Above: Hetti Perkins in front of Albert Namatjira’s house at Hermannsburg (Ntaria). Photo courtesy Hibiscus Films.
Restoring copyright to Albert Namatjira’s descendants is a matter of justice being pursued by the Namatjira Legacy Trust. But the equity issues are broader and go to a proper reflection of the great artist’s relevance in art history and the contemporary art world, including recognition and support for the artists painting in his tradition. So says Hetti Perkins, curator and writer, who on Friday will launch the Namatjira Legacy Trust at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. Ms Perkins has also been appointed to head up, together with Philip Watkins, the steering committee for the proposed national Indigenous gallery in Alice Springs. She speaks about both subjects with KIERAN FINNANE.
Because of the copyright issues around reproduction of Albert Namatjira’s work, most of the images we see in reproduction today are photographs of him. This, along with an emphasis on the many injustices and frustrations he suffered, has served to “almost trap him in the past”, says Hetti Perkins.
The injustices can be acknowledged but at the same time he had “a remarkable life”, during which he achieved national acclaim for his talent. That remains in evidence in the “incredibly beautiful” paintings themselves, she says. Indeed, Namatjira together with the “late great Kngwarreye” are among Australia’s most recognised artists.
Despite this, his work suffered from misinterpretation in some quarters, says Ms Perkins: it was seen as a product of the assimilation era. This was not the case: the artist was painting “his country, sites of significance to him” as do his descendants and countrymen of the Hermannsburg Watercolour School.
The creation of the trust – by the Namatjira family and arts for social change company Big hART – will breathe new life into this legacy, in a sense writing another chapter or epilogue to Albert’s own life. The return of copyright to his descendants, who will be represented in Canberra by Lenie Namatjira and Gloria Pannka (at right), is a very fitting part of this. Most people Ms Perkins speaks to are shocked to find that the family does not own copyright, their residual share of it having been sold in 1983 by the Public Trustee to Legend Press, which at present retains full copyright until 2029. (Big hArt says national wholesale earnings of Albert’s work to June 2012, totalled over $10m.)
Ms Perkins is optimistic that the work of the trust towards setting right this wrong will receive strong support, but even this issue needs to be put in perspective. It tends to overshadow the way that Albert was “entrepreneurial about his art”, taking up the opportunities that came his way and achieving fame and acknowledgement in his lifetime, all the way to the top, meeting with Queen Elizabeth in 1954.
She above all hopes to see the trust benefit the entire movement, lifting the recognition of the contemporary Hermannsburg Watercolour artists and providing them with greater professional opportunities.
In many ways these aspirations mesh in with those for the proposed national Indigenous art gallery in Alice Springs – “a wonderful initiative, long overdue”, celebrating Indigenous art “past and present”, but with a strong emphasis on the contemporary, says Ms Perkins.
On the question of it being representative of Indigenous art around the country, she says the major state-based galleries make claims of this scope, with their collections and presentations of “Australian” art. She also says the project needs to be considered in an international context: visitors from overseas, including prestigious collectors, find the absence of a dedicated Indigenous gallery “inexplicable”.
Its location in Alice Springs puts it in “the heart of Australia”, with all the symbolic resonance of that term, and recognises “the incredible art movements” that have come out of this region.
What model will be developed “remains to be seen” and she welcomes moving forward “in tandem” with the Nganampa Anwernekenhe cultural centre proposal.
The gallery would work well, she expects, in partnership with existing public institutions, such as the National Gallery of Australia and the National Gallery of Victoria, which have “marvellous collections, only a small percentage of which is seen by the public at any one time”.
But there is potentially broader scope for a gallery with a dedicated Indigenous focus, as a place where Indigenous people, including artists, can feel safe, welcome and celebrate their culture, where there will be paintings on walls, of course, but also performance and all sorts of cultural activities.
“It’s about building a legacy for our children, not just Aboriginal children, but all Australian children,” says Ms Perkins, as the gallery will be a place for preserving and presenting “Australia’s artistic heritage”.
She has no doubt that the gallery will need “a landmark building” as its home, to “match the excellence of the work”. It should become “a destination in itself”.
Moving forward quickly does not necessarily mean that the project will be rushed:
“I don’t think we should wait too long. A lot of great ideas die on the vine, especially as a result of drawn out and expensive consultations.
“With the right information and expert advice, the Aboriginal community should grasp the opportunities and move forward with them.”
This said, local support will be “pivotal” to the success of the project and Ms Perkins feels privileged to work towards garnering it, as well as broader national and international support.