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Vibrant life beyond the crib in Conder

Date

Ian Warden

Gang-gang

Ray Barbara at his Conder home makes adjustments to his Maltese Nativity Scene.

Ray Barbara at his Conder home makes adjustments to his Maltese Nativity Scene. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

O little town of Bethlehem how busily we see thee lie in the version of you built by Rose and Raymond Barbara, of Conder.

The little town of Bethlehem of the great carol lies ''still'' but the Barbaras' model is a kind of bustling, bucolic market town, teeming with people, camels, sheep, goats and chickens.

''But no dinosaurs!'' Rose Barbara laughed, for the Gospels make no mention of them lumbering about the Holy Land at the time of our Redeemer's birth.

'Cafe- Angry Birds Table'  <i>Painting by Michael Ashley</i>

'Cafe- Angry Birds Table' Painting by Michael Ashley

Ray Barbara has built, with some help from his wife, a Presepju nativity scene. The couple are from intensely religious Malta where there is a continuing tradition of festooning the home with elaborate nativity scenes like these. One of the things that makes them so very elaborate, she says, is that ''once you start you can't stop'' and go on adding more of everything except dinosaurs.

There will be thousands of nativity scenes displayed in Canberra this Christmas but most will show only the crucial stable and will have only a small human and animal cast of about 10 (Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the Three Wise Men, perhaps a brace of angels and then an ox and an ass).

But the Barbaras' nativity scene offers us the whole of Bethlehem and a cast of villagers and critters so big and so complex that the manger and its famous principals actually takes quite some finding. Meanwhile, quite some way away on a hill, in one of Bethlehem's suburbs, (a kind of upper Bethlehem or Bethlehem Heights), the Three Wise Men, yet to descend into the town, have set up their regal pavilions and are encamped for the moment.

Ray Barbara makes adjustments to his Maltese Nativity Scene. Click for more photos

Maltese Nativity Scene

Maltese Nativity Scene made by Rose and Ray Barbara at their Conder home. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

''There's the star,'' Rose indicated, pointing to the star, dangling low above Bethlehem, that has enabled the Wise Men's successful navigations. The detail is extraordinary. This Bethlehem is a hilly place with lots of precipitous steps, down one flight of which a band of musicians is approaching the stable. There are lots of Maltese touches including the miscellany of goats and then roofs on which golden pumpkins (made by Rose from plasticine) have been put to dry in the sun. Jesus (''He shouldn't really be there yet! Not till the 25th!'' Rose chortled) has, when you look closely, lots of golden hair as if there's something Nordic or better still Scottish in his genes.

Almost all of the little human figures in the display are from Malta. Most were acquired and brought here long ago (Rose came here from Malta when she was 16 and Ray came here when he was 10, in 1949) but they brought some more back from a recent visit to Malta. And so the population of this Conder Bethlehem continues to grow.

The Barbaras (Ray, 74, is a retired tradesman) lived in Royalla and have only been in Conder for a year. Just as the Three Wise Men of their nativity scene are ensconced at Bethlehem Heights the Barbaras' home is terrifically high up in Conder with, to the mountainous south one of the most gasp-making views imaginable.

And so, now up in this eyrie in Conder, Ray Barbara has, literally, come up in the world, because he reminisces that when his family of seven kids (one of them him) and his mum and dad first arrived here in 1949 they lived for months in a tent down beside the river in Queanbeyan.

Ashley's art brings a shot of humanity

Jew(ish) Canberra artist Michael Ashley is that creature dear to Gang-Gang's heart, an artist who puts human Canberrans into his pictures of the capital. Most local painters and photographers continue to portray a Canberra as a kind of arbor-tyranny in which the pretty trees have taken over and have driven the unsightly humans out of town.

And so it's refreshing to find Canberrans in Ashley's people-rich series about Canberrans in and around coffee shops. He tells us that coffee places are ''where most Canberrans seem to congregate'', so that as part of his policy of portraying a peopled city - coffee-shop habitats have been a logical subject.

He's very conscious of defamed Canberra having a reputation of being ''a ballroom without a ball'' when in fact there are people everywhere here.

His Cafe - Angry Birds Table is of that cafe at the Botanic Gardens where the native birds are especially assertive and take your smoked salmon if your vigilance lapses.

You can Google the artist and his works at Michael Ashley's Art Gallery.

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