Icons, living and dead

ALICE SPRINGS, THE modern town at the centre of the Australian continent, is also a converging point of ancient Aboriginal songlines and for thousands of years the homeland of Arrernte-speaking clans. Today Aboriginal people, with Arrernte in the majority, make up one fifth of the town's population. Their presence, however, has mostly not been reflected in the construction of the town's public spaces in ways other than negative. A 1981 mural by Bob and Kaye Kessing, on the new Coles supermarket, projected an image of inter-cultural harmony long before the word 'reconciliation' was on anybody's lips. At this time the outpouring of art by Aboriginal peoples of the desert had been underway for a decade. Alice Springs became a hub for the movement, and this was reflected in the commissioning of a number of significant works of public art – at the Araluen Arts Centre and airport – but not in the town centre. After strong lobbying, lead by artist Pip McManus, in 2006 the Town Council finally adopted a public art policy. As its first manifestation in 2009 Council commissioned The Gathering Garden for a prominent position in the Civic Centre grounds. This work, a collaboration of ten Central Australian Aboriginal artists with a Melbourne-based sculptor, stands at the head of a recent conscientious, if somewhat haphazard, striving towards balance in the cultural order of the public space.

TODD MALL, FOR more than two decades a pedestrian street running the length of two town blocks, is Alice Springs' premier gathering place. If there's a festival, a market, a protest march, it's likely to happen there, rivalled only by the adjacent Civic Centre lawns. The mall is home to the town's most attractive cafés, to art galleries, including the renowned Aboriginal-owned Papunya Tula Artists, to fashion and gift shops, to Adelaide House, the region's first hospital and most handsome historic building, and to the John Flynn Uniting Church. These last two are set in grassed and treed grounds, which the church has generously left unfenced, open for community use. At night, though, the mall is largely a deserted, shuttered place, the frequent scene of antisocial and at times criminal behaviour, which the expensive installation of CCTV surveillance has done little to curb. In recent years its property values have stagnated, a number of businesses, including a pub, have closed and premises have remained vacant for lengthy periods, in some cases years.

Margaret Kemarre Turner is an important cultural go-between in Alice Springs. An Akarre woman, she became an Arrernte speaker in childhood. She is an artist, author, interpreter, leader, and recipient of an OAM for her long record of community service. She is also remarkable for the personal warmth she extends to a very wide circle of people. Known affectionately as MK, she has been committed to the promotion of understanding between cultures of their very different worldviews, a seeming one-woman force for black-white friendship. 'We can't have blaming business today, now,' she wrote in Iwenhe Tyerrtye – what it means to be an Aboriginal person (IAD Press, 2010). 'We can't do that, because we're living together… Two cultures can hold each other very strong.'

At a forum in early March 2007 MK was asked how she relates to Todd Mall. Her answer made no mention of buildings, paving, seating, or shade structures. 'That old tree is still standing,' she said, referring to a massive red river gum that has been preserved in the middle of the mall.

The tree is sacred to the Arrernte, and as such protected by the Northern Territory's Sacred Sites Act. It isoften referred to as 'The Grandfather Tree' or 'Knowledge Tree'.

MK called it the 'Foundation Tree', and said it 'represents the people of this place'. She referred to the importance of the many other red river gums still standing in the CBD, as well as in and along the Todd River – Lhere Mparntwe – that runs through the town. Asked whether she could still feel the energy of the land underneath the town, she said, 'Yes the foundation is still here, that's how people see it.'

Is there a way to bring that out, she was asked, a way to make it visible? It can be shown through the trees, the plants, the fruits, she answered, mentioning that the town area was once a particularly good place for finding yalke (wild onion). It can also be shown through art, she said.

This 2007 forum or 'ideas incubator' – as its instigator, Kieren Sanderson, called it – focused on invigorating the way public space in Alice Springs was thought about, used and developed. Sanderson, a curator and producer, was seeking a creative response to the tensions, if not outright hostilities, between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people that over the years have engendered a bland, at times harsh urban environment.

Traversed by fences, bounded by windowless walls, dotted with security grilles and admonishing signs, graced with few points of shelter and welcome let alone beauty, the townscape has sat heavily on black and white alike.

Sanderson's process had begun two years earlier and culminated in a twenty-one-day public art program in May 2007. The following year another process, instigated by the then Labor Northern Territory Government to 'revitalise' the Alice Springs CBD, brought in leading urban designers from Melbourne: Rob Adams, director of City Design at the City of Melbourne, Paul Carter from Material Thinking and Steve Thorne from Design Urban. Carter and Thorne returned many times to research and consult on the development of a 'Design Options Framework' before settling on six projects that could transform the town centre. These were handed over to the Town Council to choose from and implement with a $5 million budget from the Territory.

In August 2008 I attended a 'community conversation' about the public space led by Carter and held inside the Uniting Church on Todd Mall. The mall generally dies after five, but that night it was alive.

As participants arrived, a group of young Aboriginal boys were playing a lively game of footy on the church lawns, with older male relatives looking on and offering coaching tips. There were early evening passers-by. StoryWall was being set up. This was an attempt by a local filmmaker, David Nixon, in collaboration with the Uniting Church minister, Tracy Spencer, to animate the mall with screenings of local films and audio-visual material, 'celebrating who we are, what we think and feel'. Anything available with a Central Australian connection would get a run, from old tourism promotions to the ethnographic films of Ian Dunlop – it was about 'reclaiming our celluloid heritage', as Nixon put it, with the byproduct of curbing antisocial behaviour in the area. The native titleholders' 'Welcome to Country' film was often part of the mix, with its wonderful footage of waters starting to flow in the normally dry Lhere Mparntwe.

Inside the church about twenty-five people, mostly from the creative sector, talked enthusiastically about how they thought the town's public places could become more welcoming, livelier, more beautiful, safer. Not long into the discussion, I heard shouting outside, women's shouting – loud, prolonged, aggressive, in an Aboriginal language peppered with plenty of English curses. Eventually it died down – maybe the police passed by or had it simply run its course? Nobody said anything. It was just another commonplace aggravation of street life in Alice, unwelcome, little understood. The meeting wound up, and the church became a rehearsal space for Asante Sana, a community choir specialising in African folk and protest songs. As final conversations took place outside, the choir was warming up, ascending and descending scales mixed with the soundtrack of the StoryWall screening. A few minutes later outside my office, just off the mall, for the second time that week I saw men squaring up to one another, landing a few punches, other men trying to separate them: pumped up white men in their late twenties, they'd probably been thrown out of the pub across the road.

All of this captured something of the gamut of community life. At the negative end of the spectrum, these were relatively mild versions of the stories that have come to define Alice Springs in popular consciousness, tending to drown out the richer positive stories. How could design help shift the balance?

Paul Carter's emphasis was on place-making, rather than on the traditional masterplan. His process was to gather the distinctive ideas and stories of the town as 'a unique meeting place of Arrernte Dreaming Stories and non-Indigenous histories of exploration, settlement and migration'. Without wanting to diminish the difference between them, he saw the potential these two story traditions offered for 'cross-cultural meeting', as both are about 'travelling, about processes of bringing country into being'. Through the development of a framework of forms and programming – broadly taken up by the design team put together by Steve Thorne – he sought to realise this potential, redefining the town in the positive, by reference to its own qualities. The most obvious of these, neglected if not negated in much of the town's development, was the ongoing presence of traditional Arrernte culture. By extraordinary good fortune (and a degree of good management) its grand iconic expression remained in the very centre of the mall – the Foundation Tree.

The tree stands to the west of the intersection of the east–west running Parsons Street and Todd Mall. When the mall was developed as a fully pedestrian strip in 1987, the intersection was marked by a large shade structure known as The Sails. Over the years ad hoc bits of street furniture, signage, fencing accreted on the site – thirty-two structures large and small on the final count. All of this, as well as exotic plantings around the base of the tree, impeded appreciation of its presence.

Its place in the Kwekatye (boys travelling north) story was not esteemed, its connection with other trees of Arrernte significance on the banks and in the bed of the mostly dry Lhere Mparntwe was lost. This situation was analysed and remedies proposed as part of the work done on the mall revitalisation by a team of consultants led by Steve Thorne. The team included local architect Susan Dugdale, who ultimately did the hands-on design work. A creative brief was commissioned from Mike Gillam, an artist and long-time campaigner for a built environment that honours Alice Springs' rich 'two-way' cultural heritage. Gillam acknowledged the support and guidance of Arrernte custodian Doris Stuart and the brief was particularly significant in achieving a focus on the Foundation Tree and in opening up the sightlines of Parsons Street to the distant landscape in the west, replete with totemic sites, and to the culturally important river to the east.

FAST FORWARD TO August 2013. The 'revitalised' mall has been officially open for a month. The Sails and other clutter have been removed, allowing the area to breathe. The exotic plantings have gone, at the request of traditional owners through the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority. It is late afternoon on a clear day. The winter sun sends its long rays down Parsons Street from the west, through the filigree of branches of the grand old tree, filling the large open space of the intersection and on eastwards to the banks of the river where the white bark of another sacred tree is lit like a shining beacon.

More than any other feature of the mall redesign, this opening up of the street and intersection to the presence of the tree, the grandeur of the natural landscape and its cultural significance is a step forward for Alice Springs. This is not to say that it has been instantly understood and appreciated. There is scepticism about what the work can achieve as an economic and cultural stimulus, and the popular discussion has focused more on the return of two-way traffic to the northern end of what is again a street, and on matters of aesthetic taste. Traditional owner Barbara Satour, who did the 'Welcome to Country' honours at the official opening ceremony, joined in: there was 'a bit too much cement' and 'not enough bitumen and dust' for her, she said, recalling the escapades of her youth when there was less separation between bush and town and a horse could still be ridden lickety-split down the main street. But she also had something serious to say. Susan Dugdale's new shade structures and public artworks by Pip McManus specifically reference hawkmoth species of totemic significance to the Arrernte. But it was to the Foundation Tree towering above her that Satour pointed, saying 'That's our statue, it represents all us Arrernte people of Central Australia.' The design work around the tree is a significant milestone in Alice Springs' long, halting, at times painful movement away from its antagonistic past. No longer can it complacently be the hardy frontier town that pushed Aborigines to its margins. It is becoming a multicultural town where Aborigines increasingly take their place as participating citizens while their special status as the land's original occupants, its native title holders, is acknowledged.

I say 'halting' and 'painful' because for every step forward there seems to be one backwards. Unfolding over the same time period as the work in the mall and yet to reach final resolution has been a far less happy intervention in the public space.

THE SESQUICENTENARY OF the arrival in Central Australia of the first white men was marked three years earlier. They were the explorer John McDouall Stuart and his companions William Kekwick and Benjamin Head. Not surprisingly there were local celebrations. They included a lecture at which a native titleholder was invited to speak alongside a member of the Adelaide-based John McDouall Stuart Society. There was also a re-enactment of Stuart's arrival where, if the difficult issues of the past were avoided, so was any tone of triumphalism. The emphasis was on Stuart's and his men's courage, tenacity and fortitude, not their colonial mission. Meanwhile, central Australian historian RG (Dick) Kimber, was working on a close reading of Stuart's diary of the 1860 expedition with a view to publication. When I interviewed him in April 2010 Kimber discussed, in some detail, Stuart's relationship with Aborigines and in particular questions around a violent encounter with Warumungu men to the north, following which the explorer turned back. The interview was published in the Alice Springs News and I will return to it.

In July 2010 the community learned that the Town Council had accepted the gift of a gigantic statue of Stuart. Local Freemasons, members of the McDouall Stuart Lodge no.219, had offered it to the Council at a closed meeting in March that year. There was perhaps nothing more to the secrecy than the Masons' desire to 'surprise' the community, but they were naive if they thought the surprise would be pleasantly received by all.

The statue had been crafted by local folk sculptor Mark Egan, responsible for the giant, well-received Anmatjere Man, Woman and Child that stand at the Aileron Roadhouse on the Stuart Highway, 130 kilometres north of Alice Springs, announcing to all-comers that they are entering Anmatjere country. Egan's Stuart is in similar vein, ferro-cement on a steel frame, four metres high with a planned one-metre-high plinth. The figure stands upright and alone, gazing into the distance, with his left hand grasping the barrel of a rifle, the butt resting on the ground. Council's intention was to erect the statue in the centre of the lawns on the south-western corner of the Civic Centre block. There it would dominate the first sight of the Civic Centre for most visitors, who typically arrive from the south.

There was uproar. Council had failed to consult its Public Art Advisory Committee and had bypassed its policy for the receipt of artwork. If the public were being informed, it was only because a date for unveiling had been settled – less than a fortnight hence. There was some suggestion that this date was significant in Stuart's expeditions, but it soon became clear that it was merely the date of a planned visit to Alice Springs by Brother Ray Clark, Grand Master of the Antient Free and Accepted Masons of South Australia and the Northern Territory, whom the local Masons wanted to officiate at the ceremony.

Stuart was a Mason who had been inducted in the year before his 1860 expedition. The Masons were making the most of their claims on him, with three out of four plaques on the temporary plinth referring to Freemasonry. One listed all one hundred and forty-six past members of the McDouall Stuart Lodge, many of them well-known names in the business and development history of the town.

On the morning of the day before the unveiling, Council backed away from the location of the statue on the Civic Centre block, proposing instead that it be put in a park at the edge of the CBD already named for the explorer, adjacent to the Royal Flying Doctor Service, a popular tourist attraction. This was not enough to placate those who opposed the statue being in a public place in town, no matter where. The Public Art Advisory Committee called an emergency meeting at lunchtime, open to the public. Despite short notice, scores of people turned up.

The alternative location was also beset by another issue: Council appeared to have forgotten that Stuart Park, as part of the Alice Springs Heritage Precinct, is protected by heritage legislation and any works in it had to have requisite approvals. On the practical front, Council's plans were in a shambles and the unveiling turned into comic opera when the statue was lifted by crane onto the temporary plinth while the Grand Master and company did their thing, only to be whisked away afterwards to an undisclosed location pending settlement of the regulatory matters.

THE CONTROVERSY OPENED a space for the closest thing Alice Springs has had to a public 'history war'. The focus was on the gun. Valuable support for its depiction came from unexpected quarters, with prominent native titleholder Betty Pearce promoting the cause in local media. She was thus the natural choice for the unveiling ceremony's 'Welcome to Country' and frankly spoke her mind on the occasion: 'Well let's face it, back in the old days and even in today's days when people want to go out bush, hunting or looking for food, they carry guns. And I know lots of Aboriginal people with licenses to go shooting and they get kangaroo and stuff like that. So really speaking, let's forget about that gun and let it die.'

Her answer to the division being caused was to propose an 'Alice Springs Garden of History' at Stuart Park with 'busts and statues of all the other pioneers, the Aboriginal ones, the cameleers, the miners. It would be our history and McDouall Stuart would be the first one to start that history off,' she said.

Hers was not the only Aboriginal voice on the issue. At the public meeting Marie Elena Ellis asked if there were any statues of 'our Aboriginal icons' in town. An artist and one of the collaborators on The Gathering Garden and a leader of her community at Amoonguna, twenty-one kilometres south-east of Alice, she said her forebears Sid and George Ross had guided Stuart through this country, shown him waterholes, hunted kangaroo for him. Where was the statue of them, she wanted to know.

A letter from Kathleen Wallace, a leading Eastern Arrernte artist and designer of the mayoral robes, was read aloud to the meeting. She went directly to the depiction of Stuart holding a gun. Such a representation did not show reconciliation, she wrote: it 'scares' Aboriginal people and is not 'what we want to be reminded about'.

These views received strong, though not unanimous support from others at the meeting. Eric Sultan, a prominent local of Aboriginal and Afghan descent, said he had arrived at the meeting to support the statue but had changed his mind if 'it was going to be hurtful to a lot of people'. Tracy Spencer, the Uniting Church minister, said she supported representations of 'shared history' but she 'as a whitefella' did not want to be represented by a man with a gun. The issues at stake were highly sensitive and surely there was a better way to represent 'us', she said. The committee chair, Deputy Mayor Brendan Heenan, suggested that such a representation was historically accurate: 'People travelled with guns for food.' Mayor Damien Ryan hoped to add ballast to this position by saying he agreed with Betty Pearce's comments about the gun.

At the unveiling ceremony, Ted Egan sang his song about Stuart, 'Rider in the mirage'. The acclaimed singer-songwriter has had a prominent role in the political and social life of the Territory, particularly in Aboriginal affairs. Some of his songs are much-loved classics of the Territory's 'shared history'. He is also the author of a serious historical research, Justice All Their Own: The Caledon Bay and Woodah Island Killings, 1932–1933 (Melbourne University Press, 1996). On this occasion he defended both Stuart and the statue's creator, his son Mark. He said Mark had researched his subject and would not have undertaken the commission had there been evidence of aggression by Stuart towards Aborigines. 'On the contrary,' said Egan, 'when confronted by the Waramungu at Attack Creek, [Stuart] graciously turned around and went back to Adelaide. He did not want any confrontation. So the gun does not represent invasion, people who are using "invasion" are using it very ill-advisedly. The gun represents the man who is struggling against the harsh interior and living off the land to try to cross this country.'

THIS WAS AT odds with the account given by Dick Kimber. In my interview with him Kimber said Stuart did not record in his journal that people were shot or injured at Attack Creek, but did record that he gave orders to fire. Given that the explorer had always tried to avoid conflict (a commonsense approach for his small party), he must have thought he had no other option. Kimber argued that the three white men, faced by more than thirty Waramungu seeming 'to be in a great fury', would have felt they were in too much danger for warning shots. Stuart noted that as his party retreated, the Aborigines followed 'but beyond reach of our guns'. How did they make this calculation? Kimber believed they had learnt the range of fire the hard way.

This is a conversation Alice Springs has to have and there are plenty of prompts in the public space, such as street names, for it to occur. It wants only for leadership and a more constructive context than the statue controversy. It looks likely that the Stuart statue will eventually stand in Stuart Park, a permanent relic of a view of history as an ongoing chronicle of singular feats by great white men, and a hurtful reminder of a painful past for many. Yet it will not be far from the Foundation Tree where a whole other layer of the Alice Springs story has been recognised and honoured.

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