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Wenten Rubuntja (c. 1923 – 2005) was an Australian artist and Aboriginal rights activist. He belonged to the Arrernte indigenous people of Central Australia. His works were painted in acrylic or watercolours and influenced by themes from Dreamtime myths. His paintings are to be found in Australia's Parliament House, Canberra and many other public and private collections.
W. Rubuntja died from advanced kidney failure in Alice Springs Hospital on 3 July 2005. His family asked that, in accordance with Aboriginal Australian practices concerning respect for the dead, he should be referred to only as W. Rubuntja (or W. or Rubuntja, depending on context) for the time being, and that any pictures of him be withdrawn from display until 12 months after his death.
For Wenten, both the "Aranda Watercolour" style of art developed by Albert Namatjira (which has come to be known as the Hermannsburg School), and the "dot paintings" popularised by the artists of Papunya (Papunya Tula) reflected traditional values and themes, despite differences in technique:
"Doesn't matter what sort of painting we do in this country, it still belongs to the people, all the people. This is worship, work, culture. It's all Dreaming. There are two ways of painting. Both ways are important, because that's culture." – (The Weekend Australian Magazine, April, 2002)
Wenten was a man of great generosity in both his personal and political life. He "brought up" generations of young non-indigenous workers engaged by the various central Australian organisations, teaching them about matters such as appropriate etiquette, traditional law, and the economics and politics of daily Aboriginal life. It was commonplace, too, for him to return from a distant meeting to spend many hours solving the problems of a local community member, finding money for food, tracking down a missing relative or fixing a dispute that to anyone else seemed intractable. He did such things daily, while providing the primary support, financial and otherwise, for a personal household that often numbered thirty or forty people.
Wenten developed a highly refined view of reconciliation. The belief that the Aboriginal and the non-Aboriginal communities have 'to interpret each other' recurs throughout his life’s work. His ability to integrate Indigenous and non-Indigenous concepts was truly remarkable. He recognised the importance of working out a process through which people could live harmoniously together, and saw this as only possible if each "side" gave equal recognition to the importance of the Law of the other:
"We can’t fall in the power to the other Law. They can’t change our Law, our side, and we can’t change their side, or we will break our Law again, and they’ll break their law…… The Dreaming is really all over Australia. We must teach the whitefellas."
For Wenten it was only through real respect for both one's own and the other’s Law and knowledge that reconciliation could be achieved. It was only when the complex interplay of practical and symbolic justice was understood that real progress would be made. Neither practical solutions nor rhetorical recognition were sufficient alone. He expressed such things (and many others) with great humour and wonderful use of metaphor.
Wenten was a key figure in the land rights movement, the protection of Aboriginal sacred sites in the Northern Territory and organised the formation of key Aboriginal organisations in Alice Springs over the past 30 years.
His autobiography: The Town Grew Up Dancing: The Life and Art of Wenten Rubuntja by himself and Jenny Green was published by IAD Press, Mparntwe (Alice Springs), in 2002.