Campaign seeks return of Aboriginal artist’s lost copyright

A racist injustice that blighted much of the Australian artist Albert Namatjira’s life may soon be at least partially rectified. Internationally esteemed during his lifetime, the Aboriginal watercolorist sold his lambent paintings of the central Australian desert around the world. He became one of Australia’s best-known artists, and was presented to Queen Elizabeth II, Australia’s head of state.

Yet as an Aboriginal man, Namatjira was not considered an Australian citizen by the government of the time. He was not allowed to vote, own land, buy alcohol or move house without permission. Late in his life he was awarded citizenship, but was then arrested and jailed when he bought alcohol for another Aboriginal man.

 Namatjira died in 1959, soon after his stint in prison. In his will he bequeathed all he owned to his wife and children. But that was not permitted either: The public trustee, a government official in Australia’s Northern Territory, stepped in and disposed of Namatjira’s belongings, including the copyright to his delicate watercolor paintings.

Nearly half a century later, Namatjira’s grandchildren and his community, the Aranda people, are hoping to recover the copyright to his work to fund a gallery, art teaching and other projects in the settlement where he grew up.

Hermannsburg Mission (Courtesy of Big hART)

Now called Ntaria, the settlement once known as the Hermannsburg Mission lies 125km west of Alice Springs, a place of red hills and blue skies, solitary eucalyptus trees and shimmering heat.

Jennifer Wilson, a curator at the National Museum of Australia, told the Nikkei Asian Review that Namatjira, who was taught how to paint with watercolors by visiting Australian artist Rex Batterbee, understood that painting could be a commercial enterprise.

“He wanted to try and make money for his family, to support them,” she said. “It was really, really hard to get any kind of wage. Mostly, on the mission, they were working for rations.” The museum, in Canberra, has some of Namatjira’s works on display, and several more in secure storage. The museum also provided the setting for the launch on March 3 of the Namatjira Legacy Trust, which hopes to recover the unexpired copyright to the artist’s works.

Namatjira signed an agreement with the late John Brackenreg of Sydney-based Legend Press, licensing the company to reproduce his art — a deal that provided him with 12.5% royalty on every reproduction, and continued after his death. Nothing changed until 1983, when the public trustee sold the remaining portion of the copyright to Legend Press for $8,500 Australian dollars (currently $6,500).

The current value of the copyright, now held by the Brackenreg family, is not known. The family did not respond to requests for comment. However, the Australian Arts Sales Digest estimates that proceeds from Namatjira’s auctioned works from 1970 until recently amounted to more than A$13 million, suggesting that the value of the copyright would be far higher than the 1983 sale price.

John Flynn, the public trustee who oversaw the sale, is now retired and living in Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory. Flynn told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that he had intended to sell the rights to Namatjira’s licensing agreement, which was valid until 1990, rather than the copyright to all of Namatjira’s work, which at the time was valid until 2009. “That would have been an extra 27 years, and if I did, it was a mistake on my part,” he said.

Gloria Pannka, Albert Namatjira’s granddaughter, painting (Courtesy of Big hART)

Australian copyright for paintings was later extended from 50 years after an artist’s death to 70 years, stretching the copyright period for Namatjira’s work to 2029. Recovering it “would mean so much for us, for our families, for our communities and for our generation,” Gloria Pannka, Namatjira’s granddaughter, told the ABC.

Once slightingly dismissed as an Aboriginal artist who painted in the “white-fella” style, Namatjira has been critically rehabilitated in recent years. Some experts and critics have found similarities between his work and the stylized dot paintings of today’s Papunya artists, a celebrated group of Aboriginal painters from a community northwest of Hermannsburg.

Albert Namatjira with his wife, grandchildren, and his father, Jonathan (Photo by Pastor Gross, Courtesy of the Strehlow Research Centre)

“It’s in the detail of the Hermannsburg watercolors, whether it’s Albert Namatjira, his sons’ work, and especially his relatives … it’s very strong in their work,” Wilson said. “The shadows, the crevices of the rock, the ways the trees are painted, it’s often quite dot-like. There’s a school of thought developing in art history to look at those paintings differently.”

Sophia Marinos, a director of the Namatjira trust, said she remained hopeful that some sort of arrangement could be reached with the Brackenreg family and Legend Press. Negotiations have been ongoing or several years, but have resumed in earnest with the launch of the trust, Marinos added.

“We spoke with Legend Press early on about a buyback or a donation, and those discussions came with the idea of setting up a trust, so if the copyright was reinstated to the family, it would be something that could benefit the whole community,” she said. “That was embraced by the Namatjira family, so if the copyright came back it could benefit the broader community, serve to resource an arts center — an art gallery for the Namatjira family and community.”

Marinos said the board hoped that if the remaining copyright was given to the trust, the Australian government would award it perpetual copyright. That would be unprecedented in Australia. Great Ormond Street children’s hospital in London holds the perpetual copyright to the children’s book Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie, but the gift required legislation in the U.K.

“We’re doing our best to work constructively with Legend Press,” Marinos said, “hopefully for a positive outcome — the return of the copyright.”