This story has been a while coming. I hope it benefits from the time it has had to brew. It’s an account of my time following the evolution of Big hART’s latest main-stage theatre project: Namatjira, a co-production with Belvoir Theatre in Sydney, where it has just finished it premiere season. I didn’t get to see a lot of the process in terms of hours in the rehearsal room, but enough dipping in and out over the past few months to have a pretty good idea of what went into what I think most who saw it would say was one of the highlights of theatre in Sydney in 2010.
I write from the most contrasting of locales. Namatjira, a Big hART show about the life and times of Australia’s first Aboriginal citizen, tells the story of a man from the Central Australian desert who went on to international fame in the mid-20th century as a ‘Western-style’ artist. This was well before the ‘dot painting’ revolution that emerged from Papunya in the 1970s, just a little further west of Namatjira’s country around and about Alice Springs.
This entire region is sparse and dry, and today the inhabitants are still rather reserved in manner and shy in their relations with the Whitefella. I write this from Chiang Mai, in Thailand’s mountainous tropical north, where lush nature bursts to overflowing everywhere you look. As does the human spirit in a population buoyant, joyful citizens. It is odd to look back at the sobering photos from Hermannsburg mission I posted few weeks back and observe the almost disorientating ‘deadness’ of the place nowadays. And through those images think back to Namatjira’s time when the ‘living’ mission would have been clean and well-organised; but hardly ‘exuberant’ – the predominant trait of daily life among the people of Chiang Mai.
How we, as humans, have come to build ‘culture’ in so many different ways around the world, over the centuries, prompts pause for thought. ‘Who this Thai Culture?’ the Namatjira character in Scott Rankin’s script well might ask if he were here visiting with me. As different from his own as it is of the Whitefella one who sucked him up and, ultimately, spat him out. Rankin’s sensitive, intelligent, tautly sprung text is close to ‘mythical’ in the way it poeticises/portrays the squeezing/journey of a uniquely gifted human being between/through two cultures as they/he contact/collide. Sure it’s the story of one man. But as we watch the drama unfold, to both our fascination and our shame, this is also a ‘representing’ fable. A traditional Western Arrarnta man (Namatjira’s central desert mob) coming into contact, first, with the German missionaries at Hermannsburg, and then onto the highest strata of ‘English’ culture in Alice Springs, Darwin, Melbourne and Sydney. From naked ‘primitive’ to the star of salubrious art gallery openings and even meeting the Queen. 10,000 years in one life time!
The idea for this production about the ‘life and times’ of Albert Namatjira fell almost by accident out of Big hART’s previous ‘major’ stage production, Ngapartji Ngapartji, which also played Belvoir Street a couple of years back now. Anyone who saw the show in Sydney would remember walking into the theatre to find a young Aboriginal man drawing in chalk on the back wall. His name is Elton Wirri, a descendant of Namatjira. Through Wirri, the company’s artistic director, Scott Rankin (also writer/director of that show), discovered a whole mob of living artists – descendants of Albert Namatjira - still working today in (essentially) the same style. A style completely at odds with what most of us think of as contemporary Aborginal art: what with its dots and daubs, mystically arcane in their secret ‘map-like’ and special culture meanings.
The play is essentially a dramatised biography. A study of his life journey with a particular focus on the mutually supportive relationship between Namatjira, and the Whitefella, Rex Battarbee who taught him to paint. The friendship lasted a lifetime, and it had a profound effect on both. Ultimately, Rankin’s script asks us to wonder what it was these to men sought out (and found) in each other: beyond being painting buddies. What can we all take away from a closer look at this unlikely partnership?
In strictly painting terms, what Albert learned from Rex Battarbee, in the years after WWII, was a purely Western realist style in watercolours, determindedly symbol (secret) free. Battarbee taught Namatjira to paint what he saw with his eyes – no less and no more. Namatjira may have seen more in the landscape (totems, secret business), but he chose not to paint in that stuff. It just happened that Namatjira was supremely gifted, and so as he mastered the style – with a view to making a bit of money to support his family – he rose to enormous wealth and influence. His painting grew in value over his lifetime from being literally worthless to five pounds to ten pounds and on – to over 200 pounds a work at the height of his fame.
But with that status came obligations. Demands from kin (he was supporting up to six hundred relatives at one point) conflicted with expectations from the the Whitefella culture that not only took him in, but put him up on a pedestal. Ultimately the tensions broke him and he died a ruined man. In terms of his impact on White Australia, Namatjira bought the ‘outback’ into the lounge-rooms of homes around the seaboard: ‘the mountain to Mohammed’. He took what had hitherto been frightening, if unseen – the ‘other’, ‘out there’ – and tamed it: not only for big city art-loving elites, but tens of thousands of middle-class Australians. While connoisseurs among the wealthy may have owned an original, by the mid 1960s, every second household in your average suburban street would have boasted a Namatjira ‘print’ somewhere in the house.
Who among us growing up in these homes knew, before we saw this production, that the Namatjira ‘style’ flourished? Elton Wirri may be a rising star, but he is only one of dozens of direct descendants and other kin working today in versions of the same style. There is a particular art centre and gallery in Alice Springs – Ngurratjuta Many Hands Art Centre – which represents them and looks after/sells their work. In typical Big hART way, the art centre was contacted early in the formation of this project and has stayed closely allied since.
This has not only helped the show get up, it has also assisted in bringing attention to the work of these artists. Two galleries in Sydney held exhibitions of their work during the Belvoir season, there was a workshop at the Art Gallery of NSW, values have gone up and many paintings have sold. More cooperative endeavours lie ahead: like raising funds to help this artists go out (hire vehicles etc) and, as Namatjira always did, paint ‘On Country’.
Alerted to this family of artists, and their excellent body of work, Rankin realised that through Elton Wirri he had possible entry to one of Australia’s most fascinating, inspiring, ‘historically-loaded’ life stories: up there with Bradman and Mary McKillop! But as Rankin, and Big hART as a company, had come to well appreciate developing Ngapartji Ngapartji - you can’t just go in and take somebody else’s story (certainly not the done thing in Aboriginal culture) and put in on stage, any more than you can (these days) rightfully go a dig a hole on and pull out several hundred million dollars worth of iron ore without the proper permissions of the traditional owners of that land. So a dialogue was initiated with kin, and other revelant parties, pretty much as soon as the Sydney season of Ngapartji Ngapartji closed; in seemingly no time, the idea of a ‘Namatjira Project’ began to take shape.
The other relationship on which Namatjira is founded, is that between Big hART’s artistic director, writer/director, Scott Rankin, and lead actor Trevor Jamieson. By the time I saw Ngapartji Ngapartji, the two had been working on that show for more than half a decade. That many-layered drama, describing in part the generational impact of atom-bomb testing in the sparse (but not uninhabited) terrain around Maralinga, central South Australia, examined the price paid by Jamieson’s own family. While shockingly specific in its tragic dimensions, this story too was ‘representational’.
Wrenched from their own ‘Country’, Trevor’s grandparents sought a new life as best they could in the Kalgoorlie area of Western Australia. But the impact of being uprooted from their own Dreaming was inevitably devastating, and it had a domino effect on the lives of their children and grandchildren. Gulpingly heartbreaking drama – as we were alerted to the fact that other Maralinga refugees (and their descendants) survived to suffer similarly. The point here – regarding this post – is that the story Jamieson was telling in Ngapartji Ngapartji was, if not unique, his family’s own. Even so, many kin were involved in seeking out knowledge and permissions. The show would certainly never got to where it did in terms of emotional and political impact if Trevor’s mother, Gail, had not been so supportive.
When it came to creating a show about Namatjira, however, there was no such direct kin connection. Just Elton Wirri. And by happenstance, Wirri and the rest of Namatjira’s descendants/ mob live in and around Alice Springs. Alice had served as the operational centre for all the important inter-cultural negotiations in the making of Ngapartji Ngapartji (evolving ways and means, forming friendships, establishing what it might be that Big hART could give back in exchange). In the relevant locale, there was expertise, and precedents had been set. As a result, it took no less work, but certainly less time to get Namatjira up and running. Back in the big smoke, the project was given further impetus when Belvoir scheduled the show into its 2010 season, on a basis of a concept/proposal a mere few pages long.
Putting the show together still required sensitivity, and a possible film evolving from this project has already documented much of what this has entailed. Those who saw Namatjira at Belvoir will remember the short film that came at the end, where kin of the artist spoke up in support for the project. In a hilarious moment, one descendant, Mostyn Kentaltja, not only asks how a ‘skinny fella’ like Jamieson could credibly embody the much physically larger ‘original’ Namatjira. And a Pitjantjatjara man playing an Arrarnta bloke? “Trevor,” he says to the camera only half-joking, “I’ll be watching you like a cat.”
As a writer/director, and also artistic director of the Big hART company, Scott Rankin has a characteristic interest in creating on stage a strong ‘unified field’. And a stage world which also happens to resonate with the one outside. Remembering the presence of women from the Ernabella choir on stage in Ngapartji Ngapartji, it was not surprising to find Elton Wirri (again), and other Namatjira descendants actively working on the making of this new show. Not just the workshops held at Hermannsburg, but present in the finished production – on stage. On opening night in Sydney, we had Wirri, Kevin Namatjira, Gloria Pannka and Ivy Pareroultja, all making art in front of us as the drama unfolded – all of them kin. The V-shaped back wall of the Belvoir space had been transformed into a blackboard on which the artists ‘chalked’ a massive panorama of MacDonnell Ranges each night.
Another chance connection. Last year Big hART and Rankin were invited to work with the Adelaide-based Windmill Theatre company on a new show for young audiences. Together they created a new work, Nyuntu Ngali, again written and directed by Rankin, and featuring Jamieson in a leading role. But also on stage were two young actors, one of them Derek Lynch. That was his first professional show and Namatjira is now his second. If Jamieson confirms his status as one of Australia’s finest actors, certainly our best storyteller, then Derek Lynch (very different in temperament and style) is a rising star.
I think, in early stages of conception, the Namatjira project was going to be a one-man show for Jamieson. After working on Nyuntu Ngali, Rankin expanded his concept to include Lynch. Though an Adelaide resident these days, Lynch hails from Alice Springs. So he is an Arrarnta guy, and speaks that language. This was helpful for Jamieson, with a script in hand that demanded not only his own voice (as story-teller/narrator), but that of the German Pastor of the mission, Reginald Battarbee, Namatjira’s father - Namatjirritja – and, oddly, an almost silent role, Namatjira himself (in Rankin’s artfully conceived script, everyone else speaks for, against, and around our hero – he is a put-upon man). It is nonetheless Jamieson playing all these parts, and the languages and accents that go with them. Why so much for just one actor? Because audiences adore virtuosity – and Rankin knew Jamieson had it in him. This show was, among other things, going to push Jamieson to another level. Meanwhile with Lynch there in the rehearsal room, there was whole other (fresh) energy - and Jamieson got some good help with his Arrarnta.
I should add that the rehearsals took place on the roomy top floor of Belvoir’s workshop centre, just down the street from the theatre. And that here and there the odd photo was taken one person or another capturing the behind-the-scenes goings on. I should also explain that on stage with Trevor and Derek, and various Namatjira kin were a number of other contributing performers. World-renowned recorder player, composed the music and often performed live. In her absence due to other commitments, violinist Nicole Forsyth performed.
In what was a kind of moving feast, in support of the two leading roles, also taking in turns depending on the performance were two major Australian portrait artists: Robert Hannaford and Evert Ploeg. This element refers to William Dargie’s 1956 Archibald Prize-winning portrait. Part of the excitement in seeing the show as often as I did (about five times) was wondering who would be on stage that night. I think I saw everybody involved at least once. Anyways – enough for now. More on the actual show and the creatives involved next time! Oh and the party we had in my tiny flat for Derek Lynch’s birthday. That was indeed a fun night!