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THE heirs of Australia’s most famous Aboriginal artist, Albert Namatjira, are approaching the future with a good sense of humour.
During a visit to Canberra to sign the deeds setting in motion the new Namatjira Legacy Trust, three Namatjira family members and prominent artists from the Hermannsburg (Ntaria) community, 120 kilometres west of Alice Springs, found time to sit down at Tilley’s for a cuppa and a good laugh.
On hand were artist-trustees Lenie Namatjira and Gloria Pannka, both granddaughters of Albert, celebrated Hermannsburg Potter Clara Inkamala, the great-niece of Albert’s sister, with trustee Sophia Marinos from the social change arts company Big hART and Ellé Misios, the relatively new director of the Iltja Ntjarra Many Hands Art Centre.
Lenie joked about her audience with the Queen in London during 2013, and her surprise at the diminutive size of the monarch – Lenie is tall. She was shown a Namatjira painting presented to the Queen in 1954 by Prime Minister Robert Menzies and discussed a painting by Lenie’s own father, Oscar, owned by the Royals.
But her very favourite moment was when actor and drag artist Derek Lynch, who played the Queen in Big hART director Scott Rankin’s production of the play “Namatjira”, was greeted by Her Majesty. “The Queen shaking hands with the Queen,” is how she described it.
Albert Namatjira was, as most Australians of a certain age know, the first Aboriginal person to be granted citizenship and a household name throughout the country, where countless reproductions of his delicately coloured watercolours abounded.
But in a curious administrative bungle, or perhaps something much worse, the many descendants of the artist have received nothing in royalties from his work since 1983, when the Public Trustee sold off the Namatjira rights to a private company for a mere $8000. In 2012 alone, the national wholesale earnings for his works was more than $10 million.
The new trust, spearheaded by Big hART, is aimed firmly towards a future in which the heirs can live and produce art untroubled by the problems of illness, schooling, housing and day-to-day living.
The Namatjira family ladies haven’t allowed these problems to keep them back. Clara, the youngest, was a well-known broadcaster with Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association Radio for 20 years before turning to art, first to the brilliantly painted terracotta pots for which she is famous and now, under the tutelage of more senior artists such as Gloria and Lenie, to the watercolour landscapes she now paints at Many Hands.
Gloria, the daughter of original Hermannsburg School painter Claude Pannka, was suffering from laryngitis brought on by too many media appearances and the coolness of Canberra – but as the chief spokesperson for the ladies, asserted that all three artists strictly adhered to the great Hermannsburg watercolour tradition of the more senior artists.
Not entirely true, Ellé Misios cut in, they all have different styles – Gloria’s style is soft, a composition is full of detail whereas Lenie’s art is more expansive, as if she’s sitting on high looking down on the landscape, and Clara’s painting, just like her work on the pots, is brighter and more opaque.
“People told me that this old man was my father’s father,” Gloria says of Albert. “I saw him with my own eyes when I was about age eight.”
She was also told how her grandfather developed his technique in the 1930s under the eye of Melbourne painter Rex Battarbee, who taught him how to mix the watercolours.
Nowadays Gloria and Lenie are passing on “the tradition of Namatjira” to younger generations, sometimes with the help of art teachers from Adelaide.
Ellé says the Namatjira family artists are enormously prolific, sometimes doing three paintings in one day, which must be stored properly. Framing is essential for watercolours too, often costing $200 each.
Individually, there’s only so much the ladies can do. Lenie talks of a beautiful art book called “Albert” she made to raise money for the kids in their community – now it’s almost impossible to find.
Sophia says the chief aim of the trust will be to restore justice by returning the copyright to Namatjira’s descendants.
“The trust is not just about copyright, but about future generations… it’s about allowing the Namatjira family to continue to exist and to paint on country,” she says.
The Namatjira Legacy Trust is a charitable trust with deductible gift recipient status. To donate and find out more visit Namatjiratrust.org