Scott Rankin is the writer/director of BigHart's acclaimed production Namatjira, celebrating the life and legacy of one of Australia's best loved artists – Albert Namatjira. Scott talks to Australian Stage's Paul Andrew.

Scott RankinFor the benefit of those readers who don't know about Big hART – tell me a little about its background, its social and cultural role, its philosophy?
Big hART began 20 years ago as an experiment in new community dramaturgy. Each project is chosen carefully around policy issues, community issues and individual issues. A new process and approach to an issue is then designed around this matrix and always explores entwined relationships between identity and culture and the potential for new choices wrapped within each. Projects work long term, 3 to 5 years – and tend to be intergenerational.

At some point in this process art is produced in various fields – often performative, theatre, music, dance, film, free to air media, visual arts etc. In this way Big hART is a kind of new articulation of the politics of optimism in a world addicted to the satiating flavor of collective despair. The company is currently involved in two research projects and has been the subject of many evaluations, some useful, most landfill. 

Currently Big hART receives almost no funding from arts and culture sources, as poorly resourced government agencies seek to cost shift between departments and the non-government sector. However the organization is the product of a large group of talented innovators, artists, arts workers, researchers and producers who tend to be early-movers on new opportunities, resources and needs. This shapes the organization and explains its continual growth and change.

Scott tell me about how you first came to know about Namatjira, his community, his vivid watercolours?
Like many Australians over the last fifty years the art of Albert Namatjira seeped into my consciousness through tea towels, biscuit tin lids, place mats, prints and the occasional real painting in Art Galleries. My first encounter with his family came when working on Big hART's Ngapartji Ngapartji project and tour.

One of Albert's kin great-grandsons was making art on stage and every night he was introduced at the end of the show as one of Albert's kin grandsons. The audience reaction was so strong we realized this was a story people really wanted to hear. From there, Big hART was introduced to his community and family, a relationship sprang to life and we began to design the project.

Can you tell me about the geography that inspired him?
I'm not the right person to tell you much about this other than my own experience of his country. Albert was Western Aranda and came in from the bush early last century. His art features country from the Macdonald Ranges near Alice Springs out past Ntaria (Hermansburg). It is ancient, eroded, profoundly beautiful and deeply moving. Sometimes when leaving I'm filled with a deep ache that I find hard to shake off. At others I just want to get the hell out of there because it’s so friggin’ hot!

Albert's best preserved pictures of this country in the watercolour tradition catch the light, colour and mythic properties of the land in an uncanny way. I'm not in the position to talk of private symbology or myths. Suffice to say there is a strong cultural heritage that lives beyond the textbook, that is private and powerful and in many ways both intact and changing with time and influence and savvy adaption.

Can you tell me about his forebears, his family totem, and his Hermannsburg community?
No not really, totemic questions are more appropriate put to his family. There is much on the public record and some information in the performance piece which speaks for itself. Hermannsburg now seems quaint and Germanic, with touches of the Lutheran aesthetic here and there. The play has brought together descendents of the Albrecht family, the Namatjira family and Rex Battarbee's family (The man who taught him watercolour). They all hold each other in very deep affection and the songs, music and discussion of time on the mission also seems imbued with this same spirit. It's well worth a visit (120 kms west of Alice Springs.)

Can you tell me a little about his art training and influences?
Albert was shocked by the intensity of the colours of this "new technology" – watercolours. He quickly understood the potential for them as a way out of poverty. His training was informal and more of an exchange of skills with Rex – he took Rex places to paint on Camel and they camped together. Albert's first pictures were clumsy, but Rex saw his potential and assisted him with mentoring and also began taking his pictures to the city as part of his own exhibition. Rex and the mission then started promoting Albert's work and after some years it gained the attention of many.

At the height of his fame, his shows sold out – what was it about his watercolours that struck such a chord with art collectors and the Australian public?
I'm not an art critic however it appears first and foremost Albert had a beautiful eye and a deep affinity with his subject. His capacity to understand light and to paint what he was looking at with a deep simplicity was important. Beyond that there were aspects to this western way of seeing which were troubling for him. He solved these problems by gently avoiding things he wasn't allowed to include in his pictures. The public interest in the work was fuelled because so few of us hugging the coast in cities had seen that desert country and yet there was a deep growing hunger for it, for information and images about it. Perhaps, this was where the tsunami of interest came from so rapidly.

This theatre work employs many genres in the storytelling; tell me about this confluence of genres in recounting his biography?
The show is created in an art making space. The performers are sometimes outnumbered by the visual artists... depending on how many artists we have with us from the Namatjira family. The beginning point for the 18 month creative development was to sit with these watercolour artists and paint with them.

The silence and pace of the painting became quite important in creating the work. On to this bed of art-making we began building on the skills of the performers. The piece utilizes a number of contrasts and languages. The recorder playing and composition of Genevieve Lacy – with its Western resonances. Trevor Jamieson's fluid movement in story-telling. Aranda language in the singing overlaying the Germanic choir traditions. Comedy, high camp, monologue and movement sit within this 'studio' space. All of this is mediated through Trevor's direct address and highly personal performance.

This controlled bower-birding is something of the language Big hART has been exploring through these big pieces such as Namatjira, Ngapartji Ngapartji and others generated from central Australia. Central to this is the mediated space created by Trevor's generosity towards the audience. It feels like he is working freehand, however a great deal of work has gone into the structure and nuance of these moments.

Moments of great care where an audience has become very raw because of the material and need to be treated well – not to let us off the hook – rather to deepen the experience and allow Trevor and Derik to take us further inward and experience a deeper level of engagement and find a new energy to ponder next steps and our contribution to them.

So these various forms are chosen carefully to enhance this journey of generosity from performer to audience and audience to performer and then on to the non-performers – the family who are there to witness our proper induction into this family story.

How, where and when did this theatre work and concept come about?
The work began during the touring of Ngapartji Ngapartji and was then researched and discussed in 2008/09. In August 2009 it was fifty years since Albert passed away. Big hART began working with the family as a kind of commemoration that year, developing the Namatjira Project.

There were creative developments, showings in Alice Springs and Hermannsburg over the next 12 months, and then the first version of the work was staged as a co-production with Company B in Sydney. This first production was co-directed by Wayne Blair and the reaction to the sell out season was very strong. Since then the performance piece has gone into another creative development and this process will continue.

The performance piece is the highly visible part of a much larger project working in the community and also contributing to a policy discussion around the issue of Aboriginal Art Centres and whether they are receiving enough support.

And it's premise as a re-appropriation/reclamation of an indigenous biography?
I don't really think of it in these terms. What I find interesting is that the story is very much about Albert and Rex and their relationship as well as the struggles of the Pastor and his family.

There are many stories told here, however it is always framed by people discussing the show with a kind of blind-eye to the complexities being presented. Yes Albert is fore grounded as the play unfolds. Part of the reason for this is the art-making that is going on continually around you.

The audience begin to float with this making, and artifacts on stage start to take on a kind of realness and become embued with the spirit of the studio, the family, the life, in a way that is slightly unusual for a theatre experience. The audience then forsake all other aspects of the story and find a strong experience of their own in Trevor's hands. We forget the almost "standup" material, the drag, and the choir songs and find us deeply in Albert's life experience and it becomes – hopefully – an intense experience where a deeper reconsideration of personal assumptions can be made... beyond the circumstances of the story. Where are we now.

Of course in many ways it is a bio-play, but it is much broader than that, or at least invites the audience down many related tangents, that are not so much about the biography, but of course all about it.

For a generation or two, large art prints of Namatjira's famous works hung inside classrooms of public and private schools alongside works from the Heidelberg school, awakening many young minds – mine included – to his work and indigenous heritage. There have been many other Namatjira prompts in the collective imagination as well?
This question is probably too big to answer here. Albert was as much an entrepreneur as an artist. He saw opportunities to support his family and community and against all odds, with the help of his friend Rex, and the Pastor, they made this happen. This led to him eventually selling the copyright for a very good price to a friend of his, which released many printed versions of his images onto the market.

Towards the end of his life, as well as teaching others, he allowed others to finish some aspects of his pictures. This seems strange to us, but was not that strange then. Some of these approaches fuelled criticism of him and Rex. Others – on both sides of politics – romanticized him as a kind of noble savage artist, and lamented his painting in these western traditions, and expressed anger at this adaptive ability to explore avenues of hope in this way.

Sitting alongside this debate are many very exquisitely painted works, which have been stored well and show their true colours. Alison French has written beautifully and far more expertly than I can on his prolific output and profound works.
Art making in indigenous culture is about relatedness and kinship, art is alive and living.

Trevor Jamieson in NamitjiraI'm not in the position to talk about the indigenous perspective on art making... however, I do think it is very instructive to look at Aboriginal Art Centres now in remote communities and to examine their contribution as beacons of positive endeavour. And then look at how appallingly under funded and under supported they are.

In a sea of policy failure, many of these centers are the lungs of these communities, breathing hope and life and possibility in difficult times. Significantly these centers take a "whole of life" view and our devaluing of them is I think a repeat of the treatment Albert received in his day under a more subtle guise. In many ways Albert's life and artistry provided the momentum for the Art Centre movement and we continue to punish him through our neglect of Art Centres and their role in remote communities today.

From my observation art at the centre of life is both a very traditional idea and a deeply contemporary idea, which has nothing to do with trinkets and trophies and everything to do with thriving and hope.


Image credits:-
Top Right –  and Scott Rankin. Photo – Nicholas Higgins
Bottom Right – Trevor Jamieson in Big hART's Namatjira. Photo – BrettBoardman

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