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Five must-see NGA experiences

Emma Macdonald

Only head to the National Gallery of Australia when the latest blockbuster exhibition is on display? You’re missing out.

The National Gallery of Australia (NGA) is worth a visit any day—especially since it’s in our backyard.

Holding more than 150,000 works of art, the NGA is home to a mind-boggling collection of must-see works: from medieval to modern, photography to sculpture, and Eastern to Indigenous creations. And everything in between.

Here are seven works that you simply must see (and you can, any day of the week).


The Aboriginal Memorial. Raminginging Artists. 1978-79.

NGA Foyer

Providing a dramatic panorama within the gallery entrance, the installation of 200 hollow log coffins from Central Arnhem Land commemorates all the Indigenous people who have lost their lives defending their land since 1788.

A path meandering through the log coffins—which were designed specifically for the exhibit and were never used—imitates the course of the Glyde River estuary which flows through the Arafura Swamp to the sea. The logs are placed broadly in line with where the artists’ clans live along the river and tributaries.


ASH on me. Tony Albert. 2008.

Urban Gallery

A striking commentary on white Australia’s historic disdain for Indigenous culture, this piece shows a collection of op-shop ceramic and metal ashtrays which depict kitsch images of Indigenous people and culture. Albert’s pointed use of these objects crammed onto the word ASH emphasises their original intent—for cigarettes to be stubbed out on the faces of Indigenous men, women and children.

Together, they form a menacing symbol of racism. And while the images hark back several generations, the piece has contemporary relevance regarding the use and misuse of indigenous iconography today.


Bob. Chuck Close. 1970.

Level 2, International Gallery

Canberrans hold Bob in deep affection. Acquired by the NGA in 1975, Bob has watched over generations of visitors, fascinating people with his photorealistic features, sheer size at almost three by two metres, and slightly caught-off-guard expression.

It takes time to truly appreciate Bob, with esteemed American artist Chuck Close using black and white paint to blur the line between photography and painting.

The artwork is unmissable, and a favourite of visitors and staff alike—who often mutter the phrase “Turn left at Bob” when giving directions.


Ned Kelly. Sidney Nolen. 1946.

Level 1

Iconic images of Ned Kelly as depicted by renowned Australian painter Sidney Nolan are displayed to their full effect in a specially constructed oval space on Level 1 of the Gallery. The positioning notes the importance of the collection to Australia’s art history.

The collection was donated by Sunday Reed to the NGA in 1977. Somewhat controversially, the 27th painting, First-Class Marksman (1946) became the most expensive Australian painting ever sold when it was acquired for $5.4 million by the Art Gallery of NSW.

The NGA collection was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, shortly after Nolan’s death in 1992—cementing its position as one of the greatest sequences of 20th century art.

Nolan’s stylised depiction of the bushranger as a slotted black square helmet atop a horse has become an Australian icon.


Within without. James Turrell. 2010.

Australian Gardens

The only work of its kind in Australia, Within without is an experience not to be missed.

Both one of Turrell’s most complex Skyspaces and the largest in the southern hemisphere, the installation is prominently located in the Australian Gardens near the front entrance.

The light sequence triggers at dawn and dusk, with the Skyspace creating an immersive experience that uses space, shape and light to affect the perception of the sky. Entered via a long and sloping walkway, it opens to a large square-based pyramid, with red ochre walls. At the centre of the pyramid, a pool of turquoise water flows around a central chamber.

Take a seat on the bench around the edge and prepare to be moved.

This is an amended version of an article that appeared in Issue 3 of Little National Post.


Emma Macdonald

Emma Macdonald has been writing about Canberra and its people for more than 20 years, winning numerous awards for her journalism - including a Walkley or two - along the way. Canberra born and bred, she’s fiercely loyal to the city, tribally inner-north, and relieved the rest of the country is finally recognising Canberra’s cool and creative credentials. More about the Author

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