Downstairs is impressive. But the 11 rooms of indigenous art upstairs in the new wing of the National Gallery are astounding. They have no equal in Australia. The loot is breathtaking. They are the best reason in a long time to visit Canberra.

In the hoopla of the opening of this Howard-era project brought to fruition at last under Julia Gillard, there was nothing perfunctory about the homage paid to Aboriginal and Islander Australians. Their elders were there, running the show.

There were dances and songs. But more to the point, the work on the walls was under the silent scrutiny of the painters and sculptors and photographers brought down from the north, in from the desert and from the wilds of inner-city Sydney and Melbourne.

Perhaps to help the media they were wearing handy labels. Just in case a slight man in a grey overcoat keeping an eye on his barks went unrecognised he had around his neck a little sign: ARTIST, John Mawurndjul.

This new wing was hard won. Nearly a decade ago the first plans to extend the gallery were shot down in flames by the irascible designer of the original building, Col Madigan. At the next attempt, more than 30 meetings with Madigan failed to find a way for the new and the old to sit happily together.