The 50th anniversary of Albert Namatjira’s death last year didn’t get great play around Australia as his art is still coloured by confusion over its white origins and the patronising treatment that the artist received in his life. He was A black man we can be proud of, when the rest of his race were invisible. Ironically enough, it was a sentiment reiterated about the great Cathy Freeman during the 10th anniversary celebrations of the Olympics.
So we ain’t come very far in 50 years. But the guys at Big hART are planning a bit of an education for us all via the play Namatjira which premieres at the Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney on 30th September, playing until 7th November, and then touring nationally for at least 18 months. Wherever it goes, the art that Namatjira inspired in his sons and grandchildren goes with it. Birrung Gallery will show (and sell) the art of descendants like Lenie and Kevin Namatjira, Elton Wirri, Hubert Pareroultja and Gloria Pannka in Sydney; other galleries elsewhere.
Will it look more or less like Albert’s paradigm? For, as in the patriarch’s day, part of the Big hART project has been to take the artists back on-country to paint. Albert did it by camel with Rex Battarbee, but nowadays it requires a shiny new Toyota! Has that plein air experience sharpened up what had become an art of memory?
There’s also the art of Hermannsberg (via the Ngurratjuta Art Centre in Alice Springs) on-stage every night as well “ as Kevin Namatjira and Elton Wirri collaborate over a wall-sized drawing that will bring back our memories of an image of an ’emptiness’ that clearly didn’t daunt Albert as it daunted white Australia, for it clearly had spiritual and social meaning for him. As a result, it sat comfortably on thousands of white suburban walls in the 1950s.
Never one to resist complexity, writer/director Scott Rankin has also thrown white portrait artist Robert Hannaford into the mix “ capturing lead actor Trevor Jamieson almost as William Dargie pinned-down the Black man we could be proud of for the Archibald Prize. The music, too, is white “ evocatively offered by the recorder virtuosa, Genevieve Lacey in intentional counterpoint to the male energy of this two-Black-handed show where, having just two actors play all the parts results in us sighting Pitjanjatjara man Trevor Jamieson (he of Ngapartji Ngapartji fame with Big hART) as the white, war-wounded Battarbee and young Derek Lynch (descended from Albert’s wife Ilkalita) as the Queen!
A lot of serious negotiation and trust-building with the wider Namatjira family has gone into this show over the past year. Ironically, says Rankin, some of their biggest concerns were for the Hermannsberg missionary family and for Battarbee. And we saw how much dignity there was in the exchange between Kevin and Battarbee’s daughter, Gail, which we were able to facilitate.
But it all started when Rankin and Jamieson first introduced the then-14 year old Elton Wirri into Ngapartji Ngapartji, and regularly heard indrawn breaths in the audience when the precocious kid’s on-stage painting was linked to his grandfather’s name. I immediately realised that there was a narrative in the name itself, commented Rankin. And though we always try to offer joyful set-pieces that give audiences a place of comfort and safety from some of our heavier stuff, the realities surrounding the Namatjira name have inevitably lead us into issues like the Intervention and government’s ignoral of the soul-destroying poverty that still surrounds the biggest employer in remote Australia “ the Aboriginal art centres of which they say they’re so proud.
Artist: Lenie Namatjira, Kevin Namatjira, Elton Wirri, Hubert Pareroultja, Gloria Pannka, Albert Namatjira, Robert Hannaford, Rex Battarbee, William Dargie, Douglas Kwarlple Abbott