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Namatjira: for the man and now the project art was a catalyst for change

Behind the sell-out theatrical tour of Namatjira, which has its final Australian performances in Hermannsburg and Alice Springs this week, is a three-year project for social change through art. Longer than that if the start is counted from Big hART’s Ngapartji Ngapartji project. I ask Scott Rankin, Big hART’s director, how he thinks the company’s involvement with people in The Centre has contributed to social change over this time.
Complex problems require solutions on many levels, he replies. The social change debate is mostly focussed on “quick fixes” to force change through action that is mostly “siloed” into a single government portfolio.
Left: Hamming it up big time – in the 2010 Alice showing of the work-in-progress Derek Lynch as the Queen (left) and Trevor Jamieson.
Big hART’s approach is to work at the grassroots level, with individuals. What is required from community and government is to support those individuals – he calls them “entrepreneurs” – who are effecting change in their lives, going beyond the usual “soft Left versus hard Right” adversarial approaches to the issues.
Art and culture are used as catalysts and perhaps never more pertinently than in the Namatjiira Project  which has at its heart an emblematic story of a man effecting radical change, through art, in his life, the lives of those around him and indeed the cultural and social life of the nation.
Namatjira, the theatre production, is in its own way an emblematic story, as the most successful current touring production in Australia. It shows, says Rankin, that good art, attracting widespread attention and acclaim in the country’s big cities, can come out of remote Central Australia.
The tour has also seen enormous development in the performing talent of young Derek Lynch, who takes on multiple roles as various people in Albert Namatjira’s life (Albert himself is played by the acclaimed Trevor Jamieson).
“Derek will be one of those performers about whom people say, ‘Have you seen the new Derek Lynch show?'” says Rankin.
The young artist Elton Wirri, who executes a marvelous panoramic landscape drawing during the show and is a descendant of Albert, is another of the show’s success stories: his work, in the watercolour tradition of his forebear, continues to gain recognition and value, and he is “a very together young man”, says Rankin.
The whole process has added to the knowledge of the Namatjira story. A woman who saw the show came forward with a hitherto unknown story about the last hours of the great man’s life: he asked to be moved from the white ward to the black ward in the Alice Springs Hospital, as he wanted to die with his countrymen.
Tonight the show will be staged in Hermannsburg, where a stage has been especially built in the area next to the chapel and sound checks were still being done at close to midnight last night, with everyone wrapped in blankets against the cold.
As part of the project Leni Namatjira, granddaughter of Albert and an artist herself, has worked with Big hART to develop an iPhone ‘watercolour’ app that will be launched by Senator Nigel Scullion, along with an advisor of MHR Warren Snowdon. The Hermannsburg schoolchildren will use the app in a “watercolour art off”, which they will then judge.
This is part of the on-going Namatjira Project. The theatre production is the high profile face of the project but when it winds down this week (a future performance in Hermannsburg, Germany is not yet confirmed), the project’s legacy will live on, in keeping with the philosophy of Big hART. More work in education, particularly in developing the digital literacy of young people, will be done through the Friends of the Namatjira Project. There is also a documentary film being made about the Namatjira or Hermannsburg School of painters.
I ask Rankin if he fears that participants in the project will feel somewhat bereft as the intensive involvement in the production draws to a  close, but he suggests that they will feel some relief from the responsibility of telling the story and the rigours of touring.
He characterises the whole project as a “generous risk-taking” on both sides. Participants have moved beyond the “cultural fear” that often marks the interactions of Aboriginal and settler Australians. As with love, their encounter has required leadership from both sides, generous responses to mistakes being made, with most of the progress coming from the lessons thus learned.
See also Kieran Finnane’s earlier interview with Rankin, Jamieson and Lynch, ‘A new take on the Namajtira story‘, and her response to the work-in-progress, ‘Namatjira: unexpected comedy‘.


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