Albert Namatjiri. Source: National Library of Australia

Steve Bunbadgee Hodder Watt: The legacy of Elea Namatjira

Steve Bunbadgee with Torres Strait Pigeon

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Steve Bunbadgee Hodder Watt is a Lardil man with English heritage who lived and worked in central Australia for 30 years.

To celebrate the 115th birthday of Albert (Elea) Namatjira, Google has published a doodle painted by his granddaughter, Gloria Pannka, but for all the acclaim that the Western Arrernte artist was showered with during his lifetime, Namatjira still found himself being regarded as less than the average white man.

Renowned as the most famous Aboriginal artist prior to the arrival and recent passing of Dr G Yunupingu, Namatjira’s death is was also surrounded with health and wellbeing issues that speak to the ongoing disparity between white and black Australia.

Albert Namatjiri. Source: National Library of Australia

Albert Namatjiri. Source: National Library of Australia

Elea (baptised Albert) Namatjira, was born in 1902 at Ntaria – later named Hermannsburg by the Lutheran missionaries– on the homelands of the Western Arrernte peoples in central Australia. Albert attended the Hermannsburg Mission school and, in accordance with common mission-time practices, he lived in a boys’ dormitory separated from his parents . When he was 18-years old he married a Kukitja woman, Ilkalita (later christened Rubina).

Associate Professor of Australian Indigenous Art at Charles Darwin University, Sylvia Kleinert, said Namatjira’s style resonated with his connection to country: “His paintings give the appearance of conventional European landscapes, but Namatjira painted with ‘country in mind’ and continually returned to sites imbued with ancestral associations. The repetition, detailed patterning and high horizons—so characteristic of his work—blended Aboriginal and European modes of depiction.”

Namatjira’s abilities garnered him much prominence even in his own day, and he was held up as an icon of Aboriginal assimilation.He was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation medal in 1953, presented to the Queen in Canberra in 1954, and elected an honorary member of the Royal Art Society of New South Wales in 1955. But with fame came controversy, and his successful career and privileged status as an Aboriginal man only highlighted the gap between the rhetoric and reality of assimilation policies.

Albert Namatjira and Keith Namatjira in front of the Buckingham's Department Store, Sydney. Source: National Library of Australia.

Albert Namatjira and Keith Namatjira in front of the Buckingham’s Department Store, Sydney. Source: National Library of Australia.

Namatjira still often encountered racial discrimination. He was refused a grazing licence in 1949-50 and was prevented in 1951 from building a house on land he bought at Alice Springs. By the early 1950s Albert lived independently off the mission in a fringe camp later known as Namatjira camp at Morris Soak on the outskirts of Alice Springs.

The citizenship granted to Namatjira in 1957 would’ve been just as much a curse as a perceived blessing. He was exempted from the restrictions imposed on other Aborigines, and could access alcohol legally which he would often share with members of his family. This led him to being charged in 1958 with supplying alcohol. He was subsequently sentenced to six months imprisonment with labour, later reduced to three months following a public outcry and two appeals and ended up serving two months of ‘open’ detention at the Papunya settlement.

In order to escape the restrictions of these state laws, people who were defined as Aboriginal had to apply for an exemption. Many referred to these laws as the ‘dog collar act’ or ‘the dog act’, as people felt they were being pushed and pulled as if they were a dog on a lead. Those who applied for exemption often lost credibility in the eyes of their friends and family. They were seen to be ingratiating themselves with the
white authorities who made unreasonable demands, such as refraining from socialising with their kin. Once exempted, a person was often no longer considered to be ‘an Aborigine’ – it was impossible to be both an Australian citizen and an Aboriginal person.

On 8 August 1959 at Alice Springs Hospital, Albert Namatjira died of hypertensive heart failure. In 1994 members of the Hermannsburg Potters, including his grand-daughter Elaine, acknowledged Namatjira’s legacy by producing a terracotta mural for the headstone of his grave at the old cemetery in Alice Springs.

Almost 15 years ago, the Namatjira family was still fighting to have a say over the copyright of their most famous family member. The then Democrats Aboriginal senator Aiden Ridgeway took up the fight for the family after the copyright was curiously sold in 1983.

Ridgeway told ABC’s 7:30 Report back in 2003, “The family still campaigns to have his copyright fully restored. The Namatjira family since ’83 haven’t had any legal say, nor have they been entitled to having a say on the cultural impact or economic returns that might accrue to the family in the community.”

So while Google gets to play along to its ‘Reconciliation Action Plan’ and we all get to patronisingly applaud the legacy of Australia’s first great Aboriginal visual artist, will we still remember how his family, his ‘countrymen’ and women –our Aboriginal brothers and sisters – are still subjected to race-based policies that overwhelmingly target Aboriginal people?

Will we see Namatjira’ family, and the families of other recognised and revered Indigenous artists, awarded fair recompense for their legacy, or will we see them too left in the shadows. Will the unspoken legacy played out in the policies and attitudes reflecting the ‘dog-tag’ days, where Australia’s First Nations peoples are continually denied full and equal citizens’ privileges, continue to be an indictment of Australia’s continuation of white supremacy?

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