Elea becomes "Albert". Elea’s father Namatjirrtja becomes "Jonathan". And the name Namatjirrtja is in turn rendered, more simply, "Namatjira", supplying Albert with a surname — a convention Albert Namatjira adopted as his nation-wide fame as a watercolour artist was becoming established in the late 1930s.
These transformations are the subject of the vivid biographical theatre piece Namatjira, produced by Big hArt in collaboration with the Namatjira family. The production is part of a broader Big hArt project encompassing an exhibition of contemporary Western Arrente watercolour works that travels with the show; on-country painting trips; performance and leadership workshops; and creative collaborations between Big hArt and the Ntaria school.
Actor Trevor Jamieson becomes Elea and then Albert, who was born in 1902 and renamed by the Lutheran missionaries whose presence near the Ntaria water hole on the Finke River was first established in 1877. Western Arrente country is relatively fertile and was quickly overrun by pastoralists in the late 19th century. In the early years of the 20th century Western Arrente people increasingly sought shelter from violence and drought. Elea/Albert grew up between the mission’s boys’ dormitory and periods spent walking the country with his kin.
Jamieson is springy, warm and totally engaging. He moves lightly around the stage, in and out of various storytelling modes, between being himself, Albert and others, and captures Albert Namatjira’s own passage from childhood to ill-health and worn-down weariness.
The opening scenes of Namatjira are peppered with jokes. These are not the least bit snide but they mostly take as their object the expectations, sensitivities and investments in Aboriginal cultural difference that whitefella audiences bring to these kinds of events.
In parallel, scenes of Elea’s childhood unfold. These too have been written to diminish perceptions/expectations of otherness. For example, little Elea nags "Narna kala etinya-erraka?" as he walks his traditional country with his parents. This is translated as a familiar and insistent, "Are we there yet? Are we there yet?" And yet, through the production’s emphasis on the process of being renamed, we also see that "coming in" to the mission involved becoming someone else: the encounter with missionaries fundamentally ruptured and reorganised Western Arrente ways of understanding and being in the world.
The opening jokes are clever and effective. They pinpoint, laugh at and dispel preconceptions both romantic and politically correct. These jokes seem to clear the air, relax the audience and draw them close. Having done so, we are invited more deeply into a story that is, after all, the story of another person’s whole life.
Albert Namatjira married for love "wrong way" and had 10 children with his wife Rubena. In the 1930s Namatjira began to learn landscape painting from Rex Battarbee, who travelled to central Australia on a kind of spiritual quest seeking the "heart of the country". The production emphasises that Albert Namatjira was alert to the commercial value of the artworks he sought to produce, taking up painting as a way out of grinding poverty. Jamieson is both Albert and Rex, yet amazingly captures the exchange that took place between the two men. They were to become close friends.
Albert Namatjira’s talent and success as a landscape painter is legendary. As his fame grows, the creators of Namatjira rightly perceive that the story of this man’s life becomes a story as much about other people’s desires as his own.
After meeting the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II in 1954, Albert is invited to Sydney’s State Theatre where, on entering, he receives a two-minute long standing ovation. Jamieson asks, what was it that White Australians yearned for in the cities? "What was it about ourselves, that we saw as we stared through our little Namatjira windows?"
Albert Namatjira became an ambiguous symbol. For some he was evidence of the creative and intellectual potential of the "primitive". His family relied on him for money, and made increasing demands on him. Namatjira was granted full citizenship rights in 1957. In 1958 he was convicted of supplying liquor to an Aboriginal person and sentenced to two months in jail. He did not live long after his release.
His death became a poignant touchstone in the 1960s campaign for full citizenship rights leading up to the 1967 referendum. The case of Albert Namatjira and of actor Robert Tudawali, the star of Jedda who was living in a Darwin fringe, humanised the civil rights cause.
It was a pity that throughout the production, and especially towards its close, Namatjira’s relatives appear to the audience mostly as determined humbuggers. All the while two of his elderly descendents sketch on stage. These dignified ladies, Lenie Namatjira and Gloria Pannka, have work included in the beautiful exhibition that tours with the show. I would have liked the family portrayed in the production to link up better with the family we see through these art works.
Namatjira is richly hued, bringing to life Albert Namatjira’s story and so much more. Actor Derik Lynch threatens to steal the show every time he appears. But it was Jamieson and Lynch’s sweet, sweet harmonies that totally reached my heart.
Namatjira tours nationally from now until May. Tour dates and locations are listed here.
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