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Art hero, citizen, taxpayer

Albert Namatjiras art and earnings won official notice, writes Ken Longworth.
ALBERT Namatjira, the indigenous artist whose watercolour landscapes introduced most Australians to the beauty of their countrys centre, established a milestone in 1957 when he became the first Aborigine to be given Australian citizenship. The Australian Constitution at that time did not recognise Aborigines and they were not included in censuses. It wasnt until 1967 that an overwhelming referendum vote changed the constitution to give them citizenship. Namatjiras citizenship declaration certainly wasnt the product of an official acknowledgment of his creativity. The Australian government of the day had a more practical purpose. Albert Namatjira (1902-59) was earning a lot of money and the only way the government could tax his income was to make him a citizen. As noted by Trevor Jamieson, who plays the artist in the acclaimed theatre work Namatjira, he was making more money than the pastoralists living in his home country around Alice Springs. Namatjira, which will be staged at Newcastles Civic Theatre on March 13 and 14, has been a major success since it premiered at Sydneys Belvoir Street Theatre in September, 2010. The play is built around the working relationship between the title character and Rex Battarbee, a Victorian artist who was partly crippled while fighting in World War I and travelled to central Australia to paint. Albert Namatjira meets Battarbee at the Hermannsburg mission run by German Lutherans and asks him for lessons in painting. The artist takes some of Namatjiras works with him when he returns to Melbourne and art lovers rush them, setting Namatjira on a career that would include Queen Elizabeth II asking to meet him on her first visit to Australia in the 1950s and buying one of his works. Through the friendship of Battarbee and the student who would outshine him, the play looks at the positive side of black and white relations. It also doesnt ignore the negative aspects and shows that Namatjira was as much a victim of his own people his earnings helped to support 600 Aborigines in his community as of narrow-minded whites. Trevor Jamieson put the idea of a play about Namatjira to playwright and director Scott Rankin while he was appearing in another work by Rankin, Ngapartji Ngapartji. That 2005 play, which won Jamieson a Sydney Theatre

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

ACCLAIM: Trevor Jamieson stars in Namatjira. Picture by Brett Boardman

Award for best actor in a leading role in a subsequent production, was based on his familys story as people displaced from their Central Desert home by the Maralinga atomic tests of the 1950s. One of the actors in the first staging of Ngapartji Ngapartji was a precocious 14-yearold, Elton Wirri, who did onstage painting during the show. Jamieson noted how audience members gasped when told that Wirri was a grandson of Namatjira. The Namatjira project was taken on board by Big hART, the company which also staged Ngapartji Ngapartji. Talks with Albert Namatjiras family began in 2008. The family at first raised the matter that Jamieson was from the Pitjantjatjara tribe rather than the Aranda, the Namatjira clan. But the politics were negotiated with little difficulty after family members read the script and saw Jamiesons performances at Alice Springs previews before the shows Sydney opening. Rex Battarbees daughter was also consulted in the development process.

Art is a feature of the show before it begins. As the audience enters the theatre, a painter (Evert Ploeg in the Newcastle performances) is working on the seated Trevor Jamiesons portrait. And at times during the play, two grandchildren of Namatjira (sisters Lenie and Gwenda Namatjira) work on a chalk landscape at the back of the stage. Trevor Jamieson and fellow actor Derik Lynch play a dozen roles between them. Jamieson is both Namatjira and Battarbee, as well as narrator, and Lynchs characters include the Queen, Namatjiras wife, and the snobbish wife of a Melbourne lord mayor. They sing country music to underline developments, with musician Rhia Parker playing, on a recorder and other instruments,

music by composer Genevieve Lacey. Reinforcing the continuing importance of Albert Namatjira as artist and mentor, the shows appearances in most cities are accompanied by exhibitions and workshops. The John Paynter Gallery at The Lock Up has an exhibition, Many Hands: Namatjira Legacy, until March 18. Contact The Lock-Up on 4925 2265. Newcastle Art Gallery will have on show the Ntaria Suite of 27 watercolours by members of Namatjiras family and others from the Hermannsburg school of painters. Namatjira plays at the Civic Theatre on Tuesday, March 13, 8pm, and Wednesday, March 14, 11am and 8pm. Tickets: $50; concession $45. Bookings: Civic Ticketek, 4929 1977.

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TOO MUCH LOVE: Kate Hudson and Gael Garcia Bernal.

woman who lives in New Orleans, works in advertising and doesnt want to be pinned down, romantically speaking. When she is diagnosed with colon cancer, she adopts a wisecracking attitude designed to keep everything at bay, masquerading as acceptance. She flirts with her doctor during her colonoscopy, she tells her boss about her illness via a card with a limerick she keeps friends and family at arms length and shuns all talk of emotion. But she does capture the interest of her doctor, Julian Goldstein (Gael Garcia Bernal). You cant say hes miscast, because its hard to imagine any actor making it work. Julian is not so much a role as a massive cardboard cutout passing as a character. Hes the man she doesnt want to admit she has fallen in love with: he has a yo-yo collection, hes not good at telling jokes and thats all we know. Despite the Whoopi flights of fantasy, there is the kernel of something dark and sardonic in the A Little Bit of Heaven and its brittle heroine wrestling with mortality and selfawareness. However, director Nicole Kassell and writer Gren Wells soon take it all in a neat, saccharine direction: every scene is a moral lesson, and the tidiness and predictability overwhelm.
THE AGE

50 NEWCASTLE HERALD Monday, March 5, 2012