Tonight we catch the Ghan to leave Alice Springs and return to Darwin, thence to fly home to the US. As I write, from the courtyard of the Red Ochre Café in Alice, we await a rendezvous with Ted Egan, one of the most celebrated citizens of the Northern Territory of Australia. Earlier this week we got acquainted with his son, Mark, or rather with some of his work. At the Aileron Roadhouse, a well-known oasis on the Stuart Highway, which runs right through the heart of Australia, Adelaide to Darwin.
Atop an escarpment overlooking the roadhouse (combination truck stop and campground), beckoning travelers from the highway, stands the Big Man. The Big Man is an Anmatjere huntsman, some fifty feet tall, fashioned of concrete affixed to steel mesh. Mark Egan is the sculptor of the Anmatjere man, emplaced at Aileron in 2005.
Australia is full of roadside statues and monstrosities and is the country that invented the term “big thing” for this sort of highway art. When you make a big thing that is an aboriginal person, however, it raises some cultural issues. Mark Egan explains he acquired intimate acquaintance and personal respect for aboriginal people through the influence of his father, who received the Order of Australia for his work on aboriginal rights. I have no doubt the younger Egan is sincere in what he says.
As for the proprietor of the roadhouse, Greg Dick, who benefits from the custom attracted by the big thing, it’s not a political matter with him. Before hiring Egan to do the Big Man, he considered a big kangaroo, but decided a kangaroo done on huge scale would look silly.
I caught Dick for a short interview just before he headed out on his 4-wheeler to inspect the campground, and he explained how after the Big Man was emplaced, he next hired Egan to fashion an aboriginal woman and child to stand by the campground. A couple of the local Anmatjere ladies (“ladies” being the term they prefer) told Dick he needed to effect gender balance on the premises, and so he obliged them with the additional statues.
We spent quite a bit of time at the Aileron Roadhouse and made the uphill hike to inspect the big thing up above. We also lingered to examine the collection of artwork on display in the Maggie Bar, work remarkable for a roadhouse, including two originals by Albert Namatjira and many other works by his followers. (Namatjira, an Arrente man, was the great aboriginal landscape painter of Central Australia.)
We called in at the art gallery adjacent to the roadhouse and had a chat with the owner. He keeps a room stocked with paints and canvases and encourages Anmatjere painters to come in and paint. He pays them cash for their work and sells it through his own shop. The relationship between art dealers and aboriginal artists always has potential for exploitation, but this seems like a pretty benign situation.
In the end, a roadhouse holds trade by serving good tucker, so before hitting the road we ordered up a proper Ozzie breakfast—bacon and eggs and canned beans on toast.