Review: Namatjira Project

DVD: Namatjira Project (2017)

On seeing this latest release from Umbrella Entertainment, I assumed it was a documentary about a contemporary Australian artist I’d personally never heard of; Albert Namatjira. I very wrongly thought it would be a retrospective of his work, but instead I got a very hard hitting documentary more of less about the terrible treatment of this long dead artist and his family by the Australian Government.

Namatjira hailing from Hermannsburg near Alice Springs in Australia died in 1959, and is probably the most famous Aborigine artist who existed. He met Rex Battarbee, a white Australian artist in the 1930’s when Battarbee hired him to be his guide on a painting expedition into the Bush. He eventually showed him how to paint with watercolours and Rex discovered that the young aborigine had an extraordinary gift for landscapes. This is lightly touched on, along with a few film clips of the artist (no doubt there isn’t much film of him).
The film centres around an ongoing dispute between Namatjira’s family and the Australian Government and a play written and directed by Scott Rankin, in collaboration with the Aboriginal actor Trevor Jamieson, who plays the artist. This play is biographical (and also looks rather funny! Seeing one of the actors dressed as Queen Elizabeth prancing about made me laugh out loud) and alludes to aboriginal mystique, and sensibilities of the indigenous peoples. We follow it from premiere at the Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney, through a triumphant national tour and a performance in Britain, to coincide with a major exhibition of Australian art in London, ending with descendants of the artist meeting the Queen.

Amazingly I had no idea about this. Aborigines were wards of the state in Australia and essentially were not classed as Australian citizens. However, In 1957 the government gave the artist the HUGE honour of exempting Namatjira and his wife from the restrictive legislation that applied to Aborigines in the Northern Territory. This entitled them to vote, own land, build a house and buy alcohol. Although Albert and his wife Rubina were legally allowed to drink alcohol, his Aboriginal family and friends were not. The nomadic Arrernte culture expected him to share everything he owned, and at one point in the film someone mentions that in 1956 he was keeping 600 members of his extended family.

When an Aboriginal woman, Fay Iowa, was killed at Morris Soak, Namatjira was held responsible because he had brought alcohol into the camp. He was reprimanded at the coronial inquest. It was then against the law to supply alcohol to an Aboriginal person. Namatjira was charged with leaving a bottle of rum in a place (on a car seat), where a clan brother and fellow Hermannsburg artist Henoch Raberaba, could get access to it. He was sentenced to six months in prison for supplying an Aboriginal with liquor. He was released after only serving two months due to medical and humanitarian reasons. Despondent after his incarceration, Namatjira suffered a heart attack and died soon after from Pneumonia, a broken man.

Again this is lightly touched on, as the main story is about the lack of money that should be in Namatjira’s descendant’s hands. Two years before his death, part of Namatjira’s copyright was sold to a company in exchange for royalties. After his death, Albert Namatjira’s copyright was sold by the public trustee in 1983 for $8,500, despite Namatjira’s will leaving this copyright to his widow and children, and this is the core of the film: getting that copyright back. The filmmaker estimates that $10, 0000 has gone to the government from his revenue.

Now I know nothing of Australian history, and I must admit that this documentary is hard going, and I feel would be more accessible if they took out a little of the play rehearsals in favour of briefly telling this man’s story, and most importantly showing HIS art. There are glimpses, but they are all too brief. Or even an extra feature on the film; a small documentary giving an outline of his life, because THAT is the core of the story. This man was wronged by his government and (in my opinion) his family who leeched off him and ended up getting him put in prison.

We follow Namatjira’s relatives in London, and one, his grandson, paints and is quiet. His main contribution is that he has nowhere to live and what about the copyright? The copyright? The copyright? And who can blame them? Shat on for years, not even seen as people, why shouldn’t they get their ten million?

This is a very ‘reverent’ documentary that could have been much more if the filmmaker had included details for those of us who don’t know the artist.

Thankfully the copyright was returned to the family’s Albert Namatjira Trust in an October 2017 in a deal enabled by a donation by philanthropist Dick Smith, in the name of art dealer John Brackenreg, who was seen as having acquired the rights to Namatjira’s art in 1957 in an ‘act of exploitation’. So hopefully his family are now at peace with their legacy.

Review by Tina (co-host of 60 Minutes With) from a disc kindly supplied by Umbrella Entertainment.