Namatjira’s story, a lesson for everyone
Albert Namatjira is an indigenous Australian who died almost half a century ago but his life has recently become the subject of a play at Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre and “Namatjira” should be required watching for anyone ready to hold a mirror up to their own face and take a equanimous approach to our cultural divide.
Quite aside from the extraordinary skill, energy and physicality of the two main actors’ brilliant performances - they carry ten characters and about five accents between them- the narrative tells us as much about Namatjira’s ultimately tragic life as it does about Australian history in the early 20th century and it’s an awesome journey.
Born in the outback in 1902 Namatjira was the only child of his Aranda parents who raised him together with a German Pastor at a Lutheran mission on the edge of Alice Springs.
While Namatjira’s parents lived a traditional life in the bush, making regular visits to their son, Namatjira’s relationship with the predominately German speaking Pastor was pivotal and nurturing. Their narrative alone shines an unexpected light on the work that missions like this was one did on behalf of the indigenous community.
Namatjira’s Pastor stood up to authorities and advocated for the protection of grass, waterholes and various flora and fauna that formed the basis of traditional indigenous livelihood in the face of a growing agricultural industry that threatened this ancient way of life.
Both world wars played out in Namatjira’s lifetime and the play explores the impact these events had on farming and the environment; the German settlers in Alice Springs and their detainment in South Australia after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour; the affectations of life in Sydney and Melbourne life in the 1930’s, the influence of the monarchy on early Australia and a celebration of art, the outback culture of stockmen and drovers, red dirt and isolation.
Last week on The Punch, Tory Shepherd wrote an evocative piece about an indigenous community from coastal NSW who fled their town after a series of violent attacks and it struck a chord with readers.
As the comment thread shows, non-indigenous observations of indigenous culture are often quick off the mark and almost always complicated; sometimes righteous and rude, other times well meaning and empathetic but most of the time, they just seem confused. Even the manner in which policy seeks to tackle this divide is polarising; emphasising the things that make us different and more or less deserving than the other. But what about the things that make us the same?
Namatjira’s lead actors take this on board. Endearingly self-deprecating in their depiction of the indigenous struggle to understand the white Australian way of life as well as the German language and faith, their message is clear; Namatjira is a story about indigenous observations and curiosities with western practices and culture and the bewilderment and pressures that come with trying to amalgamate these with their own customary practices.
For Albert Namatjira those pressures were overwhelming; his incredible artistic talent brought him fast fortune, success and notoriety in white Australia but he lost a battle with his own customs. Like the practice of “humbug” that saw him supporting 600 local families with the proceeds of his art along with an inordinate amount of loss, confusion and pain. A common experience - the play speaks plainly -that’s been the lot of our indigenous population for centuries.
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…