In Alice Springs in Australia's Outback, I visit the Strehlow Research Centre, a museum dedicated to the life and work of Theodor ‘Ted’ Strehlow, the most prominent white scientist to study the values and customs of Aborigines until today.
Strehlow was born in Hermannsburg, a mission post built by German Lutherans at about 150 kilometers from Alice Springs in 1877. Raised by the Aranda tribe, Strehlow spoke their language fluently. He was even initiated as a ceremonial chief, an ‘Ingkata’, gaining intimate knowledge of tribal secrets that are completely taboo for non-initiated men or any females.
The rules for initiation are very demanding and painful: it is not uncommon for a candidate’s tooth to be knocked out, and novices might have to spend a few weeks in the desert, taking care of themselves and gathering food without outside help. Many young men are understandably scared to death of these rituals and stay out of sight around the end of the year, when the elders, recognizable through a red band around their head, roam the streets recruiting novices.
To prevent irresponsible youngsters from selling the tribe’s sacred objects or ‘Tjurunga’, Strehlow was even given custody over these artifacts, which must always be kept hidden. They are now locked away in a vault in the Research Centre’s ‘Vesda Room’ – only accessible to those elders with the right credentials.
When leaving the museum, I meet a group of Aborigines lying under a tree in the park outside. Two men are sound asleep in the yellow grass, while two barefoot women work in silence on a large dot painting that is nearing its completion. “You got some cigarettes for us?” asks one of the women as I inspect the painting.
The men wake up. Without a word, they light the requested cigarettes and the women return to their artwork. Aboriginal art is a highly appreciated commodity these days; there is a lot of it for sale in the chic galleries in the center of Alice. The contrast between the quiet, somewhat shabby artists in this little park and the elegant, mostly white, midtown art dealers is noticeable.
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