Watercolour landscape artist Albert Namatjira (1902 – 1959) leant how to paint under the tutelage of white Australian Rex Battarbee, who exhibited paintings at the Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission where Namatjira was born and raised. Namatjira’s paintings raised in value from being essentially worthless, to commanding hundreds of guineas; his work was famous globally; he became the major support for over 600 family members; he was the first Indigenous Australian to be granted citizenship – so he could be taxed on his income, but he was still refused the vote.
The story of his life is brought to the stage by Big hART, a Tasmanian based company which works in art and social change. Their work is predicated on embedding themselves into communities, to work with people on the issues that face their lives, to create art, share stories, and leave a lasting impact.
Starting performances with Company B (now Belvoir) in 2010 and now on a national tour, the work was developed with the permission and discussions with Namatjira’s decedents, and is part of a broader project which encompasses a watercolour exhibition, community development in the Western Aranda communities, and workshops in Central Australian schools in digital literacy and filmmaking, to just touch on a few aspects of the project. More can be discovered on the show’s website.
After seeing the work, the remarkable thing about the play, and the thing I feel least equipped to write about is how Scott Rankin’s script and Trevor Jamieson’s easy delivery in the lead performance tell Namatjira’s story with an air of easy irreverence. I say “an air” because the work isn’t actually irreverent at all, it tells a story with some very sombre moments with respect; and yet the work is embedded with a light heart, a joy in its step, and is proud to carry the glint of a tear and sadness in its eye.