Pambula art activist fighting to restore Namatjira legacy

Pambula's Bettina Richter (second from the left) with Namatjira team and family at Melbourne International Film Festival
Pambula’s Bettina Richter (second from the left) with Namatjira team and family at Melbourne International Film Festival

Momentum has been building in recent months around a film called the ‘Namatjira Project‘.

ABC Radio National and the countries big newspapers have been detailing the story behind the film on an almost weekly basis.

A South East local has been one of those with her hands on the lever driving the campaign.

It’s a captivating tale involving one of Australia’s most prized and intriguing artist  – Albert Namatjira.

Born and raised in the landscape of Central Australia around Hermannsburg near Alice Springs, Mr Namatjira is known for his ‘European style’ watercolour paintings of outback Australia, a fusion between his Aboriginal ancestry and ‘white man’s’ art.

Recognised by many as the father of contemporary Aboriginal art, his work sells at auction for tens of thousands of dollars.

The film, which is released today (September 7) tells the story of his legacy – a legacy that alludes his family and his community to their detriment.

Pambula’s Bettina Richter works for Big hART, who, along with the Namatjira family are producers of the Namatjira Project. Her work has been central to the notoriety this campaign has been receiving – and it’s only just beginning.

I asked Bettina about her work and the Namatjira Project over a series of emails…

What is Big hART?

Big hART is Australia’ leading arts and social change organisation. We tell Australia’s invisible stories, with the premise ‘it’s harder to hurt someone if you know their story’.

Big hART was founded 25 years ago in Burnie in North West Tasmania and has now worked in over 50 communities across Australia, winning over 45 awards.

The Big hART team currently work in the Pilbara WA, NW Tasmania, Cooma, Northern Territory, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Pambula (me!).

Tell us about your job and what you like about it?

I am the Media and Communications Manager of Big hART and am responsible for managing all our media coverage and overseeing our social media channels, basically communicating Big hART to the world.

I am relatively new to Big hART and have only been working with them for 1 year.

I love my job for many reasons – I feel like I’m involved in something that is creating real change – using the arts as a tool, inspiring others to be change makers and working on exemplary, innovative projects which are like no other.

I’m part of an inspiring team – my colleagues are dedicated and extremely talented and passionate about their work, and for me, it’s also really satisfying to go back to my roots – working in theatre and the arts, and using it as a mobiliser.

What is the Namatjira Project?

Namatjira Project is Big hART‘s initiative with Albert Namatjira’s family, it’s aim is to restore justice and ensure the survival of Albert Namatjira’s legacy.

The project has created an internationally acclaimed theatre show, countless exhibitions of Hermannsburg artists, a foundation (The Namatjira Legacy Trust), and now the film is about to be released nationally in cinemas around the country.

The film (released 7 Sept nationally) follows the Namatjira’s family’s fight for copyright justice, from Aranda Country to Buckingham Palace.

The Trust’s aim is to support outreach and inter-generational knowledge transfer through art workshops as well as restore the copyright back to the family.

Why is this important, why did Big hART pick it up?

We were invited by the Namatjira family to work with the Hermannsburg community over 8 years ago.

The family and community who held the legacy to Australia’s most famous Indigenous artist were struggling to survive, and the art movement he created was under threat.

Albert Namatjira’s family lost the copyright to his work in 1983 when the Northern Territory government unwittingly sold it to a white private art dealer for just $8500.

In Albert’s lifetime, he supported over 600 members of his family through his work. These days Albert’s family and community struggle to survive in Ntaria (Hermannsburg) – 54% live in overcrowded conditions, 56% subsist on income support and 11% will be displaced and admitted to hospital with chronic illness caused by poor environmental health, and students achieve below the national minimum standard in literacy and numeracy.

Now due to the US Free Trade Agreement, unless something changes, the copyright will not expire till 2029.

With the Namatjira Project and the film, we hope to ensure justice and future sustainability to Albert Namatjira’s family and community.

Namatjira Project, film poster. The film is released nationally on September 7
Namatjira Project, film poster. The film is released nationally on September 7

What has been your role in the Project?

My main role has been running the media campaign and capturing as much national media coverage as possible.

Building significant media relationships is integral, and there is a lot of strategy involved in how I pitch to media and what our messaging is. It’s also important to be across the Namatjira family’s needs and cultural issues and conveying that appropriately to the media.

In the last 6 months alone, the Namatjira Project has generated close to 100 stories in the media – TV, print, radio and online.

What does it feel like to be a part of such a campaign?

I feel deeply honoured to be part of the campaign and to be able to assist with getting their story out there in the national debate.

There is a genuine sense of awareness building across Australia, of public concern and outrage of the injustices the family and Albert Namatjira have faced.

It’s extremely exciting to feel that we may actually be close to generating real change for the community.

Where is Big hART hoping this attention might lead?

Big hART hopes that we may assist in returning the copyright to the family, and ultimately ensure the future sustainability of the family, community, and the Hermannsburg Watercolour Movement.

Any signs that the work of Big hART with the Namatjira Project is making a difference? Where to from here?

Unfortunately, since the launch of the Namatjira Legacy Trust, the copyright owners, Legend Press, have remained silent. However, now with the immense public and media interest, we now have a high profile legal team engaged who are building a case. Watch this space!

Have you met any of the Namatjira family? What are they like?

As part of organising media interviews, my work also involves looking after and chaperoning people into media interviews.

I have been lucky enough to have met 3 of Albert’s senior grand-daughters – Lenie Namatjira, Gloria Pannka and Lewina Namatjira.

Lenie was not in great shape health-wise when I met her at the Namatjira Trust Launch at the National Museum in Canberra, and I wheeled her around in a wheelchair at the museum for most of the morning.

Whilst English is her second language, she has a wicked sense of humour and enjoys telling people her stories of meeting the Queen. Lenie also follows her family in the watercolour tradition.

Gloria is a very smart woman, very considered and also artistic. She is an esteemed artist in her own right, with work in the collections of many of our national galleries.

Lewina is the youngest grand-daughter of Albert and spoke for the first time in the national debate as part of the film’s launch at Melbourne Film Festival.

Lewina is the new generation, passionate about her heritage and committed to getting the message out.

Albert Namatjira with wife Rubina, grandchildren and father Jonathon, image by Pastor S.O. Gross, courtesy of Strehlow Research Centre
Albert Namatjira with wife Rubina, grandchildren and father Jonathon, image by Pastor S.O. Gross, courtesy of Strehlow Research Centre

How can people here in your community support the project and Big hART more broadly?

If you live in the Narooma/Bermagui region, make sure you get along to watch Namatjira Project which is playing for a limited season at the Narooma Kinema from 7 September.

If you would like to host a local community screening in your town, at your local cinema or hall etc, community members and groups can host a screening through FanForce, go to

If you’d like to support the campaign of Namatjira Project, please consider donating to the Namatjira Trust, more info at

What has been the response of Legend Press so far? What has been their response to Big hART’s work?

Despite murmurings that Legend Press would consider options, there has been absolute silence from them since the launch of the Namatjira Legacy Trust.


*Thanks to About Regional members for empowering local stories, people and businesses like Shan Watts, Julia Stiles, Alexandra Mayers, Doug Reckord, and Tathra Beach House Appartments.

Fear and fluoride, bedfellows amidst conflicting “evidence”

The Tantawangalo water supply source at Six Mile Creek. Image Kate Burke
The Tantawangalo water supply source at Six Mile Creek. Image Kate Burke/Raisin

The potential fluoridation of the Tantawanglo-Kiah Water System (Candelo, Wolumla, Merimbula, Tura, Pambula, Eden, Kiah) and the Brogo – Bermagui Water System (Quaama, Cobargo, Brogo, Wallaga Lake, Bermagui) has divided the Bega Valley community.

With Bega Valley Shire Council’s decision on whether to fluoridate or not still pending, the way forward seems far from clear.

By the way, the Bega – Tathra Water System has been fluoridated since 1963.

The international anti-fluoride Fluoride Action Network (FAN) challenges the safety of fluoridation despite reassurances from peak health bodies such as the Australian Medical Association and the Australian Dental Association.

FAN cites a series of scientific studies that point to negative health effects related to fluoride. Yet the World Health Organisation cites fluoridation of water as, “the most effective public health measure for the prevention of dental decay.”

The ingredients of this debate are a potent mix of conflicting evidence, with added fear, and a rather large ethical grey area.

It’s murky and hard to navigate.

Yet if you can familiarise yourself with this tricky landscape, you can start to make sense of the different perspectives people have on this issue, and perhaps take some of the fear out of the equation.

It turns out that scientific studies, the foundation stones of public health debate, are not always as rock solid as they seem.

While the fluoride debate touches on personal choice, welfare, and economics; scientific studies are a central part of pro and anti-fluoride argument.

A body of studies has been cited by the Fluoride Action Network pointing to potential effects of fluoride such as reduced IQ in children, obesity, and even cancer.

The Australian Medical Association claims that there is no appreciable link between fluoridation and these side effects.

But with so much at stake, how do you navigate the conflicting “evidence” that we’re finding?

Where better to begin than Google Scholar?! Google’s search engine for published academic studies. What happens when you search for “fluoride and IQ”?

Looking through the studies that have linked fluoride to lower IQ in children, one thing stands out – most studies that popped up didn’t test for other factors that could affect IQ.

Many studies were from China, India, or Mongolia, and compared towns that fluoridated water supplies with those that didn’t.

However, they didn’t check for other differences between the towns – levels of poverty, nutrition, potential lead and arsenic poisoning, all of which can affect the IQ of children.

This is like blaming weight gain on exercise, without considering diet.

These studies simply don’t meet the criteria needed to inform sound decision-making, yet they are published online alongside studies of higher quality.

Twenty low-quality studies that link lower IQ and fluoride, alongside only one quality study that finds no link, can look like strength in numbers and cast the wrong impression.

Assessing evidence doesn’t work like that. It’s not like voting. One study is not necessarily worth the same as another.

The problem is that scientific investigations can be carried out and published (particularly online) by any scientist, from any organisation. Most are carried out with noble intentions, but even noble intentions can be fed by bias – if you’re passionate about a cause, or feel that you’ve found an important link, established scientific practices might fall by the wayside.

Glass of water. Source 1160264
A glass of water. Source 1160264

Dr Andrew Wakefield’s study linking autism with vaccination is a famous example.

Dr Wakefield and his colleagues felt that they’d found an important link after reviewing the cases of eight people who’d been diagnosed with autism within a month of receiving the Measles Mumps Rubella (MMR) vaccine.

The investigation was found to be riddled with problems; their medical assessments and analysis of results were described as incomplete and biased.

Much of the criticism of Dr Wakefield’s study suggested it ignored statistical significance.

Given that 50,000 children per month were vaccinated with MMR in England at the time, eight presentations of autism were not enough to establish a link.

Statistical significance is needed for a scientific result to have meaning. Where health is concerned, this usually means two things –  that a lot of people were tested and the results were strong enough to discount coincidence and other confounding factors, such as nutrition and lead in the IQ example.

Dr Wakefield’s study was discredited, and wide scale, high-quality studies were carried out that found no link between autism and vaccination.  But his study was already fuelling the fears of parents across the globe.

When something appears to threaten the health of children, it can achieve notoriety.

It’s important to carefully examine the information you are given or find yourself, but how do you sift through the jargon, the publications, the conflicting evidence?

Putting your fear aside, how do you know what and who to trust?

Dr Will Grant of the Australian National University’s Centre for the Public Awareness of Science says that it’s almost impossible for one person to do this alone.

“While I’d love to say that I have the capacity to truthfully assess the veracity and rigour of all research that’s available online, I simply don’t have that capacity.  In fact, no one does,” he says.

“Instead we’re all forced to use the decision-making heuristics we’ve always used, typically though not exclusively, trusting a variety of voices in our networks that know better.”

Dr Grant says that we rely on institutions to process this information for us.

“But if I’m a person who doesn’t trust these institutions – and the number of people who don’t trust the central institutions of society is growing globally – then I’m going to trust other things,” he says.

Kate Burke
Kate Burke

Other things might include organisations like FAN, who question the reliability of institutionalised knowledge.

The FAN website claims it, “develops and maintains the world’s most comprehensive online database on fluoride compounds.”

Despite making this claim, they don’t give you a comprehensive review of the quality of materials in their database.

The Australian Government’s National Medical Health Research Council (NHMRC), is a not-for-profit research organisation that draws on the expertise of people tied to the University of Melbourne, Royal North Shore Hospital, The Cancer Council, Alfred Hospital, and Monash University, among other organisations.

The NHMRC has released a Health Effects of Fluoridation Evidence Evaluation Report through its Clinical Trials Centre at the University of Sydney which provides an analysis of fluoride research from the last decade.

It’s worth a read for two reasons.

Firstly, it assesses the quality of studies looking into the effects of fluoridation on dental caries (decay) and other symptoms from 2006-2015, and walks through them bit by bit, weighing up their value without apparent bias.

Secondly, its conclusions reflect the “greyness” of this debate. The NHMRC says the evidence appears to indicate that Australian water fluoridation standards are safe, while also suggesting there are gaps in the research.

The recommended level of fluoridation is shown to give a 35% reduction in dental caries. This is a significant number, as it means that more than a third of dental decay can be prevented by adding fluoride to a water supply.

This has knock-on effects for the rest of a person’s health and reduces financial pressure on individuals and the economy by cutting down on visits to the dentist.

The report also shows that recommended fluoride levels can increase the incidence of tooth discolouration due to fluorosis (a chronic condition caused by excessive intake of fluoride compounds, seen as mottling of the teeth) by around 12%.

Healthy teeth, Source Pixabay
Healthy teeth, Source Pixabay

The NHRMC document also gives many of the scientific reports presented in this debate a confidence grading.

The low overall confidence grading of the reports that raise concerns about cancer and IQ perhaps take some fear out of the equation, as the ratings are low enough to discount many of the studies altogether.

The presence of studies of higher quality (ie more thorough and more reliable) have tipped the balance of evidence away from such matters of concern.

However, if the NHRMC also suggests there are gaps in the research, why can’t we just test for the negative health effects that fuel much of the fear in a robust credible way?

In Australia, people are exposed to fluoride in a number of ways, including in toothpaste and tea, and it naturally occurs in the environment around us. This means that a person’s previous exposure to fluoride is very difficult to determine. To find a bunch of people who have never been exposed to fluoride as a control group, and then to test the effects of drinking fluoridated water on them, is extremely challenging.

And as the studies linking fluoride and IQ in China, India, and  Mongolia show us, these studies are problematic because there are so many other factors that can contribute to influence a person’s health.

Finding the fluoride link is not easy.

The NHMRC review gives us an indication of which way the evidence is swinging – and it’s telling us that fluoridation of our water supply will give us healthier teeth and that the only side effect of significant concern is discolouration caused by fluorosis.

It also tells us that other side effects are most likely not going to happen at Australian levels of fluoridation.

Our personal views on fluoridation are important and varied and can’t be discounted.

But it is important that we are able to critically assess the information that is given to us.  If we can’t do this on our own, we can at least have a look at how others have reviewed it and make sure that we’re satisfied with how they’ve done it, which perhaps takes some of the fear out of the equation.


*Kate Burke is completing her Masters in Science Communication through the Australian National University

*Above is an edited article that originally appeared on Raisin – stories of regional science and innovation

*Ian Campbell founder of About Regional is part-time media officer for Bega Valley Shire Council

About Regional, podcast 13 – Reusable water bottles for every high school student

Peter Hannan and Kerryn Wood from the Sapphire Coast Marine Discovery Centre, present water bottles to students of Lumen Christi Catholic Collage at Pambula.
Philanthropist Peter Hannan and Kerryn Wood from the Sapphire Coast Marine Discovery Centre, present water bottles to students of Lumen Christi Catholic College at Pambula.

This week, one man takes on the garbage building in our oceans…

Every high school student in the Bega Valley will soon have a reusable drink bottle, cutting the need for single use, light weight, disposable plastic water bottles.

Over the last couple of months’ students at Eden Marine High School, and Lumen Christi Catholic College at Pambula have received a stainless steel drink bottle to refill at school taps and bubblers.

Kids at Bega High School got there’s today (May 16), and Sapphire Coast Anglican College down the road will soon have theirs.

This marine environment initiative comes from Bega Valley philanthropist Peter Hannan.

As someone who loves the ocean, Peter says he felt compelled to act after hearing of the impact plastics are having on the world.

Got yours yet? Featuring the logo of the Sapphire Coast Marine Discovery Centre.
Got yours yet? Featuring the logo of the Sapphire Coast Marine Discovery Centre.

Following last year’s Marine Science Forum, hosted by the Sapphire Coast Marine Discovery Centre, Peter made a pledge to buy 2500 reusable bottles and distribute them to year 7 to 12 students across the Shire.

Peter comes from a family of community action, his late mother Shirley, established a trust before she died to fund a national portrait prize that is held every two years, which has since grown to incorporate a youth prize in the alternate year.

See below for audio options to learn more.

My partners in this podcast are Jen, Arthur and Jake at Light to Light Camps in Eden –  offering fully-supported hikes along Australia’s most spectacular coastline, it’s wilderness done comfortably.

Thanks for tuning in, your feedback, story ideas, and advertising inquiries are really welcome, send your email to

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