Sole Sister

Cruising in the single lane


When in Canberra…

….I never miss the opportunity to check out what’s on at one of our national capital’s impressive array of galleries and museums.  Some are must-sees,  such as the amazing Songlines earlier this year, others worth seeing but more of the three-and-a-half star mark, such as the current Rome: City and Empire. On loan from the British Museum in London with around 200 objects on show it features a more fraction of the 100,000 treasures that actually make up the collection. 


Still, just contemplating the map at the start of the exhibition underscores the sheer size of the Empire in its heyday – a vast stretch of territory covering present-day swathes of western Europe, North Africa, Greece, Turkey, the Middle East, England and Wales. Just as the British took advantage of empire by appropriating treasures, the Romans also enslaved conquered peoples and seized their wealth. While missing major masterpieces from the British Museum the exhibition focuses on objects from quotidian life, funerary art and items like coins. The collection owes much to the discovery of burial hoardes from various locations including Britain.

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Intricately carved 100 BCE Etruscan alabaster burial chest. 

Highlights include an exquisitely carved Etruscan alabaster burial chest; a relief depicting gladiatrices Amazon and Achilla, showing Roman-era women had won the right to take up the sword; a 2000-year-old freestanding basanite (volcanic rock) bath in a style very like those found in trendy bathrooms now; and a bust of the renowned Hadrian, who liked to build walls and who was said to be openly gay.  

This Roman bath would go well in a modern-day showroom; Hadrian the wall builder. 

Bust from now north Africa (l); Funerary relief, Palmyra, Syria (r) ; bust of Bacchus. 

Mithras slaying the bull; the gladatrices Amazon and Achilla. 


Items from the Hoxne Treasure in England from the fourth and fifth centuries. 

Rome: City and Empire  runs at the National Museum of Australia until February 3.


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Book tasting

Listening to a recent RN book chat show the topic of hard copy versus online books came up. Without hesitation the participants gave the thumbs up to “the real deal” books, the ones you could smell and feel, and enjoy browsing through at a real book shop. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the touch-and-feel variety our annual “book tasting” at Avid Reader bookshop in West End, with resident guru Fiona Stager, wouldn’t be nearly as pleasurable.

Take your pick…..

This year’s selection revealed a botanical emphasis, coincidental because earlier this year I had my own “botanical immersion” through German forester Peter Wohllben’s fascinating The Hidden Life of Trees. First on Fiona’s list was The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, by Queensland writer Holly Ringland. Set in Queensland’s canefields, the Sunshine Coast Hinterland and Central Australia the novel communicates its domestic violence theme through the dramatic beauty of Australia’s wildflowers. “You’ll never think of the Australian landscape the same way again,” our host advised.

Next, The Botanist’s Daughter, by Kayte Nunn, an colourful story of a race to find a life-saving plant involving two female botanists, set across more than a century. The Overstory a lengthy and complicated tale by American Richard Powers connects people through trees – “it takes reader commitment but is well worth it”, was Fiona’s advice. In Unsheltered veteran Barbara Kingsolver, long-time writer on topics like social justice, biodiversity and the interaction between communities and environments, tells the tale of a now-destitute middle-class American family who inherit a tumble-down house originally owned by a botanist. Warlight, Michael Ondjaate’s spy-themed novel set around post-Second World War London, follows the elusive struggles of 14-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister to piece together the mysterious life of his parents. A key character leading a double life as a natural history radio presenter adds a strong natural history component.

Moving away from the botanical, Edward Carey’s Little shines a light on the founder of Madame Tussauds, the diminutive Swiss orphan Marie Grosholtz. In Less this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner, Andrew Sean Greer, takes a humorous look at literary life and the gay scene. “Funny is hard to write,” said Fiona. “This is funny without being cruel”. Avid Bookshop regular, Krissy Kneen, switches from her previous erotica in Wintering  to tell the story of a woman whose husband goes missing: “It is strong in landscape and has received good reviews”, said Fiona. Cryptic crossword king David Astle offers mental exercise with Rewording the Brain; and in The Golden Thread – How Fabric Changed History Kassia St Clair reveals the magical power of textiles. For food-lovers – or those who just love leafing through luscious celebrity cookbooks – Simple, Israeli Yotam Ottolenghi’s latest offering, promises straight-forward, Middle Eastern-inspired treats. “I’m obsessed with it,” Fiona confided.

Tips from other staff: Boy Swallows Universe, a debut novel by Australian journalist Trent Dalton – “a book that speaks to all people”; Normal People by talented young Irish writer Sally Rooney is this staff member’s “favourite book of the year; The Children’s House, by Alice Nelson, set in America, Israel and Rwanda, references an upbringing in a kibbutz children’s house and the author’s life in the various countries.

A Gentleman in Moscow is described as “a must read”; Man out of Time, the experience of living in a family where one parent is a severe depressive, offers “exquisite writing”; Prague Spring, by Simon Mawer, is set in 1968 when Russian tanks rolled into Prague; Sally Piper’s The Geography of Friendship is “an enjoyable read …. a vehicle for exploring female friendship”; Eggshell Skull is judge’s associate Bri Lee’s account of her work experience, including many rape cases, for which she shared the 2018 Queensland Premier’s Young Publishers and Writers Awards prize; and for the kids, the crowd-sourced Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo; the Little People Big Dreams series about extraordinary women; and finally Kate DiCamillio’s latest adventure with her Louisana Elephante character, Louisana’s Way Home. 

Happy reading in 2019!


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Queen of colour


Mexico’s Queen of Colour, the famously mono-browed Frida Kahlo, entered my world years ago when we acquired a coffee table book about her long-time relationship with the camera. Frida was the daughter of a German-born photographer, and Mexican mother, and well accustomed to both sides of the lens. But she was best known for her sumptuously polychromatic paintings. So when I visited San Francisco’s wonderful Museum of Modern Art which boasted a number of Frida originals – and some of her husband, equally famous artist Diego Rivera – I was able to experience first-hand her fearless affiliation with the palette. Travelling on to New York I was just as excited by that MOMA’s Kahlo and Rivera pieces. Mexico City was immediately added to the “must-visit” list.


Self-portraits and a photographic portrait. 


Frida’s Portrait of a Girl.

Items from Frida’s stunning and eclectic wardrobe.


Frida suffered a lifetime of pain.

Frida Kahlo’s art reflects her life and her emotional response to the hardships she faced: a lifetime of health problems after contracting polio at six and being seriously injured in a bus accident at 18; a volatile relationship with Rivera which included a divorce and remarriage; and an incapacity to have children. The suffering is reflected in her numerous uncompromising and confronting autobiographical paintings, and her many self-portraits embracing her striking mono-brow and dark-haired upper lip. Frida and Diego were both heavily involved in the politics of their time which coincided with the Mexican Revolution and the era of Marxism. They belonged to the Communist Party and had famous Communist friends, including Trotsky who lived in Mexico City until his assassination on the orders of Stalin.

Diego Cubism

A Rivera Cubism piece at the museum. 


Rivera was best known for his huge educative murals, this at the Palacio de Bellas Artes.

The best place to experience this dynamic Mexican artist’s work is at the Frida Kahlo Museum the Blue House, or La Casa Azul, named for its stunning cobalt blue hue, and located in Coyoacan borough. It was her family home from birth to death, and also where she lived for a number of years with Diego Rivera. The museum’s two floors contain various bedrooms, an expansive kitchen, a dining room and studio space. Natural stone mosaics inspired by the murals of their friend, the Irish-Mexican architect Juan O’Gorman, decorate the entrance hall. The museum houses many of Frida and Rivera’s works, as well as folk art, and many personal items and memorabilia. Rivera was a leading art teacher and muralist with many expansive on view across the country, especially in Mexico City. 

A section of the museum features stunning pieces from Frida’s eclectic and flamboyant wardrobe and also a display of her prostheses and medical aids. Her distinctive clothing style is an amalgam of the colourful folk costumes of her mother’s Oaxacan heritage, and the European folk style reflecting her Grman heritage, combined with long skirts to cover the legs damaged by polio and the accident.  Outside, the courtyard garden is a rainbow of cobalt, ochre, yellow and green, perfectly exemplifying Kahlo’s and Mexico’s communication with matters chromatic.

The expansive Blue House kitchen, and colourful garden. 


Photograph of Trotsky, Frida and others.


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Coats of many colours


San Miguel Fort, Campeche.

If I was asked to sum up Mexico in one word I’d say – colourful! It’s not just the absolute opulence of colour in the built environment, crafts, fabrics and food. The people themselves exude warmth and colour. The 50-km drive to the pyramids at Teotihuacan offers proof, if any is needed, of the Mexicans’ love for colour. Tumbling down every slope along the valley sides is a kaleidoscopic avalanche of dwellings: apple greens, hot pinks, purples, aquas, yellows the rich pallet defying the poverty of the actual structures, a coat-of-many-colours richness that would delight Dolly Parton.

A love of colour is another of the gifts bequeathed to modern-day Mexicans by their Mesoamerican forebears. Recent archaeological work is uncovering this poly-chromatic patrimony and its significance. Religion and ceremony were central and rituals including  a shamanistic penchant for hallucinogens added a psychedelic dimension. In another happy coincidence natural sources offered rich opportunities for a heroic attitude to body art, architectural decoration, ceramics and arts and crafts.  Colour was extracted from minerals including clay,  a variety of plants and insects such as the cochineal bug.


Mexico City historic centre.

Old suburbs Mexico City. 


Traditional decorative flags. 


Oaxaca cafe. 


Oaxaca carpet shop.

Restaurant and courtyard, San Cristobal de las Casas.

Handicrafts and popular tourist items.

Renowned Mexican weaver Bulmaro Perez Mendoza let us in to some of his colour secrets when we visited his Teotitlan studio, near Oaxaca.  All his dyeing is done with natural substances, from the washing of wool in nearby streams, to sealing the colours with lemon juice. The sources of colours includes, of course, the cochineal bug whose qualities everyone knows of from childhood cake icing days, and plants such as indigo, huisache daisies for black alfalfa for green, nutshells for brown, marigolds for orange, and pomegranate shell for gold. Variations in colours are achieved through some unusual mixtures including the ash of burnt cactus. No wonder Senor Mendoza is known as the “Picasso of Carpets”.


The wonderful cochineal bug and its many colours.

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A “Picasso” rug.


Colourful senorita, Merida. 

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Mesoamerican treasure chest

My post-trip reminiscences invariably include some wishful thinking under the heading “I wish I could go back to….”. But down here in the lower Southern Hemisphere our “tyranny of distance” impositions of travel time and costs dictate that a return visit to destinations that impress is a big ask. But that doesn’t stop the daydream. High on my wish-I-could-go-back-to list for Mexico City is the amazing National Museum of Anthropology and its 600,000 priceless artefacts.

Our organised tour, while fascinating and informative, was way too short. It’s impossible to do justice to thousands of years of complex civilisation in a couple of hours, especially when signage is mostly in Spanish. So my advice to would-be visitors to Mexico is give yourself at least a day at the Anthropology Museum and rent an audio guide, or hire a personal archaeology-savvy, bi-(or multi) lingual guide. The Mesoamericans had a rich spiritual and ritualistic life, promoted by the extensive use of plant-based hallucinogens, which had a distinct bearing on their cultural forms. Here is a taste-test of the treasures that await.


museum grasshopper




Illustration of items traded among Mesoamerican cities. 




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Monumental designs


The elegant National Museum of Anthropology.

Mexico City and its environs are not just home to imposing examples of ancient architecture. The contemporary is also embraced and best manifested in the work of the man known as the father of Mexican modern architecture, Pedro Ramirez Vazquez, who died in 2013 aged 94. His mos well known, and imposing, works include the signature National Museum of Anthropology with its distinctive “umbrella” fountain; the world’s third largest football stadium, the 100,000-seat Estadio Azteca; and one of the most important Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world, visited by millions every year, the New Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The original Basilica goes back to the early days of Spanish settlement and is the national shrine of Mexico but because of the volume of pilgrims became inadequate. It celebrates the spot on the Hill of Tepeyac where Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, Mexico’s first indigenous saint, was said to have received four visitations from Our Lady of Guadalupe. His original cloak, said to bear an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, is housed in the New Basilica.


Fit for the millions…the New Basilica of Our Lady of Guadeloupe. 

The National Museum of Anthropology is Ramirez’s signature work and a fitting home for 600,000 invaluable heirlooms bequeathed by the early Mesoamericans such as the Aztec, Mayan, Zapotec and Mixtec civilisations.  With its roof cantilevered over the courtyard and central pool mirroring the structure’s central perimeter wings the museum looks as much at home in the 21st century as when it opened in 1964. Its collection includes the famous Sun Stone – representing the Aztecs’ history of the world – unearthed under the Zocalo in 1790. It’s a monumental and elegant building perfectly designed to celebrate and preserve Mexico’s monumental heritage.



Timeless design – National Museum of Anthropology.

Pictures from the museum collection in the next post.

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Mystery city


Pyramid of the Moon. 

Archaeologists and other lovers of ancient civilisations can count their blessings that the zealous Spanish Conquistadors did not turn their eyes northeast from Tenochtitlan when they were busily building over the Aztec capital. Located about 50kms in that direction are the impressive remains of Teotihuacan, a vast site dating back to almost 200 BC, an inspiration to the Aztecs but the work of a different Mesoamerican culture.  According to UNESCO it was the culturally dominant Mesoamerican city during that era’s classical period and influenced the culture of city-states from central Mexico to the east, west and south all the way to Honduras, and to the north as far as present-day Texas. But who the Teotihuacans were, what they called themselves or what language they spoke remains a mystery.


Avenue of the Dead and Pyramid of the Sun.

The name of Teotihuacan, which means place of the Gods, was actually bestowed by the later arrivals who believed that only gods could have created such a city. And it is certainly impressive. From the upper levels of the Pyramid of the Moon –  those early morning sessions at the gym paying off to master the seriously steep steps – the grand scale of this ceremonial city-state can be appreciated. Straight ahead the imposing north-south, 40m-wide, 5km-long Avenue of the Dead, thought to have been so named because of the tomb-like structure lining the sides. About halfway down the avenue on the left the dominant Pyramid of the Sun stands framed by the background mountains.

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Sophisticated wall artwork and friezes. 

At its peak Teotihuacan spread over an area of around 35sq-kms with a population of over 25,000, although some estimates put the population at 100,000 or more. Its success was said to result from its organisational structure and rich resources: plentiful water from rivers and lakes; food sources of maize, cactus, fish, game animals like deer and rabbits, and turkeys; pine and oak forests in the nearby mountains; obsidian from the volcanos, prized for weapon making and a valuable trading item; other volcanic rocks; and ample deposits of clay for ceramics.  Mysteriously Teotihuacan declined around 700AD after being razed by fire and abandoned, possibly as a result of a revolt against an increasingly tyrannical government, or after attack from a rival city state.  Much remains to be unearthed about this rich and sophisticated culture including deciphering the site’s original name, all guaranteed to keep those archaeologists happy for some time to come.




Treasures from Teotihuacan museum including a stone “ball” from a popular game.


Rhymes with Popocateptl

Speaking of erupting volcanos with tricky names….I met up with a fellow Mexico tour member recently and was impressed by her effortlessly rolling the name of Popocateptl off her tongue. She divulged that she had, in fact, been fascinated by the word since her middle years at primary school: “about the same time that I learned how to spell ornithorhynchus”She said a friend, a former librarian,  remembers learning the following verse at school at a similar time which could provide a clue to the fascination. She shares the verse here (although I’d be a bit worried about settling on Mt Popocatepetl!)

My child, should you decide to go
and make your home in Mexico
the proper place for you to settle
is on Mt Popocatepetl

it’s slopes are green, it’s crest is white
it’s 18,000 feet in height
the air will keep you in good mettle
on top of Popocatepetl


Sleeping beauty


Like any worthwhile natural wonder Mexico City’s two iconic volcanos, the active Popocatapetl (Smoking Mountain), and dormant Iztaqccihuatl (White Woman) have a poignant love story to ensure their status. The pair is among ­­40 active, dormant or extinct volcanos in Mexico which features prominently on the Pacific Rim of Fire chain.  Popocatapetl is one of the most volatile erupting spectacularly in 2000, and at regular intervals over intervening years, most recently this week spewing ash three kilometres into the air over nearby Puebla city and closing its airport.

One version of the myth portrays Popocatapetl and Iztaqccihuatl – or Mujer Dormida, Sleeping Woman in Spanish –  as two unrequited lovers. The Princess Iztaqccihuatl is promised by her father to the warrior Popocatapetl if he returns from battle in Oaxaca. Iztaqccihuatl learns her father does not expect her beloved to return and has arranged other suitors. Heartbroken, the Princess kills herself with a dagger. Returning victorious Popocatépetl is devastated and takes her body to the top of the mountain hoping the cold will revive her. Instead he freezes to death.  The gods transform him into a mountain and cover it/him, and the sleeping princess, with snow.

Approaching the volcanos by road from the Mexico City side on the way to Puebla one can make out the shape of the “sleeping woman”, with four individual snow-capped peaks from that angle depicting the “head”, “chest”, “knees” and “feet” of the stricken Princess. I don’t think the residents of Mexico City and Puebla will want Iztaqccihuatl to awaken from her slumber and join Popocatapetl.

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(Don’t) stop the boats

Another of New York’s fascinating museums celebrates and documents the struggles and success stories of the millions of immigrants who fled war and revolution, mostly in Europe, in the early to mid-20th century for that chance to be welcomed into New York Harbour by the Statue of Liberty. Like Australia, the US has a huge immigrant-descended population, the stories of the first arrivals harrowing and heart-warming. Life was far from easy for these newcomers but the chance of achieving the American Dream kept their hopes alive.




The restored tenement at 97 Orchard Street on the Lower East Side models the living circumstances of the generations of families who crammed into tiny rooms living meagre but hopeful lives as they eked out a living.  In one instance the recollections of the daughter of an Italian immigrant family, the Baldizzis, helped museum staff recreate their 1930’s home. The tiny apartment was surprisingly homely with furnishings and fittings that evoked the modest but happy family life they led.

One of the missions of the museum is to promote tolerance and remind current generations of the difficult paths that immigrants have followed to access freedom, and the contribution they have made to their adopted country. Perhaps Donald Trump could join our former Prime Minister on a study tour of the Tenement Museum – especially as we Australians prepare to welcome and bestow citizenship on another batch of new settlers tomorrow, Australia Day.