Wednesday, August 17, 2011

One of the highlights of my year in Australia was the community-building Aboriginal theater piece "Ngapartji Ngapartji." How lucky that I'm here as the latest work of talented actor Trevor Jamieson and Big hART Productions plays in Melbourne's Malthouse theater. Better still, it's about Albert Namatjira (not his real name, we learned), the famous Aboriginal painter of watercolor landscapes of the 40s and 50s, whose life and art inspired several papers in my Aboriginal Australia class.

The story of "Namatjira" is a remarkable one, and it's good that a new generation will learn about it. Namatjira was celebrated by white Australia - met the queen, was even granted citizenship! - and his landscapes graced the walls of many an Australian home at mid-century, but he died of a brokem heart after being imprisoned for supplying grog to non-citizens (who happened to be family). This production, developed with Namatjira's descendants, also explores the important friendship between Namatjira and Rex Batterbee, the white artist from whom Namatjira learned the art - a Digger, we learned, unable to work after WW1 - and the possibilities of a shared Australia it suggests.

The friendship between Namatjira and Batterbee could easily have been the heart of the show, but Batterbee faded from the story at the end. This may be because the story being told was that of the Namatjira family. (They gave Jamieson - who's not even Arrernde - permission to use the name and tell the story.) And in truth the most stirring thing about the performance may have been the presence on stage of three grandchildren of Namatjira. They had no speaking or acting parts, but spent the whole time drawing in chalk on a great chalkboard set details of the landscapes their grandfather made famous, and whose style of painting has been passed to them as family property. Perhaps for copyright reasons, no images of Albert Namatjira's work were used, but here we felt the art living and breathing through his kinspeople, and the continued gift of the Australian landscape which Albert taught many to see and treasure, at once inviting and uncanny in its scale and color.

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