Above from left: Lewina Namatjira, Mark Crees, and Gloria Pannka in Araluen’s Albert Namatjira Gallery.
By KIERAN FINNANE
Before last Friday this photograph taken inside Araluen Arts Centre would not have been possible.
Because it shows a number of paintings by Albert Namatjira, it would have infringed copyright. These women, Gloria Pannka and Lewina Namatjira, granddaughters of the renowned artist, could not have authorised it, nor could have Araluen director Dr Mark Crees, despite all of the paintings either being by owned Araluen or on permanent or long-term loan to the gallery.
This restrictive situation, which applied equally in major institutions such as the National Gallery of Australia, was unique to the work of Albert Namatjira and had lasted for decades, ever since 1983 when John Brackenreg’s Sydney-based company Legend Press had acquired the Namatjira descendants’ 12.5% residual copyright in return for a one-off payment of $8500 to the estate. This deal had apparently been made by the Public Trustee of the Northern Territory.
Left: Albert Namatjira, Kwaritnama (organ pipes), c. 1945-53, in the Ngurratjuta Pmara Ntjarra Aboriginal Corporation Collection held at Araluen.
Now all that has changed: after persistent effort over five years from the Namatjira family working with the arts for social change company Big hArt, 100% of the copyright has been transferred to the Namatjira Legacy Trust. Founded in March this year, the charitable trust will support the Namatjira art movement and the health, welfare and education of Albert Namatjira’s descendants and more broadly the community of Ntaria (Hermannsburg).
Gloria Pannka had been told that the negotiations were looking good but she was still in bed yesterday morning when she heard the “really great news” on the radio:
“I jumped up – wow! My son, he was heading down to the art centre.
“Did you hear it on the radio?
“No, what’s happening?
“We got the copyright back!”
Did she believe this day would come?
“Yes,” she says, without hesitation.
Left: Gloria Pannka with her protest painting, Copyright for Namatjira.
In the recently released documentary about Big hArt’s work with the Namatjira family, Kevin Namatjira, the artist’s grandson, seemed very despondent about the copyright situation: “It’s all too hard,” he said.
“He thought that,” says his younger sister Lewina, a board member of the trust, “but me and Gloria believed.”
What does it mean for the family’s future?
“It means we gotta be strong,” says Mrs Pannka, “we gotta be strong to teach the young generation to carry this legacy for generations.”
It’s not just about painting, she tells them: “You earn something and in the future when you’re adults, you can go out for exhibitions. It’s fun going out, but then again, you know, you’re showing it to people how proud you are.
“It’s a good life – that’s what we tell the kids when we take them out.
“It’s not worth sitting down in one place, you got nowhere to go, nothing to do, but when you’re doing painting you keep your mind off what you’re thinking to do.
“It’s really good to concentrate on painting – that’s what we want to teach our young kids, instead of coming into town, breaking in, running amok, fighting.”
What finally clinched the breakthrough was a 15-minute phone call between entrepreneur turned philanthropist Dick Smith (left, source: SBS) and Philip Brackenreg of Legend Press, John’s son.
The documentary showed Mr Brackenreg to be unmoving on the issue. Perhaps a sufficient sum of money would change that, Mr Smith thought, but in the end it was more that he said “good things about his dad”.
“Most people had been saying bad things about his dad. Let’s please not return to that.
“I knew John Brackenreg, my father worked for him as a salesman, not for very long, but I knew him, and my father always said he was an ethical person.”
Mr Smith, a longtime ambassador for Aboriginal reconciliation, describes himself as a “minor player” in the story: “I came at the end, if the people hadn’t done the work before it wouldn’t have happened.”
Until a few weeks ago he had followed the story in the newspapers, like everyone else, but with the personal connection to the Brackenregs in the back of his mind. In the documentary it was ventured that the copyright could be worth $250,000. It was money Mr Smith had at his disposal, so perhaps it would help.
It did, but the big surprise was that Philip Brackenreg didn’t want it for Legend Press:
“He said he wanted it to go to the descendants. I asked if it would be ok if went to the trust and he said yes, that would be fantastic.”
Mr Smith made the donation in acknowledgement of the friendship between John Brackenreg and Albert Namatjira. He says we can’t judge today what happened 60 years ago, referring to the 1957 deal when Albert Namatjira signed over all but 12.5% of his copyright to Legend Press:
“Times were so different then. I’m not trying to vindicate or say anyone was good or bad, but I was told the agreement John Brackenreg had with Albert Namatjira was similar to the agreements he had with Robert Johnson and the other artists he represented.”
Right: Albert Namatjira, The fleeing euro, c.1937, a gift to the Alice Springs Town Council, 1990, held at Araluen.
Arnold Bloch Leibler partner and IP specialist Zaven Mardirossian, acting pro bono for the Namatjira Legacy Trust, also says “it is difficult to go back in time and judge people’s actions”.
But, says Mr Mardirossian, “we are able in the Australia of 2017, to recognise the moral and cultural dimensions of this matter, alongside the legal and political dimensions.
“That gives us the opportunity of achieving an outcome that not only benefits the Namatjira family, but also the wider Indigenous and arts community. Ultimately the nation as a whole benefits when a historic injustice is set right.”
What happened last Friday is a significant milestone but it is not the end of the story. There are questions still to be answered about the role of the Public Trustee in the 1983 deal with Legend Press.
Big hArt’s Sophia Marinos, who chairs the Namatjira Legacy Trust, says Arnold Bloch Leibler have been in touch with the Northern Territory Government:
“They have responded positively and do want to engage on redressing the injustice. We are still campaigning to get closure for the Namatjira family around the supposed mistake that was made.”
Ms Marinos is referring to the then Public Trustee’s recent statement that he never intended to sell Legend Press “the copyright in the entirety of Albert Namatjira’s lifetime works”, to use the legal terms.
Right: Sophia Marinos with Ntaria schoolchildren who contributed to the Five Generations exhibition at Araluen in 2014.
Says Mr Mardirossian: “Under Albert’s will, his assets were left to his wife and children. So, we believe that there are fair questions to be asked in relation to these events and the monetary value which was placed on the copyright at the time.
“We are involved and will continue to be involved in constructive engagement with the Northern Territory Government in addressing these questions and hopefully agreeing a mutually beneficial way forward.”
It’s a matter of “one step at a time”, says Ms Marinos. Celebrating last Friday’s victory with the Namatjira family is next in line and then getting their input into the decisions that need to be made about the trust – what it will do in the coming year and how its money will be spent.
“The trust is purposefully set up as a charitable trust,” she says, “with independent directors as well as family members and its purposes are to benefit the broader community, the artists and the art movement.”
This will include “a lot of the things that Big hArt was able to do when it was funded [for the Namatjira project] but is not any more.
“The idea of the trust is that it’s a legacy to that Big hArt project and is able to help the senior artists and family members connect with younger generations out on country, connect wth culture, story and language.
“That’s really the objective of the trust, growing out of discussions with Lenie [Namatjira] and Gloria and those senior family members who are so aware of the challenges that big money can bring.
“In their wisdom they had a lot of foresight in wanting to set up the trust so that things like this can benefit the whole community, whether it’s revenue from the copyright or the donation, so that it doesn’t end in in-fighting for the family but that it is for the bigger picture.
“It’s a pretty amazing vision!”
Meanwhile, the Araluen Arts Centre and galleries around the country holding Albert Namatjira work are now free to get on with promoting that work in keeping with his status as a major Australian artist.
Left: Albert Namatjira, Haasts Bluff country, 1956.
In 1984 Araluen held the first ever retrospective of the artist’s work and the accompanying symposium helped shift the critical assessment of his artistic achievement. Today the Albert Namatjira Gallery is major feature of Araluen, which holds 53 of the artist’s works in its collection. Till now there have been no images of these works online or in promotional materials.
“Now by speaking to Namatjira Legacy Trust we’ll be able to do that,” says Dr Crees. “It will incentivise people to visit Central Australia to see the actual works.”
Last year a new work came into the collection, never seen in public before. It is one of two painted by Albert Namatjira in 1956 for inclusion in an exhibition of Australian art presented during the Olympic Games, staged that year in Melbourne.
In the end only the other painting was put on display while this one was sold to a friend of Rex Battarbee, Namatjira’s mentor and champion. The painting, Haasts Bluff country, is now on long term loan to Araluen from its elderly owner.
As of yesterday, Araluen placed an image of it for the first time on its Facebook page and we reproduce it here (above left).
“The Namatjira family have stated they want as many people as possible to be able to access these images, “ says Dr Crees.
Note: Images of work by Albert Namatjira, reproduced above, are copyright to the Namatjira Legacy Trust. The paintings have been hanging in the Albert Namatjira Gallery at Araluen but are due to be rested for conservation reasons. Different works by the artist and others working in the Namatjira tradition will soon be on display.