Namatjira Project

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The Namatjira Project is an Australian community cultural development project, launched in 2009, conducted by arts and social change company Big hART. It is based in the Indigenous (Aboriginal) communities of Hermannsburg (NT) and Alice Springs in the Northern Territory of Australia. Its focus is the life and work of the late Albert Namatjira, an Indigenous watercolour landscape artist. The project undertakes community work and has developed an award-winning touring theatre show, Namatjira, which depicts "the commercial appropriation of Aboriginal experience".

Namatjira (the project)[edit]

The Namatjira Project (2009-) is a community cultural development project conducted by arts and social change company Big hART in conjunction with the descendants of the late Australian Indigenous watercolour landscape artist Albert Namatjira. Based in the Aboriginal communities of Hermannsburg (NT) and Alice Springs, the project aims to strengthen intergenerational ties, to invigorate and preserve the legacy of Albert Namatjira’s style of painting[1] and to invite the general public to reflect on Namatjira’s story as a prism through which to explore Australia’s past, present and future in terms of intercultural social relations and national reconciliation with Indigenous people.[2] The project is structured around the two pillars of community work and a touring theatre show. To help strengthen sustainable income for the next generation of Namatjira artists, Big hART partners with Ngurratjuta Many Hands Art Centre (Alice Springs) to host exhibitions of contemporary Namatjira paintings alongside the performances.[3] The project also features a digital multimedia component, with an iPhone application developed to promote the Namatjira painting style,[4] film-based workshops with the Hermannsburg School, the development of a documentary and live webcasts generated by the community and streamed from Hermannsburg (NT) as part of an exchange between the Ntaria school and Wynyard High School in Tasmania.[5]


The main inspiration for the Namatjira Project was drawn from Big hART’s Ngapartji Ngapartji project. In this, Elton Wirri, kinship grandson of Albert Namatjira, was a cast member in the namesake theatre show, creating an extensive painting on the backdrop of the set.[6] The reaction of audience members to the name "Namatjira" and the potential of the story to engage with contemporary Australian social issues prompted writer Scott Rankin, actor Trevor Jamieson and creative producer Sophia Marinos to research the story further. This brought them into contact with the extended Western Aranda Namatjira family.[7] The project in its form and structure was then instigated with the consent of Namatjira family representatives[8] as a way to strengthen the passing on and sharing of culture and artistic family tradition as begun by Albert Namatjira and his watercolour and landscape painting style.[9]

As part of this large-scale, layered, long-term engagement with the Namatjira family and their famous ancestor’s legacy, the project runs painting and digital arts workshops in the isolated Hermannsburg community, organises intergenerational plein-air painting trips on country, works with the local choir and collaborates with family members to raise awareness of Albert’s story.[10][11] On the one hand, this is done by addressing issues surrounding the copyright of Namatijra’s work;[12] on the other hand, Big hART devised a professional theatre show on Albert’s life in close consultation and collaboration with the family.[13]

Theatre show[edit]

As theatre critic John McCallum writes, the stage production Namatjira tells “a story about the commercial appropriation of Aboriginal experience, told in a performance that is a reappropriation of Namatjira's story by his family and descendants, who have worked with Big hART, and the company's director and writer Scott Rankin, to reclaim it”.[14] In addition to help shape the story told, family members toured with the company throughout Australia as artists and performers, conducting watercolour painting workshops and creating large chalk drawings of their home country live on stage,[15][16] while two professional actors transition between various roles[17] to relate the story of their grandfather.

The play employs both Anglo- and Indigenous theatrical conventions by combining direct address monologues with re-enactment, musical interpretation, symbolism, the use of historical source material and tight choreography.[18] The play is infused with a musical score which alternates between wind and string instruments, gospel songs in Aranda and popular music to strengthen the emotive layer of the show.[19] To parallel the portraiture of Albert Namatjira through words and stage action and to underline the centrality of the visual arts metaphor as a frame for this story, a painter creates a portrait in oil of the leading actor while the show is being performed.

Plot synopsis[edit]

The two-act play[20] tells the life story of Albert Namatjira in linked, chronological vignettes with interspersed reflections commenting on contemporary Australian discourses.

Act One speaks of Namatjira's birth in the central Australian desert and his subsequent upbringing on the Lutheran mission of Hermannsburg (NT), his elopement with his wife Rubina and the struggle to feed his family. Cultural differences between the Aranda and the Christian missionaries are playfully touched upon in scenes of Albert's early years and eventually crystallise around concepts of art, culture and economy as Albert meets painter and crippled war veteran Rex Battarbee, whose biography is juxtaposingly woven into the presentation of Albert's story. As their friendship evolves from a teacher-student relationship to one of equal engagement and artistic exchange, questions are raised regarding the state of contemporary Australian social relations.[21]

Act Two relates Albert Namatjira's continued struggle for economic sustenance and his rise to fame as artist in Australia and internationally. The story of achievement and professional recognition is expressed through the infatuation of the White Australian arts world and high society (including the young Queen Elizabeth) with the persona, cultural background and art of Albert Namatjira and his financial benefits stemming from this elevated profile. This story, however, is counterbalanced with that of racism and exploitation which is presented as endemic to the entire Australian social fabric, be it in the form of taxation without equal rights, his framing as anthropological curiosity in the minds of his admirers or the humbugging by his extended family. Albert Namatjira is presented as caught between two conflicting systems of value which in the play ultimately lead to his demise - he is jailed for supplying liquor to fellow community members and dies a broken man shortly after his release.[22] The performance of the play concludes with a video of Namatjira's descendants talking about the project's beginnings, structure and benefits for the community.[23]


A Big hART production

Created with the Namatjira family

Written & Directed by Scott Rankin

With Trevor Jamieson & Derik Lynch

Composer: Genevieve Lacey

Set Designer: Genevieve Dugard

Lighting Designer: Nigel Levings

Costume Designer: Tess Schofield

Sound Designer: Jim Atkins

Creative Producer: Sophia Marinos

Associate Producer: Cecily Hardy

Community Producer: Shannon Huber

Also performed by: Genevieve Lacey, Nicole Forsythe and Rhia Parker (Musicians), Robert Hannaford, Evert Ploeg and Michael Peck (Portrait Artists), Kevin Namatjira, Lenie Namatjira, Gwenda Namatjira, Rosabelle Namatjira, Albert Namatjira Jnr, Gloria Pannka, Ivy Pareroultja, Peter Tjutjatja Taylor, Mervyn Rubuntja, Betty Wheeler, Marcus Wheeler, Elton Wirri, Hilary Wirri, Kevin Wirri, Douglas Kwarlple Abbott (Namatjira Family Artists)[24]

Production History[edit]

2010 Developmental showing: Araluen Centre, Alice Springs NT

2010 World Premiere: Belvoir Street Theatre (co-directed by Wayne Blair)[25]

2011 International Community Arts Festival, Rotterdam (Netherlands) - workshop version[26]

2011 National Tour: Melbourne, Dandenong, Geelong,[27] Canberra,[28] Wollongong,[29] Lismore,[30]

2012 National Tour: Parramatta, Tamworth, Orange, Bathurst, Newcastle, Griffith, Wagga Wagga, Albury, Shepparton, Sale, Frankston, Warragul, Burnie, Launceston, Hobart, Adelaide, Hermannsburg (NT), Alice Springs, Townsville, Mackay, Rockhampton[31]



The Namatjira Project won the Critics' Choice artsHub Award for Contribution to the Australian Community by a Group, Organisation or Company.[32]

For the 2012 national tour of Namatjira, Big hART was awarded a Helpmann Award[33]


Namatjira was nominated for 2 Green Room Awards (Male Actor (Trevor Jamieson), Production)[34]


Namatjira was nominated for 8 Sydney Theatre Awards (Best Mainstage Production, Best Direction, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best New Australian Work, Best Newcomer, Best Lighting Design, Best Score or Sound Design) and was awarded 2 (Best New Australian Work, Best Newcomer (Derik Lynch))[35]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ "Namatjira Still Proves a Big Artistic Hit". by Mike Sexton for The Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 5 Jun 2012. Retrieved 10 Dec 2012. ...the current generation who wish to pass on the artistic inheritance of Albert Namatjira. 
  2. ^ Wilkins, Peter:Brilliant Portrayal of Indigenous Icon, The Canberra Times, 16 Sep 2011 "Namatjira is a timely reminder of the journey of reparation that still lies ahead."
  3. ^ "Namatjira Project: Preparations Hotting Up!". by James Waites. 7 Jul 2010. Retrieved 20 Dec 2012. The Namatjira project is made in partnership with Ngurratjuta Many Hands Art Centre, which represents many of Albert Namatjira’s descendants.. 
  4. ^ "The Art of Namatjira Takes Centre Stage". by Patrick McDonald for The Advertiser. 28 Apr 2012. Retrieved 19 Dec 2012. Taking the project into the 21st century to explore the potential of the national broadband network in remote indigenous communities, the company has also developed an iPhone app which will enable people to paint in the style of the Namatjiras. The money from the app will go to the community and towards promoting the work in the school. 
  5. ^ "Students Take Wynyard to World Via Webcast". by Kate Prestt for The Advocate. 20 Apr 2012. Retrieved 19 Dec 2012. Students from Ntaria School in Hermannsburg where the Namatjira story began watched eagerly as the program went to air. The two schools have been sharing stories and next month Ntaria School will webcast its own program. 
  6. ^ Emily Dunn (1 Nov 2006). "The Skill of Namatjira's Grandson". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 19 Dec 2012. His work […] forms the backdrop for Ngapartji Ngapartji, a performance at the Sydney Opera House which tells the story of the Spinifex or Pitjantjatjara tribe of Central Australia and their encounter with atomic testing at Maralinga in the 1950s. For Ngapartji Ngapartji, one of Elton's watercolours was cut into small squares which are turned as the play progresses to reveal the landscape. 
  7. ^ "Namatjira Comes to Life". BMA Mag. Sep 2011. Retrieved 10 Dec 2011. Trevor [Jamieson] and I were touring another production, Ngapartji Ngapartji, and we’d introduce an artist on stage who was a kind grandson of Albert,” he [Scott Rankin] says. “The audience would ‘ohh’ and ‘ahhh’ and it was clear there was a strong recognition of the story. As we looked into it, it became clear there were many contemporary issues contained in the story and it could provide a prism through which we could see our world and relationships between indigenous and non-indigenous people today. 
  8. ^ Anne-Marie Peard (19 Aug 2011). "Namatjira". Aussie Theatre. Retrieved 30 Jul 2012. Grandchildren of Albert Namatjira asked Big hART to share the story of their grandfather. 
  9. ^ Mike Sexton (5 Jun 2012). "Namatjira Still Proves a Big Artistic Hit". The Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 10 Dec 2012. ...the current generation who wish to pass on the artistic inheritance of Albert Namatjira. 
  10. ^ "Namatjira Says Goodbye…". Arts on Tour. 8 Jun 2012. Retrieved 10 Dec 2012. This project is large, layered, and long-term and designed to leave lasting legacies beyond this touring performance piece. The Namatjira Project runs workshops in the Hermannsburg community; helps the older Namatjiras’ take trips painting on country; is supporting the Hermannsburg Choir; and, is working to make a difference to the copyright issues surrounding Albert’s work. It is also a celebration of the acclaimed watercolour artist Albert Namatjira’s life and legacy. 
  11. ^ Mike Sexton (5 Jun 2012). "Namatjira Still Proves a Big Artistic Hit". The Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 10 Dec 2012. It seems to be paying off with the young artists staging a modest exhibition at Ntaria. And while they're learning the Namatjira style, they aren't restricted to paint and paper, thanks to a new digital program that some see as in keeping with the entrepreneurial spirit of their ancestor. 
  12. ^ Kate Herbert (17 Aug 2011). "Man of Colours in a Portrait Form". The Herald Sun. Retrieved 19 Dec 2012. The Arts Law Centre of Australia have some very interesting material on-line about the ownership of Namatjira's work – in his Writer and Director's note, Scott Rankin says "(Big hART are trying to) make a difference to the copyright issues surrounding Albert's work." 
  13. ^ Mike Sexton (5 Jun 2012). "Namatjira Still Proves a Big Artistic Hit". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 10 Dec 2012. In creating his stage production, Tasmanian playwright and director Scott Rankin consulted heavily with the Namatjira family. 
  14. ^ "Portrait with Dance, Mime and Music". by John McCallum for The Australian. 1 Oct 2010. Retrieved 11 Dec 2012. 
  15. ^ "Albert Namatjira Workshop". by Maynard for ABC Newcastle. 13 Mar 2012. Retrieved 20 Dec 2012. This morning a workshop took place at the old lockup in Hunter St Newcastle. Albert Namatjira's oldest granddaughter was on hand to help young and old potential landscape artists with their technique and style. The two members of the Namatjira family paint a large landscape during the play to bring the audience into the world of Albert Namatjira. 
  16. ^ "The Namatjira Project". artsHub. 3 Dec 2012. Retrieved 10 Dec 2012. With family and community included as artists and performers in the show, this project has been […] celebrating the legacy of Australia’s first Aboriginal citizen and best-known Aboriginal painter, Albert Namatjira. 
  17. ^ "Theatre - Namatjira". by Tess Jaeger for Human Rights in Australia. 26 Sep 2011. Retrieved 19 Dec 2012. The actors transition seamlessly between their multiple roles. 
  18. ^ "Namatjira, Big hArt & Riverside Theatres". by Augusta Supple. 29 Feb 2012. Retrieved 19 Dec 2012. The play traverses several languages, combining self-aware direct address monologues with musical montage, transcripts, re-enactment, re-imaginings. [...] The script bounces between our social “white” theatre conventions and the conventions of indigenous storytelling, through re-enactment, historical primary sources, imaginings, symbolism and personal creative response by the artists telling Namatjira’s story and their own story. 
  19. ^ "Two Packed Houses Get Shot in the Arm From the Play, Namatjira". by Kieran Finnane for Alice Springs News Online. 20 May 2012. Retrieved 19 Dec 2012. Then [...] we had their song and dance acts, one a disco-style love song with Lynch as Albert’s heartthrob soon to be wife, Rubina; another, a [...] country and western number, that [...] gave account of the role of black stockmen in the developing pastoral industry. [...]Music on a variety of stringed and wind instruments was played by Genevieve Lacey [...]. The Ntaria Ladies Choir were also [...] singing several songs... 
  20. ^ Rankin, Scott: “Namatjira, written for the Namatjira Family, and Ngapartji Ngapartji written for the Jamieson Family”, Strawberry Hill: Currency Press, 2012
  21. ^ "Namatjira". by Jason Blake for The Sydney Morning Herald. 1 Oct 2010. Retrieved 10 Dec 2012. Act I covers his birth in 1902, to traditional Aranda parents, his childhood and youth on the Lutheran mission at Hermannsburg, near Alice Springs, and his pivotal encounter in 1934 with the crippled World War I veteran-turned-artist Rex Battarbee, whose tragicomic journey from the Western Front to the Central Desert, delivered in sketch-form, could justify another play entirely. In a profound act of cultural exchange, Namatjira opened Battarbee's eyes to his country. In return, Battarbee introduced Namatjira to representational landscape painting in watercolour. 
  22. ^ "Namatjira". by Jason Blake for The Sydney Morning Herald. 1 Oct 2010. Retrieved 10 Dec 2012. Act II follows Namatjira's rise to fame in the art world (and beyond), his becoming the first Aboriginal citizen of Australia (a scandalous example of taxation without representation) and his declining years in the 1950s: sick, despondent after a short stint in jail, and hounded to the last for money. 
  23. ^ "Namatjira, Big hART". by David Jobling for 7 May 2012. Retrieved 19 Dec 2012. There is also a sort of 'afterword' screened at the very end, after the curtain call I encourage you to remain and watch. 
  24. ^ "Namatjira". by Richard Watts for artsHub. 17 Aug 2011. Retrieved 12 Dec 2012. 
  25. ^ Namatjira, Belvoir & Big hART. by Helen Barry for 4 Oct 2010. 
  26. ^ "Namatjira". ICAF. Apr 2011. Retrieved 19 Dec 2012. 
  27. ^ "Namatjira". by Suzie Hardgrave for 14 Aug 2011. Retrieved 19 Dec 2012. 
  28. ^ "Namatjira". Canberra Theatre Centre. Sep 2011. Retrieved 19 Dec 2012. 
  29. ^ "Namatjira@IMB Theatre". Sep 2011. Retrieved 19 Dec 2012. 
  30. ^ "Rare Chance for Locals to Learn from Visiting 'Namatjira' Artists". Arts Northern Rivers/NORPA. Sep 2011. Retrieved 19 Dec 2012. 
  31. ^ "Namatjira, Big hArt & Riverside Theatres". by Augusta Supple. 29 Feb 2012. Retrieved 19 Dec 2012. 
  32. ^ "The Namatjira Project". artsHub. 3 Dec 2012. Retrieved 12 Dec 2012. 
  33. ^ "HELPMANN AWARDS® WINNERS". Helpmann Awards. Sep 2012. Retrieved 19 Dec 2012. 
  34. ^ "2011 Award Nominations". Green Room Awards. 2011. Retrieved 19 Dec 2012. 
  35. ^ "2010 - Nominations AND WINNERS". Sydney Theatre Awards. 2010. Retrieved 19 Dec 2012.