Elisabeth Knowles heads to the opening of the new wing at the National Gallery of Australia, and is blown away by the indigenous galleries… and Ned Kelly I haven’t been to Canberra in years, but on October 30 I dropped in on the opening of the new wing at the National Gallery and took the opportunity to remind myself that our nation’s capital is not as dull as many would have us believe.

The best thing about Canberra is its museums and galleries (and zoo). And the best thing about these “best things” is that their permanent exhibitions are free.

The NGA is a spectacular building, and its awe-inspiring new entrance leads up to gallery spaces that showcase the best of Australian and Torres Strait Islander art.

Alongside traditional bark and dot paintings, masks and funeral poles, you’ll find textiles, pottery, scultpure, landscapes from the Hermannsburg School, and an intense gallery of modern art.

This contemporary urban gallery is my favourite – it features artworks that are striking, colourful and edgy, and often politically charged, such as Fiona Foley’s HHH, an installation featuring a menacing clutch of life-size black-hooded Klu-Klux Klan-style figures, who seem to hover in mid-air.

There are photographs by Ricky Maynard, video art, an installation of a dingo family, and an intricate blue-and-white piece by Danie Mellor in the style of porcelain painting.

I was so besotted by the NGA that I went back to visit again the next day, and dropped in on Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series – 26 paintings in an oval room of their own, whose walls depict the rise and bloody fall of Australia’s favourite rascal. A paticularly touching enamel painting, Quilting the Armour, shows Margaret Kelly stitching material onto the inside of Ned Kelly’s metal headplate, to make it softer against his bushrangerly noggin.

A peaceful walk around the sculpture garden surprised me with a bunch of Rodin’s I never even knew lived here in Australia. They stand at the back of the gallery in solemn silence, tensing their metal muscles in grimaces of anguish or slumping their shoulders in solemn defeat. A modern counterpoint to this is “skyspace” artist James Turrell’s Within Without, a dome within a dome, where you can sit to contemplate an ever-changing disc of sky through a hole in its roof.

With a couple of hours still to kill, I walked across the way to the National Portrait Gallery on the shores of Lake Burleigh-Griffin. The faces that peer back at you from its walls document Australian history more succinctly than any history book. In a nice little display of synchronicty, there’s a portrait of Indonesian-born artist Dadang Christanto buried up to his neck, while back in the NGA’s sculpture garden, his piece Heads From The North features multiple bronze heads popping up out of a reedy pond.

Canberra’s galleries are world-class, and with the opening of the indigenous gallery, the town’s become even better overnight. You’d be mad not to check it out for yourself.