Albert Namatjira..: A Story in 3 Acts.

[ Warning : This story contains names of indigenous persons who have passed away ]

The Namatjira trust - The Painters Keys

Act One ; Scene #1.

It is the 1950’s, Albert Namatjira applies for a grazing licence so as to try to take his people away from the influence and reliance of charity from the Lutheran mission for their living.


A government office; a sign: “Department of Native Affairs” Two men in Regulation public service dress (open-necked plain shirt, belted plain shorts, knee-high beige stretch socks and patent-leather shoes) are in the office…one is seated ,the other walks about the room as he speaks, stooping over the desk to address the seated man when making a point..

1st man.: ” So that’s it in a nutshell…we have the unique situation of an Aborigine trying to lease some of his tribal land to use for grazing cattle.”

2nd man( seated): (picks up manila folder, flips through it then replaces it casually on the desk)”So what’s the problem?..he’s an Aborigine, not an Australian citizen….he can’t own or lease land…tribal or otherwise.”

1st M : “That’s just it….this isn’t just any Aboriginal, its Albert Namatjira….THE painter .”

2nd M : (leans back in swivel seat, puts hands behind head…snorts)” So he’s a painter…so what?…I got an Abo’ doing my gardening for me and he can’t buy land neither!” (laughs).

1st M: “Well…I thought we better approach the subject with a little bit of diplomacy… not to mention covering our arses with the newspapers. So I’ve dropped it into the lap of the boss…he’ll be here in a sec’ “.

2nd M : “That useless pri.. ! (door suddenly opens , suited man strides in)…oh, g’day Ron….(leaps up), have a seat (obsequiously holds seat for the boss )…now, about this situation, what do you think?”

Ron : (sits)” Just what we don’t bloody need….not at this moment.”

1st m: “What do you mean .. at this moment?”

Ron : “I mean..(Ron stands and paces behind desk while speaking) the whole bloody centre of the country is being sounded for mineral exploration….from the Kimberleys to the Blue Mountains….from Port Augusta to here, Port. Darwin….every man-jack mineral company with a licence and a prospector’s pick will be scouring the desert within the next decade and the last thing they want is to ask permission from a tribe of Abo’s if they can sink a shaft on their land.”

2nd M : “What about the other pastoralists?”

Ron : (stops, sneers)”What about ’em?…they welcome it.. royalties per ton of ore will be money in the bank plus the company will sink bores in those god-awful places that the cocky can draw on for water (snaps fingers) That’s it!…water.”

1st M :”What water?”

Ron :“Ha Ha!…No water!..(slaps hands together and rubs water.. Mr Namatjira can’t lease that land for a cattle station b-e-c-a-u-s-e ..”

2nd M:(cries gleefully) “Because there is no permanent water supply!”

1st M : “And so we don’t refuse permission because he is an Aborigine but because there is no water! our arse is covered, the mineral companies are happy, the newspapers are appeased and the only one to miss out is Mr Namatjira!?”

Ron : “And he’s just one Abo’ after all said and done, gentlemen…this calls for a beer….(they gather together, Ron points to the door ) To the “Darwin” quick march, two three four (they march out in file). ”

Stage darkens for fifteen seconds, then lights up same scene the same two men in the same postures as before…the door flies open and Ron strides in again .

Ron :”What’s this bastard trying to do, get me posted to Roper River? (throws newspaper on desk….pokes it with finger) quote : Albert Namatjira buys town block in Alice Springs dress-circle….(reads mockingly)” I want to build a house and studio near my agent and friend, Mr Battarbee”…There.. he wants to be near-his-friend (shouts) I’ve had nearly every resident within half a mile of the proposed site on the blower to me this morning, threatening to have my balls if I give permission…and that’s the women!….the blokes are a little more lenient…they’ll just lynch me!…why oh why can’t he stay out in the desert like all the other Abo’s and leave me alone…The southern “liberal” papers are having a field day!”

1st M: (reads paper)”Give Albert a fair go!”.

Ron: (snatches paper, throws it on desk)”Yeah, give him a fair go….that’s because they’re down there safely out of the way….let him build a house next door to those hacks and then see who screams the loudest….what to do, what to do?”

1st M. (sits on edge of desk, swings one leg) ” Just refuse permission.”

Ron: “And have these jackels (stabs paper ) on my back?”

2nd M : “No, he’s right..refuse permission on the grounds that it is a federal law that is the problem…(strikes off points on finger) a: He is not an Australian citizen so he cannot buy land..b: He is an Aborigine so he must obey the curfew and not remain in the town limits after dark….see?, not your are only enforcing the law.”( spreads hands, pouts, raises eyebrows).

1st M :”Our arse is covered, the citizens are happy…the only one to miss out is Mr Namatjira, and after all . . .”

All three : “….He’s only an Abo’!”

Ron: (smiles) ” That’s a very sound law too….but we mustn’t be too churlish, offer him a block of land on the nearby a sort of consolation. (smiles again)….Gentlemen, this calls for a beer…to the “Darwin”, quick march, two three four…”

Stage darkens again for fifteen seconds, lights to find the same three men pacing the floor , Ron is agitated and waving some papers in the air as he paces.

Ron : “What are these bastards trying to do to me?  I thought we’d got rid of the bastard and now these other bastards have gone and given him citizenship!…nigger-loving bastards!”

1st M : “Christ! That’s put the kybosh on the residential allotment scheme.”

Ron : ” I’ll fuckin’ say it has….now there’s no stopping him….thank Christ citizenship only covers him and his bloody wife.”

2nd M : “What about his kids….there must be a mess of them?”

Ron : “Nah..they’re out of the picture ” ( he stops his striding and gesticulates excitedly) “Yes!…of course  his children!…WAIT!… Here we go, as a citizen, HE doesn’t have to adhere to the curfew of all natives out of town limits by nightfall….but as technically “wards of the state”, his children do! ”

1st M : ” Eureka!…he can have his house but not his children….brilliant.”

Ron : ” Yeah , brilliant.. screw him and the same to those nigger-lovers too!”

2nd M: “Bewdy!…our arse is covered, the good citizens are happy and the only one to lose out is Mr. Namatjira and after all….”

All Three : “He’s only an Abo’!  to the Darwin three four!”

Exit scene.

Act 2; scene # 1.

Stage is in darkness save for Albert sitting near a soft glowing campfire, left centre stage. he is alone.. He lifts head and calls..

Alb : “Rubina  Rubina  where are you? Children? Friends? where is everybody?….(he stands, turns slowly) Anybody? Am I all alone?..”

Elder: “Namatjira!” (almost a command..The Elder remains unseen, his voice echoes around the stage …rythmn of clapsticks in background)

Alb : “Tjamu?….Tjamu? (Albert hunches his body, afraid) …is that you?….but you are gone ,Tjamu..gone these two years..’

Eld : “Namatiira…You have crossed the boundary of your country.. you are in white-man’s land now….you have no weapons, you have not the skills to hunt their game…beware Namatjira…they will hunt you now….”

Alb : ”Hunt me?..but why…I am only an artist…I am only one man trying to live amongst them, as they would have me.”

Eld: “Fool!….they would have you dead! they could put you in a museum and study you, piece by piece they don’t want your art….they want your soul!”

Mb: “My soul, Tjamu?….but how can they take my soul unless I give it to them?”

Eld : “You already have, Namatjira…in colour and form…and now they will play creation games with you and yours…”

Alb : “What am I to do ,Tjamu? I am alone.”

Eld : “I cannot help you any more….as you said, I am now gone.. You, Namatjira are now the Elder.. Seek your own wisdom.”

Alb :” Tjamu? Where, Tjamu (silence)…Where do I go for wisdom? Tjamu!..(he cries aloud) Tjamu, Tjamu!” (stage darkens)

Exit scene.

Act2 ; scene #2.

After Albert Namatjira’s initial success, one of the more obscure friendships he developed was with the broadcaster and public figure of Jack Davey…appearing on stage with Davey and also with his son being taken out fishing with Davey on his (Davey’s) boat ; the “Sea Mist”.


The after-deck of Jack Davey’s cruising boat ..”Sea Mist”.. there is an awning and deck chairs about. there are several fishing rods leaning against the bulkhead….a door in this bulkhead is open. Enter an ebullient Jack Davey followed by a smiling Albert and his son Keith..

Jack: “Well…that’s the story of all fishermen, Albert..ha ha!…(places rod with others) The one that got away…Just prop those rods over with the others..”

Albert: “Anyhow, its closer than we get to them in Hermannsburg! (both laugh heartily) though we do get fish in the desert you know.”

Jack : “In the desert!..really!..How big?”

A : (Albert holds hands apart about one foot, with thumbs pointing inwards) “About this big.”

Jack : (looks extremely surprised) “Really!?”

A : (winks to Keith) “Yeah! between the thumbs.” the old joke is sprung on Jack….he throws his head back and laughs).

Jack Davey twists back in his chair and calls into the cabin.

Jack : ” Bill!…bring us out some cold drinks if you will…” He then turns to Albert and gestures conciliatory…”I’m sorry for not being able to offer you any alcoholic beverages but, well, it’s the law….dumb as it is I hope you’re not offended?”

A : ” I’m not sure if I’d be more offended if you presumed I wanted alcohol.” he laughs.

Jack : “Well….the law is an ass….and the trouble is also I am watched whatever I do”.

A “You, Jack….I would have thought you’d be free to do as you pleased. ”

J : “Ahh! (tch) you see Albert, and this is something that will soon concern you too, so if I may presume to offer a bit of advice…I am what is called a “performing artist”….that is I get up on a stage, be it radio or theatre or wherever and “perform” to an audience…the public. You , likewise in a different way are hoisted onto a stage of a kind and expected to “perform”….or at least through your paintings….and more so in your case with the novelty of being an aboriginal artist! and we get paid to “perform” so in effect we are “owned” by the public and believe me, they want their pound of flesh!”

A : “What do you mean : “owned by the public” and “pound of flesh?”

J : “Well…they don’t “Own” you by possession, but rather by expectation….The public expect us to perform to their expectation, and if you don’t. . . “  he makes a gesture with his index-finger across his throat.

A : ” Yes, well, I suppose you’d get cut up in the papers, but I’d just be forgotten”.

J : ” Don’t kid yourself, Albert, You’re much more vulnerable than me”.

A : ” How so?”

J : “Well…look at me; Jack Davey ; raconteur, comedian, congenial man-about-town….I tell some dirty jokes for them, they love me….I wash their dirty linen….when they get tired of my jokes they’ll say “Piss off Jack, we’re sick of you”…an’ I’ll piss off but you; Albert Namatjira….with their eyes they soak in your beautiful landscapes and it washes their souls….I suppose a painter is a washer of souls… you have a deeper talent than me (he holds his hand up to block Alberts protests), when they tire of me they will cut me in the press and the cuts will be shallow…but the universal rule is ; ” The greater the talent, the deeper the cut!”….(he pauses and considers if he has said too much) there are people in this country whose souls need an awful lot of washing…. just..just watch out you don’t become their Black Christ.  ” He suddenly stands and reaches for a fishing rod. ” Alright, enough of the maudlin conversation, lets catch some fish and talk about jokes, say..have you heard the one about the travelling salesman? …..”

Exit scene.

Act 3 Scene: #1

The final act in Albert Namatjira’s journey can be said to be his imprisonment for the “supply of alcohol” to some companions at a favourite gathering place named “Morris Soak” that led to the death of a young woman…


Rex Battarbee and Albert on stage. Albert sits in the dirt in front of a ramshackle shelter, but he is dejected, morose. Rex is standing before him, arms outstretched. appealing to him to cheer up.

Rex : “Listen , Albert…You’ve got to bounce back from all this….”

Alb : “You don’t understand, Rex…I was the Elder there, it was MY camp. there should not have been drink there.. that girl….she shouldn’t have died.”

Rex : “But they were all grown people there, you can’t be responsible for the actions….”

Alb : (raising his head and voice) “I was the Elder.. l WAS responsible….that is the trouble. Rex. I was thinking as a white person would… I neglected my part in the tribe.. I was responsible TO my people, not FOR my people, but TO!”

Rex: (turning and welsh combing his hair)”Well, Albert, Mabey you know better in that matter…but surely what’s done is done…you’ve had other setbacks like.. like when Mr Lindsay of the Melbourne Gallery knocked back those paintings a couple of years ago….that was very disappointing.”

Alb : (looks up, puzzled) “You know, I can’t understand why he did refuse those paintings…they were good ones…and they got them cheap because Mr Lindsay asked me when I was in Melbourne if I could give him a painting (Albert glances right then left , then in an exaggerated whisper) “A little bit cheap”…. er, Rex , does Mr Dobell give paintings “a little bit cheap? (a laugh).”

Rex “Well…(makes a shrugging gesture) but listen Albert, you remember that time they refused you permission to build a house in The Alice….That upset you then.. eh?…but you remember we went out bush to Glen Helen gorge and set up camp out there in that beautiful country and we forgot about it, eh?”

Alb : “Did we?..”

Rex :” Yes we did….and it was so hot, you remember and..and you made that joke about. how some people ask why there is always a gum tree on the side of your paintings…and you said it was there to give you shade as you painted….(a laugh from Rex, a guffaw from Albert)  I remember it was so hot for two days, then that cool change came through with that rain (Rex plays a pantomime with his hands wiping over his face…Albert stands up, staring at him silently) Ahh!…it was so beautiful…so cooling…I remember us standing there with the rain just running down our faces…” Rex has his eyes closed reminiscing)…

Alb : (He gazes steadily at Rex, then nods his head slowly)”Yes …. I remember….The two of us were there standing in the rain and it was pouring down our faces like a river of tears.. but only one of us was really weeping.”

Rex takes his hands from his face. opens his eyes, blinks a couple of times. turns slowly to face Albert who stands staring at him. Both remain motionless…stage-light fades out..


Exit scene.

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