Adelaide: City secrets worth knowing

By Graham Reid

Graham Reid finds plenty of cultural distractions in Australia's fifth largest city.

The Young man behind the counter at the Art Gallery of South Australia gets talking as I'm buying a catalogue. He comes from somewhere else too but has been in Adelaide, a city with a population approximately that of Auckland, for a decade.

He says that in all that time he hasn't seen a traffic jam.

As an Aucklander, I add that to the long list of things to like about this city where the roads are so wide you could turn an aircraft on them.

Actually, they were designed for bullock carts, says a chatty cabbie as he takes us to the beach where people amble along the boardwalk, lie in the sun beside interesting public sculptures, or pose behind sunglasses at one of the dozens of outdoor restaurants and bars.

I love beaches, but we have them too, so I head for the art galleries and museum.

Adelaide, the fifth largest city in Australia, is one of the country's well-kept secrets.

"We don't brag about it so they don't come," says the cabbie as we cruise past houses whose owners have an unnatural affection for white garden statuary, Roman columns and brush fencing. "We like it that way."

Days later as I am checking out from the comfortable and appropriately described Majestic Roof Garden Hotel on Frome - although the roof garden isn't much cop - I say to the woman at the desk how much I have enjoyed her city.

"Thank you, but don't tell anyone," she says. She may, or may not, have been joking.

This may explain why many New Zealanders don't visit Adelaide - they just don't hear that much about it.

Certainly, it has all the usual Australian things - an impressive botanic garden, strips of restaurants, excellent bookshops, funky stores (Miss Gladys Sym Choon is legendary) and trams.

But there's much more to this place described by one guy as a "20-minute city" (that is all it takes to get anywhere), and which has comparatively more restaurants and cafes for the population than any other Australian city. Adelaide's old architecture, which has been retained around the city, the colonial churches, Coopers beer, and the art galleries alone are worth the trip.

The Art Gallery of South Australia is in a historic building, and in the Elder Wing it offers a walk-through of Australian history, from colonial sketches of Sydney (no traffic jams there either) and William Strutt's erect and stiffly correct 19th-century Equestrian Police, and past pretty Federation-period landscapes where wishful thinking makes the coastline glow like a Grecian landscape.

Then you come to a homo-erotic, heroic and garishly laughable Greco-Roman monster titled The Pastoral Pursuits of Australia. Here, muscled men in togas pose like gods against broken Roman columns above an Australian desertscape, while fat sheep and placid dogs evoke an Arcadia of plenty. I laughed out loud.

The cool and chronologically laid-out gallery offers a primer in how early painters mimicked the European masters - such as the Vermeer-like Children's Concert by Louis Tannert - and then that increasing acceptance of the heat-soaked landscape, the arid landscapes and majestic gum trees, and the muscular stretch of a young nation.

And as notions of colonisation retreat, the 20th century and abstraction make their mark in works by Tony Tuckson and others.

Then this visual journey leads to vibrant Aboriginal art painted boldly on bark.

Anyone ambling through these rooms can get a potted history of Australian art and also see some of the most iconic pieces in the Australian canon. I stop before H.J. Johnstone's famous Evening Shadows. His large scene of a tranquil backwater of the Murray River was one of the most copied paintings of the late 19th and early 20th century in Australian art.

Students and amateurs alike would try to capture their own treatment of this almost photographic image in which an Aboriginal camp is depicted beneath cathedral-like gums beside a reflecting pool at twilight.

It is a beautiful and restful work but it comes with a disconcerting undertone because camps such as this were not to last long as settlers swarmed across the land.

The gallery is full of such powerful work: Sydney Long's strikingly simple 1898 rendering of a valley with spindly trees; Arthur Boyd's disturbing, modernist Persecuted Lovers about an inter-racial relationship; Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri's enormous Yuelamu Honey Ant Dreaming from 1990.

Although the gallery has the obligatory international collection, it is the vibrant Aboriginal art which, for me, leaps off the walls. And so, while at the counter talking to a man for whom gridlock is an unfamiliar concept, I get directions to the nearby Tandanya, National Aboriginal Cultural Institute.

Few would dispute that Aboriginal peoples endured appalling treatment after the arrival of Europeans. The Kaurna people, who today remain custodians of the plains, were decimated by diseases brought by settlers, killed in conflicts with farmers, and eventually transported out of the region.

But in the past half century the state government has apologised for historic injustices and there is now legislation to protect sacred sites.

Tandanya shows that before Europeans arrived there were more than 200 different indigenous groups in the region, each with distinct languages and customs.

The familiar dot paintings of the desert people are represented in this gallery, but of more interest is the confrontational, humorous and politically flinty work of contemporary urban Aborigines. Here, issues of the Stolen Generation, racism and land rights - bristling with rage - are scarred on to canvas and cardboard.

The curious thing is that other than an elderly Japanese couple watching the long video of interviews with Aboriginals, I am the only person in this provocative but rewarding gallery.

Maybe everyone is at the social history museum in the Glenelg Town Hall for the exhibition Celebrating Life By The Sea.

Or maybe in modest Adelaide this is just another thing it wants to keep to itself?


Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct to Adelaide three times a week.

Further information: See

- NZ Herald

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