Sunday, July 16, 2006

Adelaide in the rain

Australia, you come to understand, is all about water.

A crossroads springs up because the water is only 65 meters below the surface here. A town flourishes because a larger source of underground water is discovered (by a dowser, none the less.) Most major cities are under water restrictions, and every lodging informs you about its source of water … a polite way of reminding you that water is a precious thing here.

So it’s understandable that everyone in the vast state of South Australia is pretty well thrilled that it’s been raining for the past two days. As a visitor, you have to honor their excitement…even though you’re soaking wet.

And you have to head indoors. I did so this afternoon in the company of Rosie Potter, an expert in Aboriginal art. She shares her expertise with clients of Tourabout Adelaide, a local guiding company.

Aboriginal culture is complex and, like many traditions, in danger of disappearing. The commercial viability of Aboriginal art – some paintings now sell at prices of $10,000 and above – has made painting a touchstone activity that gives clan elders an opportunity to pass on stories and learning to a younger generation less enthralled with old ways.

Our wanderings through Adelaide took us from the Tandanya cultural center, currently hosting an exhibition pegged to the Australian-hit film Ten Canoes, to the free Art Gallery of South Australia, the free South Australian Museum (dedicated to natural and human history) and the Flinders University City Gallery, also free.

All are interesting, but if you want to learn about traditional Aboriginal life, law and values, the South Australian Museum is the place to go. Two floors are dedicated to Aboriginal traditions, and here you can see tools like spear throwers and shields, learn how clansmen used natural poisons in fishing and hunting, and even seen historic films about funeral rites and about food-gathering. This last bit is unique because the politically correct practice these days is to remove all photographs and video images of people now dead. Many Aboriginal people believe that if people in the living world are still viewing their image after their death, their souls will be unsettled.

The museum harks from more than a century past, and it is considered by Aboriginal peoples as a safe haven for artifacts and practices. And while one wants to respect traditional beliefs, I have to be glad that the museum’s video and photo archives remain on view for visitors like me. I can only hope that the dead rest in peace, anyway.

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Update: Turns out that the museum doesn't use photos of the recently deceased, and uses photos and videos only with the permission of relatives.

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