has entered what may be a less volatile but more  lethal stage”.

Fiona Hall 21st Century Man 2011 Courtesy Roslyn Oxley9

Fiona Hall 21st Century Man 2011. Courtesy Roslyn Oxley9

GOLDMAN SACHS: boss Lloyd Blankfein has taken a 35% pay cut – to $US12 million.

ENERGY: The near coast to coast conservative State governments including NSW, Queensland and Victoria are all rushing to embrace mining and coal and gas exploration and “streamline” environmental protections.  It’s like a gold rush – and I believe sand will be the next valuable commodity!  With big business, these States are challenging and cancelling many schemes supporting renewable energy and energy efficiency.  This must discourage investment at a time when other countries are investing heavily.

Interestingly, traditionally conservative land holders are mobilising against the loss of valuable agricultural land, and the untested effects on water tables and resulting contamination from coal seam gas mining.

Conversely, a country like Denmark is aiming at a 100% renewable energy target and I’m trying to understand the differences between “flexible” and “inflexible” power sources, technological advances in thermal power storage for solar and wind, and Smart Grids.

The US Environmental Protection Agency has announced proposed limits on emissions from new coal power plants, encouraging the shift to gas.  There is a new boom in energy production in the US and Canada (“the new Middle East”) after recent successful oil and gas exploration, but this also makes it difficult for the development and investment in alternatives such as solar and wind power.

It is forecast that by 2020 the US will not need to import any more foreign oil!

Eastern Bongo

A recent birth at Taronga Park of an Eastern bongo (forest antelope) - fewer than 80 remain in their natural habitat in Kenya. Photo by Dallas Kilponen

AFRICA: Huge coal deposits and two massive gas fields in Mozambique are indicative of changing scenarios and fortunes in Africa where there are 6 of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies in the past decade.  The World Bank predicts economic growth of 5.3%.  Africa still has many of the the world’s poorest countries but there are huge infrastructure projects, an expanding middle class and foreign equity scrambling for opportunities in telecom’s, financial services and products. As previously mentioned in an earlier blog, the Chinese have a strong presence (and an unfortunate hunger for ivory). Can we hope for an equitable distribution of wealth or will the “resource curse” (and tribal and “big man” politics) again leave most people worse off than ever.

ANIMAL WORKS: I recently spoke (with other authors) at a fund raiser to support the work of Animal Works primarily in this instance to fight the poaching of rhinos in Zimbabwe. It has been tough for the human population there for an extended period – imagine how the animals have fared. I applaud the efforts of Animal Works –see their website and blog.  The dinner was fun and everyone loved Africa so much and shared a concern for it’s wildlife. Botswana was a favourite country to visit. The highlight for me was when I was signing a copy of our book and I asked a girl what name should I write in it – and she said “My name is Katania. My Dad just loved Christian’s story and named me Katania”

So, unexpectedly, I told the story of how the  little lioness Katania really was the go between Boy and Christian and contributed to their ultimate friendship. Katania was small enough to go from one compound to another when both bigger lions were at first in separate compounds. When Boy and Christian were finally to meet for the first time, Katania broke the ice after an extended and very tense wait, by going over to Christian and provoking their terrifying introductory fight.  Luckily, despite the ferocious roars and paws flaying, this was more show than a deadly contest.  Both Christian and Boy adored Katania and George Adamson thought they were both devastated by her disappearance, when she was possibly taken by a crocodile. I also talked about George Adamson and how lucky we were to meet him and observe him, and to experience briefly that extraordinary space he created where the world’s two top predators coexisted harmoniously and communicated deeply with one another.

Can you believe the King of Spain went elephant hunting in Africa?

A Lion Called Christian

MAIL: Several of you have asked where the DVD of the 2009 documentary A Lion Called Christian is available for purchase. Disappointingly I’ve never seen it for sale or rent anywhere in the world, but it is available through amazon.co.uk.  People also ask me about the photogrphs of Christian.  Images can be purchased directly from photographer Derek Cattani (see his gallery on  alioncalledchristian.com.au), and the George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust holds most of the African photographs.  The Born Free Foundation owns the original documentary footage in England and Africa.

READING: I just finished a magnificent book on the founding of Sydney – The Colony, by Grace Karskens.  Karskens has retrieved alot of information about the daily lives in early Sydney of convicts, women and Aborigines – and the “middle ground” they all inhabited to a considerable degree with each other. It is comprehensive and fascinating.  I also love the ground-breaking work on Aborigines by Keith Vincent Smith, and Inga Clendinnen’s marvellous Dancing with Strangers.

WATCHING:  I loved seeing John Waters interviewed recently. He is so funny and insightful. To his surprise he is now regarded as an “insider”, and growing up middle class with “good taste” he knew what was “bad taste”. Andy Warhol’s soup can image killed abstract expressionism, and the Beatles killed Motown. It was Tennessee Williams that showed him that there was a place for people like him – and I too remember being very excited by Night of the Iguana when I was at school – there was a different life out there beyond the stereotypical life on offer. Not that I’ve lived it!

I was rather depressed watching “The Thriller in Manilla” and it has been described as a “hatchet job” on Muhammed Ali.  Joe Frazier supported Ali when he had taken a stand against the Vietnam War and couldn’t fight or earn money, but Ali subsequently used effective psychological warfare against him with very ugly racial overtones.  Joe still resents this, and he takes pleasure in attributing Ali’s subsequent physical deterioration to this their third fight when either of them could have died. It is an ugly sport.

LISTENING: I just love Adele’s Rolling in the Deep – no wonder she got that extended ovation weeks ago at the Grammys, and I am enjoying other extraordinary voices auditioning for The Voice on television.

Elephant Group on Bare Earth

Elephant Group on Bare Earth. Photo by Nick Brandt. Courtesy: http://www.sourcephotographica.com.au/nickbrandt.html

Drygalski Fjord" photographer Peter Eastway

PHOTOGRAPHY:  There are many wonderful art and photography exhibitions on at the moment in Sydney.  I love these photographs taken on a journey to Antartica by Peter Eastway, who “tweaks” his photographs to convey “how I felt, what it was like, the awe”.  Click here to view more images.  Other great photographs and photographers follow – all doing something different and imaginative with the medium of photography.

"Port Chariot Iceberg" photographer Peter Eastway

Peter Eastway has been inspired by the famous Australian photographer and Antarctic explorer Frank Hurley (1885-1962).

The 'Endurance' frozen in the Weddell Sea, photographer Frank Hurley

AUSTRALIA:  I call this paragraph “Australia” so people can skip it if our news bores you.  I try not to be too local or parochial – and try to only talk about issues many of you must face in your own countries.  Following on from the last blog and the “lucky country” tag, The Economist (UK) criticizes our unimpressive leaders, and both sides of politics are  ‘indolent’ and “captured by opinion poll-driven “short-termism””.  The conservative opposition party “seems to have no philosophical principles at all” and both leaders pander to “xenophobic fears about asylum seekers”.  We have not made enough of the China boom, and I have just read elsewhere that China now views us as “discriminatory” and a “political risk”, and we have slipped to fifth position for the value of their foreign investments.

VISIT:  During the visit here of the  High Commissioner for Refugees we were reminded that mandatory detention of asylum seekers/refugees breaks international law, and she stated that we are demonizing asylum seekers.  We are now hoping to dump them on Malaysia who already have 90,000 refugees, and are not even a signatory to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.  This will include unaccompanied children.

SHAME: AUSTRALIA’S FUTURE FUND – this Government investment fund holds a $135.4 million investment in nuclear weapons manufacturers, and had to be shamed into dumping investments in cluster bombs!  Some future!  It’s like living in a parallel universe….

The French documentary "Oceans"

FILM:  I am looking forward to seeing Oceans which has been described as one of the best wildlife documentaries.  Stylistically it is apparently more Jacques Cousteau/French than David Attenborough/British.  Click here for a review.

MORE SHAME:  The recent television report “A Bloody Business” has created a scandal as we were shown how our live cattle exports to Indonesia are cruelly treated and slaughtered.  It was impossible to watch it all as it was so gruesome – but I can still hear their bellows of fear and agony.  The Australian Government has known about these conditions in the Indonesian abattoirs for 10 years, and indeed this trade has been overseen by Meat and Livestock Australia – funded by the tax payer.  Congratulations to Lyn White and Animals Australia for bringing this to our attention – they have previously put the spot light on our live cattle exports to the Middle East, especially Egypt.  Some cattle had to wait their turn and were able to watch the slaughter ahead of them– the last one in the queue was a quivering wreck.  Click here for the Four Corners ABC Report.  Click here for GetUp Action for Australia to sign petitions to Julia Gillard and local MPs.

Ironically, Australians probably care more about these animals than asylum seekers, although many of them have had to flee for their lives and have had to take huge risks.  These people are never identified in the media, as a “human face” may evoke sympathy.  Frederika Steen asks in the SMH letters “When did public outrage at animal cruelty overtake our commitment to comply with human rights?”

VEGETARIANISM:  Thanks for the emails about this, and the book The Face on Your Plate by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson has just arrived in the post.  I certainly haven’t eaten meat since “A Bloody Business” was shown.

JULIAN ASSANGE:  Julian in fact won the Sydney Peace Foundation Gold Medal, and this week the Martha Gelhorn Prize for Journalism which rewards work that “challenges secrecy and mendacity in public affairs”.  The Sydney Peace Prize has just been awarded to Noam Chomsky.

MIDDLE EAST:  The “spring” seems to have gone out of the Arab Spring for now.  Libya seems a stale-mate, Egypt is still oppressive, the child Hamza Al-Khatib was tortured and murdered in Syria, and everyone in Afghanistan, except perhaps the Taliban, seem sick of the hopelessness and the civilian and military deaths.  We lost our 29th soldier this week and the majority of our population are asking “why”?  The Israel and Palestine conflict also seems to urgently need new leaders and a new paradigm…

EIKOH HOSOE:  There are four seminal series by this marvellous Japanese photographer at the  Art Gallery of New South Wales.  Hosoe has been inspired by Butoh for many years and has worked with many of the actors.  With his arresting photographs, Hosoe, like several of the other photographers mentioned in this blog, wants to convey more than straight photographic documentation, in this case, his feelings for a place where he spent some years of his childhood.  He wants to return to Australia and photograph some of our trees, particularly the Moreton Bay Figs.

BIG TOBACCO:  It has been fascinating watching the pressure the tobacco industry has been exerting against legislation here for plain packaging on cigarettes which already carry the direst and most grisly images of what smoking can do to you.  Our Opposition party however, receives donations from them, and the Opposition leader, although a former Health Minister and show-off fitness fanatic, had to be shamed into supporting the legislation.

GAMBLING:  Australians are the worst gamblers in the world – on average US$1300 each year each person.  There is an attempt to limit problem gamblers on pokie machines – of course a huge source of revenue for governments.  Football players wear jumpers with Centrebet on their back, on playing fields emblazoned with beer commercials, and you can bet online on tabsportbet as the game unfolds!

From the Up in the sky series by Tracey Moffatt

TRACEY MOFFATT:  Possibly our most famous Australian artist Tracey Moffatt is exhibiting  Up in the sky at the Art Gallery of NSW.  Click here to view all the photographs in the series, and Google her!

STYLISH:  Barack and Michelle Obama in Ireland and UK.  How stylish and charming they are.  The Queen actually looked pleased for a change!

Daniel Cunningham, Ildiko Kovacs, Liz Nowell photograph by Stephen Oxenbury

ILDIKO KOVACS:  I love Ildiko’s paintings so it is marvellous to see a comprehensive survey of her work currently at the Hazelhurst Regional Gallery & Arts Centre until July 3rd 2011.  The exhibition is curated by Daniel Cunningham and is accompanied by a superb publication.  Ildiko received an excellent review by SMH art critic John MacDonald, click here to read article.

Serpentine 1999, was a gift to the Museum of Contemporary Art by the late Ann Lewis, a very generous art benefactor.

Serpentine 1999 by Ildiko Kovacs

BOOKS:  I know I’m very out of date with my reading – with my MA I just read Australian history for years – but I’ve finally read We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver.  Brilliant, dark, funny, a mother/son hate/love story – I adored it but not for all.

MISC STATS:  More eBooks are now sold than paperbacks (A Lion Called Christian was Random House’s first eBook)…. 10 million dogs are eaten in China each year – but now the wealthier Chinese are having them as pets…..50% of Chinese are now described as “urban” and in India it is 30%…humans consume 272 billion kilograms of plastic per year….

JANE GOODALL:  The indefatigable and international treasure Jane Goodall is in Australia again – Click here to view her Australian tour schedule.

Rescued from the tornado

ANIMAL VIDEOS:  Mark Lewis’s Cane Toads: The Conquest  has just been released.  Some see this sequel as an allegory for our Australian xenophobia; Therasa sent in a link to very cute cats – Click here ; Dale Swanton sent the most touching photographs of dogs collected and huddling with each other after the destruction of the recent tornadoes in the U.S, and joining them on the back seat was a cat!

VOICELESS:  Click here to view  the Voiceless Grants Program.

PS: Happy World Environment Day June 5th 2011!

The wreck of the Lady Elizabeth in the Falkland Islands, photographer Peter Eastway