Step into this song of praise


The first thing you experience is a sense of sanctuary: a long deep space that draws you in, low light except for the luminous colour in a long band around three walls; two luminous squares in the low ceiling; the sound of birds. A row of flip-back chairs from another era if you want to sit, rest, contemplate.
This is the art space transforming long vacant office space on Todd Mall, where artist photographer Mike Gillam is presenting Maximo of Mparntwe. A song of praise to the natural world of Mparntwe – central Arrernte country –  and its creatures all around us, to its beauty, drama, resilience, vulnerability and lessons.
The title image, a stark silhouette, is mysterious at first glance. It sets the terms of Gillam’s invitation: look closely, think, feel, imagine. You move to the next panel. As if through a veil of water, girls, again in silhouette, stepping along a path. They are the only human figures represented. Quiet, soft as spirits, setting out on a revelatory journey.
By now the sounds you are registering may be the hum of cars, occasional voices, barking. This journey is not far from home. A few deft traces of the urban, an apple core, red bucket, clothesline, tin roof, confirm this. Around two thirds of the images on show were taken right here, in Alice Springs and at its edges. They are drawn from a two-decade archive of this most attentive of watchers.
The images printed on transparencies are assembled in light-box panels. This mode of presentation together with the artful juxtaposition of several images within each panel suits Gillam’s work, heightens the sense of revelation of not only the phenomena, micro to macro, but of their connection.
As the title suggests, there is a character in this show, Maximo. You meet him about five panels in, a budgerigar, an aviary escapee, taking a drink from a birdbath, registering his own reflection. But you soon realise he is not the only character. The show is remarkable for this, the many moments observed where birds mainly, but also in the later panels, dingos and kangaroos, are in interaction with each other, playful, curious, loving, concerned, aggressive; the many observations too of individual personality. The panel focussed on the distinct ‘styling’, from chic to punk, of crested pigeons is hilarious and fascinating.
A strength of Gillam’s work is the way it peels back the blind of familiarity, allowing you to see not only the personality and sociality of commonplace birds like  crested pigeons and galahs, but their beauty. You gain an entirely new appreciation of the crest, the wing design and plumage of the pigeons; of the lyrical beauty of the flock of galahs.
Just when the flock’s pink and grey swirl might have you thinking ballet, Tchaikovksy, the soundscape, created by Adrian Warburton, suddenly makes you jump: a burst of loud barking and the beating of wings as the flock rises in fright. The soundscape does important work in the show, grounding the beauty in the every day of the living landscape and townscape.
There are a few snatches of text on the wall that fill in the major lines of the narrative that Gillam has built around what happens to Maximo. His intention is to develop the exhibition as a book, with children particularly in mind. The exhibition too prioritises the child viewer: the light boxes are at a comfortable height for them, and the selection of images is inherently story-like, with or without the text.
You see just enough of Maximo for the rest to fall into place as the wild and wonderful world he encounters beyond the aviary. You see him finally able to sleep; you see him getting to know the wild birds around him, enough to have hope of his survival. Then you don’t see him again after the series of marvellous images of wild budgerigar migrations, vast flocks in the air or resting in trees. He has found his ‘people’.
Yet the story doesn’t end there. For the flocks will come back in another season and what will they find? By the last images, you will have realised that this is a pointed question, one for humans to answer.
This exhibition is presented as part of the Alice Desert Festival program. It is also part of a flurry of pop ups in the mall over the last few weeks, coinciding with the festival and Desert Mob. Some 70 to 90 people are coming through the door each day: many tourists, delighted to stumble across it, locals drawn by word of mouth. I’ve seen children entranced; adults moved to tears. I’ve heard a top-ranking scientist describe it as worthy of a national museum. It is an astonishing gift to the community, and a challenge at the same time. It sets the bar very high in the way we think about and present what this place we share with plants and animals has to offer, if only we stop to see. In some iteration it should find a permanent home, for it’s too important to forget.
It will show for at least another week in the former premises of Mall Medical, next to Talapi gallery. Oh, and don’t forget to look up!


  1. An absolutely wonderful exhibition, an insight into Central Australia, worthy of being exhibited in the national capital… can’t wait until the script is written and comes out as a wonderful bookfor kids and adults alike… well done Mike

  2. It was by chance a few days ago that I decided to walk through Todd Mall rather than across it as I usually do, and saw Mike Gillam standing outside the door of his brilliant and inspiring exhibition.
    I’d walked right past the former Mall Medical Centre the previous night and looked at the windows but, as it was all in darkness, had no idea of the transformation that had occurred inside.
    I’m delighted that some of Mike’s superb photography is on display like this, and my only regret is that it will be so for such a short time.
    Mike’s passion is a genuine treasure for our town and region.
    The arts, in one form or another, have long been inspired by the Centre’s landscapes, and in turn have played a primary role in ensuring the arid interior remains a significant part of our national consciousness. Mike’s work not only maintains this tradition, but advances it to a new level.
    I far prefer to see public money being spent to support ventures of this kind, that do something to show the real nature of Central Australia and reveal how precious our “wastelands” (as Australia’s interior has often been described in the past) truly are in their own right.
    Just fantastic!

  3. Astonishing exhibition, Mike. Congratulations. I haven’t witnessed such luminosity in an art exhibition in a very long time, anywhere. Your integrity of purpose and passion radiates throughout.

  4. Whenever I see a photograph from Central Australia that surprises me for its artistry, composition and natural beauty, I can be pretty sure it’s by Mike Gillam. And in this exhibition, there are just so many …

  5. Thanks Kieran for an excellent review of one of the most wonderful exhibitions I have ever seen. I never looked up, so will return tomorrow for another look.
    Question is: is there any way to make the exhibition permanent? It is an electrifying experience, and would become legendary amongst the grey nomadic herds and backpacker shoals.
    It is a landmark that could make the Mall a genuine destination for visitors.

  6. Thanks to Kieran for taking the time to review this exhibition and to those who posted comments, for their kind words. The exhibition has been extended for a further 6 weeks or so…depending on attendance numbers. Until further notice the space will be open two days each week, Tuesdays and Saturdays from 10 am to 7 pm. I’d like to acknowledge the generosity of the building’s owners whose support makes this possible.

  7. In the cool space of “Maximo of Mparntwe” I wander as if amongst friends – the birds and plants who “people” my backyard, Alice streets, our wider country.
    Mike’s luminous photos evoke diverse memories, facts to clarify, new biological insights and many grains of sensory delight.
    “Ah, there’s the precious golden puff of Callitris pollen I once saw in a reverie of grief.”
    “Was it a silk tent or communal bag in which he photographed those itchy grub caterpillar pupae?”
    “Where’s Maximo in that billowing fabric of birds?”
    “All those cute woodswallows huddled for warmth in a frosty morning.”
    Walking home, I pass the Office of Northern Development. I imagine its images of cleared parched ground, highrise buildings looking inward, corridors of bitumen and concrete, oil developments and more.
    The consequences of such “progress” typically kill and displace the animal and plant characters that Mike shares with us.
    I hold onto the hope offered in his images, Adrian’s soundscape of our lands, Maria’s partnership and those who wisely funded their exhibition.
    I will contribute to a crowd-fund so his books can inspire new generations.


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