National Portrait Gallery an antidote to ugly nationalism

I made a snap decision to do a day trip to Canberra yesterday. It turned out that eight hours in an air-conditioned train was a good way to beat the heatwave.

Last May I visited the National Portrait Gallery in London. I liked it, but essentially it just made me more determined to see our own National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. I'd heard about ours but had never visited. It was established in Old Parliament House in 1998 and moved to its present dedicated building next to the National Gallery of Australia in 2008.

I'd sometimes wondered why it was necessary to have galleries dedicated to portraits. I don't know whether this Wikipedia list is exhaustive but there are National Portrait Galleries in London, Washington DC, Edinburgh, and Mariefred (Sweden). Then there's the Portrait Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

Why don't they have a National Still Life Gallery or a National Landscape Gallery?

My theory is that it is an effort to define ourselves as a nation by our people. We want to highlight images of Australians whose achievements and presence in our midst we have valued materially and spiritually, and cherish emotionally.

If we don't focus on the people, we default to abstract and potentially dangerous notions of nationalism, or the use of particular legends or stories that some Australians feel more at home with than others.

Recently I was talking with a friend who is a foreign-born non-Anglo Australian citizen. I asked him whether he felt Australian. He said no. I felt sad and did not want to dwell on it by asking him to elaborate.

But I don't think Waltzing Matilda means much to him, let alone the Anzac legend. On the other hand, a visit to the National Portrait Gallery, with its representation of the images and stories of Australians of diverse cultures, might make him reconsider his answer to my question.

Years ago, somebody I regarded as a mentor told me that he had a strong dislike for flags of nations. I didn't fully appreciate what he meant until the Cronulla Riots of 2005 and I saw the Australian flag as a symbol of ugly nationalism. Since then I have taken the position that we should not change the flag to lose the outmoded Union Jack. Instead we should minimise its use.

I did not notice an Australian flag at the National Portrait Gallery, and there it is no Australian flag on the Gallery's website.

The ABC's Australian Story TV program has done a great job over 20 years putting people at the centre of various preoccupations. Tonight the program begins its 2017 season, the first without its own mentor figure and contributor Caroline Jones. If I was disappointed by anything at the National Portrait Gallery yesterday, it was that they have in their collection two portraits of Caroline but neither is on display.

Two visions for indigenous enterprise

Perhaps the most challenging experience of my day is walking past the Aboriginal people who are always begging for money outside the IGA supermarket in King Street Newtown. I've been walking past that supermarket most days for the past 23 years, and they've been there for as long as I can remember.

They present as very needy but I have never ever given them money. Sometimes I feel guilty and at other times I resent them for exploiting the guilt of passers by. I speculate that they're probably doing quite well out of it. I reason that they're getting their own back on white Australians, as collectively responsible for their continuing displacement. In a small but enterprising way, they're managing to turn our guilt to to their advantage. Good on them, kind of.

But my money goes to a small organisation called Life for Koori Kids (LFKK), in the form of a modest but regular monthly donation. It does makes me feel good, but more importantly it helps an organisation that has a defined purpose, which is to help ensure indigenous children go to school and get the education they need to build more prosperous and fulfilling lives for themselves.

Gnamoroo Book Anthony

LFKK buys provisions such as shoes, uniforms and books to help convince indigenous families that there are no excuses for not sending their kids to school. There is also help for placing indigenous young people in universities and TAFE, and for those entering the workforce.

Ailsa Gillett founded LFKK in 2001. Her vision is that 'education is a key priority in bringing confidence and pride of heritage to young people's lives'.

Ailsa knows well the importance of confidence, also to the lives of non-indigenous young adults. In the 80s I was a young Jesuit assigned to teach secondary school students at St Aloysius College in Milson's Point, without any teacher training or aptitude for the job.

Unsurprisingly the experience knocked out most of my self confidence. Ailsa, who was there as the headmaster's secretary, did a great deal to encourage me to think that my life had a value and meaning beyond the chaos of my inability to control unruly teenagers.

Gnamoroo Book Cover

This year I received my best Christmas present in a long time. Ailsa sent me a copy of Gnamoroo, a professionally produced and beautiful coffee table book LFKK volunteers have just released. The volunteers include Mitchell Library Indigenous Services Librarian Melissa Jackson, who chose the title because it means 'compass'.

She explains how the title encapsulates LFKK's purpose: 'Gnamoroo [pronounced with a silent 'g'] is broken up into "gna" meaning "to see" and "mo-roo" meaning "a path"'.

The book, which was produced for LFKK's families and supporters, has a simple but mesmerising format that depicts its young people by name, photograph, nation, age, totem, quotation and artwork. It has been artfully presented in a way that is carefully thought out to reflect LFKK's people-centred ethos that focuses on the kids' talents.

Maybe Ailsa can enlist King Street's enterprising beggars to raise funds for LFKK.

Learning about public nudity from other cultures

Australia's major state art galleries have blockbuster exhibitions for the summer holiday season. In November I saw the David Hockney at the National Gallery of Victoria. Yesterday I went to 'Nude: Art from the Tate Collection' at the Art Gallery of NSW.

I'd found the Hockney quite mesmerising, as I did the Tatsuo Miyajima at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney last month. But there were no surprises at the 'Nude' exhibition. It was as if the Tate had tagged their nude paintings and sent them to Australia, and they were exhibited in chronological order.

Pierre Bonnards Nude in the Bath 1925 left and Barkley L Hendricks Family Jules NNN No Naked Niggahs 1974 right

Although it was predictable, I had quite an enjoyable afternoon. The two works I liked best were Pierre Bonnard's 'Nude in the Bath' 1925 (left), and Barkley L. Hendricks 'Family Jules: NNN (No Naked Niggahs)' 1974 (right). Unlike the exhibition as a whole, these works challenge our conventional attitudes to nudity - the Bonnard depicts a cropped woman who was not a beauty while the African American man in the Hendricks is.

I'd been intending to visit the exhibition since it opened six weeks ago and was reminded to do so when I read a news story in the Huffington Post on Saturday morning. It was about resisting the overturning of conventional attitudes towards nudity. It featured the comments of a Queensland father who was angered after spotting nudists having sex on a beach.

He could have been a One Nation voter who doesn't like foreign cultures influencing ours. He made the interesting point that nudity in Australia 'promotes promiscuity', while in Europe it is 'part of the culture'. I agree with his analysis but I disagree with his insistence that we should resist change.

In a conversation I had last week, I was recalling how I was very fearful of nudity as an eight year old, much more so that the other boys in my class at school. Before my class went swimming at the local pool, I remember asking my mother to write to the teacher to say I couldn't go swimming. I was afraid of being nude or semi-nude in front of my classmates in the change shed. Thankfully she said no.

Now I am thoroughly unselfconscious when it comes to nudity. When I go to Japan and Korea, I seek out the traditional community baths (sento and onsen in Japan and jjimjilbang in Korea), because they are very relaxing and an easy way to experience the cultures away from other tourists.

Please Enjoy Sento poster from Japanese sento

After attending 'Nude' yesterday, I was thinking that the very idea of gathering together the Tate's nude artworks for an exhibition reflects the old Australian and Anglo Saxon attitude of nudity as exotic and not part of normal everyday life such as it is with Japanese and Koreans routinely going to wash and relax in the local community bathhouse.

From my experience of normalised nudity in Japan and Korea, I would suggest to the Queensland father that it is the Australian attitude of nudity as exotic or 'other' that promotes promiscuity, and not nudity per se.

Flirting with numbers at the MCA

Yesterday I visited the Tatsuo Miyajima exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Sydney. Miyajima is a Japanese contemporary artist who uses LED counters in the Buddhist inspired sculptures that have evolved from his early performance art.

I was instantly drawn to take selfies with my phone, and from watching the video and reading the notes on his website, it seems that kind of interactivity with the viewer is exactly what the artist intended. Indeed the MCA exhibition is titled 'Connect with Everything'. Conversely a lack of such connection would, in his words, 'terminate art eventually'.

He told the Saturday Paper that 'the whole point of art is to reach an audience, so hopefully it will go out into the world and meet someone and they will respond'.

Selfies at Tatsuo Miyajima Connect With Everything exhibition MCA Sydney

That's why I was amused to see one of the attendants dutifully chastise another visitor for touching one of the artworks. The visitor was obviously drawn to touch the artwork in the way Miyajima's sculptures had me taking selfies.

I'm certain the artist would have given his blessing to the touch, as the wear and tear of public touch is part of art existing in the 'real world' rather than the isolation of the 'art world' that the performance artist sculptor shuns.

Those who had a traumatic relationship with maths during their childhood could find the exhibition distressing. That may have been the case with the friends of a friend who reported that they did not like the exhibition. Perhaps they kept their distance from the works and did not feel moved to interact in the way that I - or the chastised toucher - did.

I too had a troubled relationship with maths when I was young, but I feel that I experienced a degree of healing at the MCA yesterday, as if the artist was reaching out to me with Buddhist compassion. Miyajima said in the Saturday Paper interview that he traces his interest in art to childhood illnesses that left him hospitalised for months. The LED numbers represent human beings - it is 'playful technology and big, bright lights [that] are accessible to everyone'.

David Hockney's celebration of eccentricity

Yesterday I went to the David Hockney 'Current' exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. I don't often go to these blockbuster events but I had a free afternoon in Melbourne and I was interested in going to the gallery, as I had not been there for so many years. 

I found it unexpectedly entertaining, a bit like the Grayson Perry exhibition I visited at the MCA in Sydney at the beginning of the year. It has something to do with the quality of eccentricity, which is often associated with the British. It's strange that eccentricity thrives in a culture that is also known for being mannered and repressed, the opposite end of the scale from the spontaneity of the Latin cultures. 

On the one hand, I don't warm to his vocal advocacy of smokers' rights, which he mentions in interviews and features in quite a number of his whimsical works. It seems like the railing against political correctness that you get from Senator David Leyonhjelm or from the opinion and letter writers in The Australian newspaper. At the same time, he is determined to push the boundaries of his medium, in terms of both aesthetic theory and in using the iPad or a video camera for most of his recent works.

What I found particularly fascinating was his rejection of the 'single-point perspective' in the creation of images, in favour of his own way of doing what amounts to 3D. Increasingly, a single image doesn't do the job for him. He has quite a number of stitched together composite works, some of which are displayed using banks of video monitors. Others are stitched together photographic prints. Initially you think that the stitching together is done poorly, but then you realise that it's intentional and purposeful.

That is his serious work, though there is a playfulness in it. I also enjoyed the whimsy and humour in the large number of paintings and iPad slide shows. He also provides something of a role model for those of us who are growing old in that he doesn't seem to care what the rest of the world thinks of him.