Namatjira Project: Painful Histories & Difficult Futures

September 5, 2017
A new doco about Australia’s most famous Indigenous artist daringly crafts several crucial narratives into one powerful whole.

“This film acknowledges all the stuff of grand whitefella narratives: exoticism and genius and art, cultures clashing and connecting, unthinkable malice and the quest for justice, all threaded into one life,” says Sera Davies, director of Namatjira Project. “Albert’s story plays right to the heart of our preoccupation with telling a particular type of narrative; our making of an unlikely hero, our impossible demands upon them, our destruction of them when they fail to meet our expectations, and our saying sorry about it.”

The late Albert Namatjira – a Western Arrernte-speaking Indigenous painter from the MacDonnell Ranges in Central Australia who passed away in 1959 – is unquestionably Australia’s most famous Aboriginal artist. He singlehandedly and controversially changed the way that white Australia looks at Indigenous art, and his works now hang in galleries all around the world, with one even tucked away somewhere inside Buckingham Palace. But like so many high profile Indigenous Australians, Albert’s story is one of extraordinary success burnt through with sadness and tragedy.

The Albert Namatjira postage stamps.

While he was featured on a postage stamp, Namatjira was also mistreated by the government, and fell afoul of Aboriginal law too. The Namatjira Project – which includes exhibitions, workshops, a stage play, and a public campaign – was set up in an effort to raise funds to buy back the copyright to Namatjira’s work, and it’s the focus of Sera Davies’ sprawling but cogent eponymous documentary. “Namatjira Project challenges the singular monocular representation of Albert’s legacy and examines the enduring impact that this type of representation has for current generations of the Namatjira family,” says Sera Davies. “It’s our gaze through the single story that ultimately killed Albert and continues to present dire implications for contemporary inter-cultural relations.”

Davies’ doco is no mere track-through of the life of Albert Namatjira. Though we certainly get that – through interviews and historical footage – there is also a wider story at play here. The doco also takes in the staging of a play about the artist, which is largely the collaboration of writer/director, Scott Rankin (a major player in Big hArt, which began twenty years ago as an experiment in community dramaturgy and theatre, and has a rich history of telling vital Aboriginal stories in new and unusual ways), and his charismatic leading man, Trevor Jamieson.

A scene from the Namatjira stage play.

“The show is created in an art making space,” Rankin told journalist, Paul Andrew. “The performers are sometimes outnumbered by the visual artists… depending on how many artists we have with us from the Namatjira family. The beginning point for the 18-month creative development was to sit with these watercolour artists and paint with them. The silence and pace of the painting became quite important in creating the work. On to this bed of art-making we began building on the skills of the performers. The piece utilises a number of contrasts and languages. The recorder playing and composition of Genevieve Lacy – with its Western resonances. Trevor Jamieson’s fluid movement in storytelling. Aranda language in the singing overlaying the Germanic choir traditions. Comedy, high camp, monologue and movement sit within this ‘studio’ space. All of this is mediated through Trevor’s direct address and highly personal performance.”

It’s a bold and unconventional work, and the documentary offers a fascinating window into not just its creation, but also its premiere in London, where the glitz and glamour of that towering city’s theatre scene is thrown into graphic relief against the stark realities that Albert Namatjira faced throughout his life. “Like many Australians over the last fifty years, the art of Albert Namatjira seeped into my consciousness through tea towels, biscuit tin lids, place mats, prints and the occasional real painting in art galleries,” Rankin told Paul Andrews. “My first encounter with his family came when working on Big hART’s Ngapartji Ngapartji project and tour. One of Albert’s kin great-grandsons was making art on stage, and every night he was introduced at the end of the show as one of Albert’s kin grandsons. The audience reaction was so strong that we realized that this was a story that people really wanted to hear. From there, Big hART was introduced to his community and family, and a relationship sprang to life.”

Kevin Namatjira

And this is where the third narrative strand of Sera Davies’ documentary comes into play. Despite their iconic nature and essential connection to Australia’s art history, Namatjira’s paintings are currently tied up in a copyright bind that has long prevented the late artist’s relatives from seeing any of their considerable profits. The story of Albert Namatjira’s grandson, Kevin Namatjira – a stunning artist in his own right, but whose story comes with nearly as much pain and sadness as that of his grandfather – gives the doco a powerful contemporary resonance, showing clearly and with incisive sensitivity that what happened to Albert Namatjira was not something confined to the distant sway of history.

Namatjira Project is many things – a cinematic biography; an entertaining “behind the curtain” showbiz doco; a tale of slithering legal manoeuvring; a stylistically brave piece of documentary filmmaking; and the story of a man struggling under the weight of his family legacy – but most importantly, it could very well be the ignition source that lights a fire of discussion around one of this country’s most important artists, and what his life and death have to say about the fraught relationship between white and Indigenous Australia.

Namatjira Project is playing at the Adelaide Film Festival.

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