Photograph by Susanta Banerjee
Photograph by Susanta Banerjee
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  The portrait  

  Vol IV : issue 4

  Cover page
  David Lelyveld
  Joginder Paul
  Antara Dev Sen
  Evald Flisar
  Amrita Pritam
Nirupama Rao
  Only in Print

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Evald Flisar

Oil on canvas by SUNIL DAS

Aborigines from the reservation would come to Alice Springs and hang about town. Every afternoon I could see them in front of the hotel, standing or sitting in groups, guzzling beer. They were jet-black, unshaven, dishevelled. They would lean against walls or crouch on pavements, looking dark and depressed. Some would stay in their battered vehicles, yawning, as if waiting for someone, or something. Small groups of women and half-naked children loitered in the nearby park.

One day I noticed an elderly black man leaning against the corner of a shoe shop, vacantly staring into space. Tucked under his arm was a voluminous portfolio case. He wore creased trousers and a faded blue jacket which might once have been part of a postmanís uniform. His head was covered with a traditional outback hat, ringed with corks hanging from strings.

He shifted his weight from one foot to another but did not change his posture, which was slowly slumping; now, he was leaning against the shop window not just with his shoulder, but with his head as well. His hat was raised off his forehead, the front rim up in the air, with the corks coming to rest on his nose and eyes.

I felt that, through narrow gaps between his eyelids, he was watching me with as much caution as I watched him. A disturbing tension emanated from his slouching posture. Suddenly, he looked down at his feet, which were strapped into worn sandals; his toes began to wiggle up and down as though he were using them to play an invisible piano. All his energy seemed to be pouring down to his toes and through his feet into the pavement. He was like a lightning-rod, transferring into the earth a destructive surplus of his own tension.

Then, pressed against the smooth window-pane, his body limply slid to the ground, where he remained in a crouching position, still leaning. He put his portfolio case on his bent knees. He yawned and looked down the street. He aimed his eyes past my head as if interested in the top of the tree behind me. A lady with a tiny dog on a leash came walking past. The little ball of untidy fur came to a stop. The dog was attracted by the old manís restless toes, he wanted to sniff them. But the lady pulled on the leash and forced the reluctant animal to follow her. The Aborigine stared after them as though he were being left behind by two old friends.

Then a bus came to a halt between the old man and me, hiding him from view. Some people alighted. When the bus departed I saw that in the meantime, the old man had been joined by a little boy of very dark complexion, but with a bush of reddish hair. Australian Aborigines are the only race with this unusual feature; the hair of some of them, especially children, is so light that it is almost white. The boy was sitting next to the old man in such a relaxed manner that they must have known each other; perhaps they were father and son, or son and grandfather.

Without exchanging a word, they stared towards me across the little square that separated us. But there was no proof that I was the object of their attention; I was merely part of the mosaic composed of cars behind me, people on the pavement, windows, doors, trees and bushes.

After a while the boy nonchalantly rose to his feet and sauntered across the square towards me. I was convinced that his direction had nothing to do with me; he was merely crossing the square, probably trying to reach the grocery shop behind me. I was wrong. He stopped before me and grinned. When he saw my friendly smile he sat down next to me on the bench, pressed his hands between his bare knees and nervously jiggled his right leg.

Then he asked me if I was aware of the fact that the old man with the portfolio was a well-known Aborigine painter. No, I said, I didnít know that, but if he was all that well-known I must surely have heard of him; what was his name?

"Albert Namatjira," the boy spat out and looked at me sideways to see what impression the name had made on me. Albert Namatjira? Of course I had heard of him, and I had seen some of his paintings. The man was clearly a genius, probably quite an odd person as well, but wasnít he dead already?

"No, no, no," the boy shook his head. "He is alive. He would like to paint your portrait. He will go with you to his studio and show you what an artist he is."

I smiled; such a great painter would want to waste his time on any old foreigner who turned up in Alice Springs? Impossible.

"Youíre special," the boy said. "You have an unusual face."

"But I havenít got any money," I tried to get out of it. "Such a renowned painter must charge fees well beyond my means."

"Iíll ask him," he said and ran back across the square.

They talked. Once or twice the painter looked across the boyís head towards me, but without any indication that he found my face unusual; more likely, the boy was trying to convince him of that. The painter drew his feet under his knees and his toes resumed playing an invisible piano.

The boy crossed the square again and, with his hands in his pockets, paused before me. "His carís broken down," he said. "His studio is too far to walk to, but he is willing to paint your portrait here."

I looked around: there were people everywhere, standing in front of shops, entering shops, coming out, rushing in all directions, standing in groups, chatting. I would not want to pose in the middle of the square. In no time at all, we would be surrounded by a crowd of spectators. I would feel like an ape in the zoo.

p. 1 p. 2

Noted novelist and playwright, Evald Flisar is chairman of the Slovene Union of Writers.
He lives in Ljubljana