A few weeks ago my mother and I went to watch a play about the artist the world has come to know as Albert Namatjira. I have been trying ever since to articulate my reactions. I think this is as clear as it is likely to get.
Even before you entered the performance space, the scene was set. Paintings by the artist were papered along the outside wall. The stage itself was a collaboration of spaces. The background for the stories to be told was set by a continuing landscape in chalk being worked on by the living family of the artist. The foreground was a portrait of the actor playing the artist being worked on as the audience found their spots as spectators. The performance spaces with music and desert were the landscape on which this background and foreground were based.
There were amazing things about the performance. It was undertaken by
the Namatjira Project and it was clear that the play itself was part of a much wider project supporting indigenous rights. The acting and storytelling was compelling. The telling was unapologetic and for the most part saved from being preachy by the humour with which it was told. And it left me wondering how different the story would have been if it hadn’t been written to be heard, seen and understood by white people.
My ignorance about the history of colonisation in Australia is almost total. Everything I know comes from drawing connections between other histories I’ve heard. So I learned an awful lot from being to the play. But I still don’t know the artist’s name. I know he was Elea of Aranda country. I know his Father’s name sounded like Numentjirja to me (but I’m probably mangling it horribly). I know Missionaries approximated this to Namatjira and named him Albert. And that he signed his paintings Albert until it was pointed out to him that he needed to have more than one name, from which point on he signed Albert Namatjira.
The paintings of Albert Namatjira have always been for the consumption of the colonial eyes. What he painted for a constant compromise between what he saw and what he could make his customers see. There was a beautiful part in the play where he (played by Trever Jamieson) talks about places that he sees. And places that are not his to see. Places that are for women, places that are sacred. It made me wish that the colonisers had that much insight in to their own world. A little less arrogance about what is seen would have made for much more interesting history.
It makes me curious what the people in the audience thought they saw. The theatre was full to brimming and we were up in the gallery. I didn’t see a single person of colour there other than my mother. And given the demographic of Canberra generally and the fact that we were in a quintessentially middle-class setting, this didn’t really come as a surprise. But I was saddened by the reactions of the audience. The uncomfortable giggle that broke out when talk turned to the appropriation of indigenous names was pretty much par for the course, as was the general hilarity of seeing a man dressed up as a woman. The things other people find funny I can’t laugh at. Or even about. And so I wonder. How different would the play have been if not meant for middle-class, white people?
The play does what it needs to. And continues the tradition of Albert Namatjira. The tradition of walking a fine line between two worlds to make enough money from the white world to be able to do the work that needs to be done in their own. The paintings will be sold, the play will be seen, and I will learn to be here. Perhaps eventually, I’ll find a space where I can hear the stories that are meant for me.