11 September 2019

Pambula art activist fighting to restore Namatjira legacy

| Ian Campbell
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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 www.namatjiradocumentary.org

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

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.

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