Painting the Town – Melbourne

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And so on to Australia’s second city. We got a good deal through Qantas for our internal Aussie flights, which gave us the pleasure of fully-automated check-in and bag drop, as well as an individual iPad for in-flight entertainment. Nice. I got engrossed in the documentary I am a Girl, which follows six teenage girls worldwide; one in Cameroon, one in Afghanistan, one in Australia, one in New York’s Projects, one in Papua New Guinea, one in Cambodia. The one that stayed with me most powerfully was Kimsey, the Cambodian fourteen-year old whose work as a prostitute was the sole source of income for herself, her abusive and ill mother, and her newborn baby. She had been beaten and gang-raped in the past, but when she comes home without having made enough money, her mother cries and rails, saying Kimsey doesn’t love her. I had to get off the plane without finishing the documentary, and it’s still haunting me.

In Melbourne we had the pleasure of staying in the beautiful restored Victorian terrace belonging to Dan, Charlotte, and their son Max, where we had a sitting room of our own in addition to our lovely bedroom. A stunning place to stay, and lovely hosts – Airbnb can really give you great opportunities.

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On our first day in the city, our first destination was the Immigration Museum. Australia has been regarded as “a nation of immigrants” since the 18th century, but this, of course, glosses over the existence of the indigenous Australian population, who were not counted as Australians until the 1950s. There have been significant efforts in the last twenty years to undo some of this erasure and injustice, but it still exists as an unhealed wound. The Immigration Museum made me simultaneously furious, devastated and hopeful. It begins with a short video highlighting all the reasons people have emigrated to Australia – economic opportunity, family, escape from injustice and oppression. What had me in tears after ten minutes was that I felt it evoked a sense of pride in being a nation that opens its doors to immigrants, willingly and generously. It’s so long since I saw that perspective represented; I think it possible I never have.

The museum follows specific families who came to Australia in the different waves of immigration; Irish intellectuals in the early nineteenth century, Russian Jews escaping Stalin, Greek and Italian families in the 1940s and 50s, Vietnamese and Cambodians escaping the violence of the 1970s, African, Iraqi and Afghanistani people in the 1990s and 2000s. You could learn, for instance, the story of two Iraqi brothers who had worked as university professors before coming to Australia, who managed to build a business after buying a taxi licence for $17,000. The musem also points out some salient facts; for instance, most “illegal immigrants” are not asylum-seekers but people who enter under legal visas and then overstay them, and the largest proportion of those are British and American. Two other displays stuck with me; one replays typical immigration interviews of different eras, and then asks you to rule according to the immigration laws of the time, whether an individual or family should be accepted or rejected. The other plays out an instance of racial microaggression on a city tram, and then replays the incident from the perspective of several people. It doesn’t present any easy solutions. After that, we headed out to Federation Square, in the centre, where a church displayed a huge banner reading “Let’s Make Refugees Completely Welcome”. It made me feel a little better.

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While Loz was at the cricket, I spent the morning at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, which runs through the history of film and TV, with a particular focus on the development of the Australian film industry. While running through history from the pantograph to the “talkie” to the Hollywood blockbuster is fun, I was mildly disappointed by the lack of prominence of Aussie films like, say, Muriel’s Wedding and Priscilla Queen of the Desert. The exhibition also highlighted important TV moments of the last hundred years: the moon landing, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and, of course, Scott and Charlene’s wedding on Neighbours. In the afternoon I’d booked a street art tour, and duly joined a group led by the baseball-hatted Chris of the Blender Crew. One of Melbourne’s attractions is its “laneways”, the narrow streets in the city centre that have become warrens of bars, coffee shops, boutiques, and galleries. Chris led us through a selection of hidden alleys, pointing out the history of particularly famous “pieces”, the areas where new artists have traditionally tried out their techniques, the work of all-female artists and crews, and more. Although he had a tendency to enthuse about “the really dope K in this guy’s tag”, he was an experienced artist himself, who gave us a view into the techniques and history of the work that covered the walls, and of the semi-feudal and tribal “crews” that are the backbone of the culture. Since street art operates in a semi-legal space at the best of times, disputes and conflicts tend to be handled in a robust and unofficial way. The tour, after winding through the city centre and Chinatown, finished at the crew’s studio in “Blender Lane”, where every square inch of wall and pavement is painted, and works by Banksy and the 80s legend Blek le Rat are represented. In an incongruously bourgeois touch, we were then served cheese and wine.

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On our last day in Melbourne, the temperature plummeted back to 21C with some wind-chill after the previous day’s 34C scorching. We spent it visiting the famous Brunswick Road, the centre of Melbourne’s caffeine culture, where I finally scored a proper bagel to put to use with my vegan cream cheese. In the afternoon, we used one of Melbourne’s other distinctive features – the trams – to head out to the beach suburb of St. Kildas. Despite the chill and stiff breeze, many brave Aussies were either wading or sunbathing in bikinis, but we opted to keep our sweatshirts on and go for a shoreside walk. At the crack of the next dawn, we were up to move on to Brisbane for New Years.

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