Friday, June 21, 2024

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HomeIssue 5Namatjira family: Getting listeners 'through our art'

Namatjira family: Getting listeners 'through our art'

p2345-Many-Hands-GloriaBy KIERAN FINNANE
That the descendants of Albert Namatjira have not succeeded in having copyright over his works restored to them still has the capacity to shock, perhaps more especially during NAIDOC week, a time to celebrate Indigenous history, culture and achievement.
At the time of his death the acclaimed Arrernte watercolour artist had an exclusive agreement with the art publisher John Brackenreg (Legend Press), licensing him to reproduce his work in return for a 12% royalty. This agreement persisted after his death, with the family, as the beneficiaries of his will, receiving the royalty. Then in 1983 the Public Trustee, managers of Namatjira’s will and estate, made the extraordinary decision, apparently without consulting the family,  to sell the copyright to Brackenreg for $8500.
Despite periodic public and political pressure for a deal to be done to buy back the copyright, it remains with Brackenreg’s son, Philip. Copyright endures for 70 years after death, so in Albert’s case it lasts until 2029.
The family are determined to keep the issue alive. It became a key focus of the Namatjira Project, a collaboration between the family and Big hART here in The Centre, starting in 2009, the fiftieth anniversary of Albert’s death. Ownership of his legacy is one of the themes treated in the project’s soon-to-be-released documentary, Namatjira.
p2345-Many-Hands-ClaraAfter a recent fruitless visit to Philip Brackenreg in Sydney, senior artist with Iltja Ntjarra Many Hands Art Centre, Gloria Pannka, made the issue the subject of a painting (above right).
‘Copyright for Namatjira’ is spelled out across the surface of a fine West MacDonnell Ranges landscape in the Namatjira tradition. The lettering seems to rise up out of the land, taking on its colours and light, making explicit the inherent connection between the act of painting in country and holding copyright over the image.
Gloria is not alone at Iltja Ntjarra in taking up this direct approach to issues of concern through her art. The approach was stimulated during  recent contact between Iltja Ntjarra and artist Tony Albert, a founding member of the urban Indigenous art collective ProppaNOW and winner of the 2014 national Telstra art award for his politically pointed work, We can be Heroes.
A rash of watercolours confronting issues like homelessness, diabetes, dialysis, and mining have followed. A group of four small works was acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), including one by Clara Inkamala which has Coca Cola, in the classic typography of the brand, emblazoned across Ntaripe (Heavitree Gap), the red of the lettering effectively integrating the brand name with the rockface (above left).
“We want to send out [a message] to those people who are selling Coke and Kentucky Fried Chicken to our people. We got so many people in dialysis, with diabetes, heart problem, lung problem and all that, all this grog, they’re selling it. Our people are buying these grogs and these foods.”
Another work, mounted on McDonalds packaging, shows an emu and chicks parading across a picturesque landscape – perhaps Glen Helen (Yapalpe in Arrernte).
p2345-Many-Hands-Lenie“We want our people to move back to their country, look after it and live in a good environment instead of here in town, just drinking, too many sugar, lollies and all that,” says Clara. “This is telling people we’ve got bush food out there and healthy ones, instead of Kentucky, fish and chips. This is for our kids, we’ve got to try to look after the next generation …”
Lenie Namatjira (right) made access to public housing the subject of her watercolour, another of the four acquired by the NGV. Again the landscape shows Ntaripe, situating the issue here in town. The text reads ‘20 Year Waiting List’, which Lenie says is how long – “more than that” – she has been waiting for a house. Suffering from diabetes, asthma and waiting for a kidney transplant, she lives in someone else’s place, she says, but wants her own “good place to stay”. She would prefer it to be in a town camp than in the suburbs, seeing the camps as more secure, more protected from unwanted guests.
Clara takes up the same theme: “Housing, waiting too long, 20 years for housing. Used to be only six months. Now it’s a long wait, sick people living in camps and all that. Then again when they get houses all the families come in, drinking and all that, spoiling [it] for them sick people.”
Lenie also speaks of her grandfather – Albert – who “never lived in a good house … he was fighting to build a good house but nothing happened”.
p2345-Many-Hands-TiaraShe hopes government will see her painting and “help us”.
“It’s hard to talk to someone to help us, to go up to higher people,” says Clara. “The only way we can do this is through our paintings.”
What’s at stake is articulated by the youngest artist in the studio, Tiara Doolan (at left): “My future.”
Tiara has been painting since last year, learning from her Nannas. She is among a number of emerging artists to join Iltja Ntjarra Many Hands, now incorporated independently from the Ngurratjuta Aboriginal Corporation.
Apart from the NGV acquisition, another recent acknowledgement of the art centre’s depth and legacy is a long-term installation of work representing their home community of Ntaria (Hermannsburg) at the National Museum of Australia. The installation will be in the Landmarks gallery, one of the museum’s five permanent galleries, which tells the stories of 33 places across Australia. 
p2345-Many-Hands-ClementsThe first version of the Ntaria exhibit, opening later this month, will feature fifteen items from the museum’s collections – Western Arrernte Lutheran texts and hymnals; a souvenir boomerang and kangaroo pelt mat; a mulga wood plaque, walking stick and boomerang made by Albert Namatjira; watercolour paintings by Albert Namatjira, Oscar Namatjira, Lenie Namatjira and Benita Clements; and Hermannsburg pots by Judith Inkamala and Clara Inkamala. 
Benita Clements is a younger artist with Iltja Ntjarra who is attracting attention for her figurative painting. Her effective watercolour reclaiming the ‘Golden Arches’ for the healthier bush tucker diet of old is one of the four acquired by the NGV, as is Rienhold Inkamala’s eloquently blue work, treating the theme of homelessness (both pictured at right).


  1. There should be some investigation in the “public trustees” to ensure everything thing was above board. If it is all above board then we as a people need to move on and make our own future and not rely on the past. Not to say we should not forget just move ahead smarter and remember you still “own” the name and memories.

  2. There is a basic mistake in this article, in positing the 1983 Public Trustee contract as the big rip-off. In fact, it was the contract that Albert Namatjira signed in his lifetime with Legend Press (John Brackenreg’s company) that stitched up the Namatjira family.
    At the risk of going on like Olive Pink (although she seems never to have gone into battle against this particular injustice), here are the key facts:
    • On 8 June 1957, Albert Namatjira signed away a seven-eighth (87.5%) interest in his copyright. In return, he was paid £10. Based on known early royalty flows, John Brackenreg recouped his £10 investment on the first day of what was then a life-plus-50 year contract (copyright terms were extended to life-plus-70 years in 2004).
    • Shortly after Albert Namatjira’s death on 8 August 1959, his two executors (who had been nominated in a will that Dick Ward had prepared for Albert way back in 1945) renounced their roles. These were Pastor F W Albrecht and Vic Carrington (a retired Alice Springs public servant). Pastor Albrecht – who, unlike Vic Carrington, knew Albert well – offered no explanation for his move, nor apparently attempted to find a replacement executor. As a result, the estate of Albert Namatjira ended up with the Public Trustee.
    • When he died, Albert Namatjira had very few assets other than that his residual 12.5% interest in his copyright. The Northern Territory Public Trustee was responsible, at the very least, for seeing that this went to the nominated beneficiaries in the Namatjira family. Whether the Public Trustee properly acquitted this role over the next 24 years seems an open question.
    • The 1983 Public Trustee contract is the least dubious aspect of the whole affair. Under this contract, Legend Press simply bought-out its minority partner, the Namatjira beneficiaries. In 1983, $8,500 was probably about right for the fair market value of a residual 12.5% interest in the Albert Namatjira copyright, which was then due to expire in 2009. The 1984 Araluen-opening show, which was to revive the artistic stocks of Albert Namatjira, was yet to happen (although it was, of course, just around the corner).
    • While the Public Trustee’s apparent lack of consultation with the Namatjira family in 1983 was abject, bigger probity issues seem to exist over the Public Trustee’s handling of the estate over the previous 24 years. My rough calculation is that $1 million (2016 dollars; or £33,333 in 1959 pounds) were – or should have been* – disbursed to the Namatjira family over the 1960s, when Albert Namatjira reproductions were still strong sellers (BTW, so necessarily meaning that Legend Press raked in $7 million (2016 dollars) over the same period). Between about 1970 and 1983, royalty receipts would have been a comparative trickle (and while since 1984, they would have ticked up, Legend Press’s 100% interest until 2029 probably only currently brings it a few thousand dollars a year).
    * My pre-1983 calculations here do not include Public Trustee administration charges, which may have been substantial.
    • The Northern Territory Public Trustee would seem to owe the Namatjira family and descendants a frank account, at least, of its role between 1959 and 1983. But in its defence, it involuntarily inherited a legal and administrative imbroglio. This mess was created in the first place by John Brackenreg’s demonstrably exploitative 8 June 1957 contract, and then compounded by Albert Namatjira’s executors abandoning their posts, at an hour of most need. Any diligent executor would have commenced legal action to set aside the 8 June 1957 contract, as a priority. Thus, I believe that it is the families and descendants of John Brackenreg and Albert Namatjira’s executors, and not the Public Trustee, who owe the main account here.

  3. Paul, your details and well written words maybe correct but ethically the whole drama with the public trustees and the Brackenregs is nothing short of a sad injustice.
    This is another terrible case where once again Aboriginal people have been unfairly treated and discriminated against.
    The Brackenregs continue to reap huge royalties from the copyright of Albert Namatjira’s images. All the major auction houses have to pay dearly to reproduce any of his work in their catalogs. And the Brackenregs won’t allow any reproduction of images in any educational books unless they are also paid a huge sum.
    This whole disgusting saga leaves a bad stain on Australia’s image in a time when reconciliation and racism is in the media every day.

  4. I totally agree that there has been a serious injustice here. Hopefully, my setting out some of the facts here will help, and not hinder, a satisfactory remedy for this injustice.
    Focusing only on the NT Public Trustee – as the last government agency to have held the goods in this game of pass the (steaming) parcel – tends to obscure the roles played by earlier players.
    Similarly, it is perhaps unhelpful to emphasize the money currently being made by the Brackenreg family out of its ill-gotten copyright. My understanding is that the usual reproduction fee in recent years is $250 (but I may be wrong here).
    While in the 1950s and 1960s, the volume of Namatjira prints would have meant a copyright goldmine, I would be surprised if the Brackenreg family makes more than a four-figure annual income out of this currently.
    It is still an ongoing injustice, of course, but personally I think it is more sad than bad that the Brackenreg family still clings onto the Namatjira copyright, just for what is some small change, from a Sydney North Shore perspective.
    Finally, a clarification / correction to my previous post.
    In my reference to shifting the focus more to Namatjira’s executors, I meant his original executors, Vic Carrington (who saliently was Acting Administrator of the NT – and NOT “a retired Alice Springs public servant”, as I previously described him – when Albert Namatjira made his will in 1945) and Pastor FW Albrecht. They are both now deceased, of course, but the Commonwealth government, which was Carrington’s employer in 1945 and was also intimately involved in the 1957 copyright deal, is still a going concern, I believe.


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