A whole new landscape opens up to celebrate Namatjira
For Gloria Pannka, painter and granddaughter of Albert Namatjira, it was a stunning and historic breakthrough that followed a “long and hard struggle’’ for control of the Aboriginal art pioneer’s legacy.
“We’re happy we finally got it back. The whole family’s really happy and proud,’’ Pannka said after a copyright deal was struck yesterday.
The deal — expedited by entrepreneur Dick Smith and described as “incredible’’ and righting “a terrible and emblematic wrong’’ — shifts control of Namatjira’s works to his impoverished descendants for the first time.
The transfer, for the nominal sum of $1, brings to an end a marathon saga that spiralled into the nation’s most emotive and con- tentious copyright case. It also opens the way for Namatjira’s majestic yet serene landscapes — including the paintings reproduced in The Weekend Australian today — to be more widely circulated, following years of tight restrictions imposed by long-time copyright holder Legend Press.
It also clears the way for documentaries and books about the painter to include his works.
The copyright controversy pitted Namatjira’s grandchildren, legal firm Arnold Bloch Leibler, campaigning arts company Big hART and the nation’s leading cultural institutions against Legend Press, a white-owned art publisher. Based on Sydney’s north shore, Legend Press had exercised majority control or total control of Namatjira’s copyright for 60 years through two contentious copyright deals.
The Namatjira clan and Big hART had lobbied to win back control of the copyright to the nation’s most famous indigenous art estate for the past eight years. Big hART producer Sophia Marinos admitted she “lost hope many times’’; Pannka said she found the wait “very hard’’.
In the end, it was a surprise intervention by Smith — a childhood friend of the Brackenreg family, owners of Legend Press — that ended the impasse.
Just before noon, in Legend Press’s art gallery on the trafficchoked Pacific Highway in Sydney’s north, the art publisher transferred Namatjira’s copyright to the Namatjira Legacy Trust. (This new body represents the interests of the artist’s descendants and their broader community in central Australia.)
Namatjira, the first indigenous painter to work in a Western tradition, died in 1959 in tragic circumstances, and is still arguably the country’s most famous Aboriginal artist. But for 34 years, the Namatjira clan has not earned a cent from reproductions of its famous ancestor’s works. This followed a controversial 1983 decision by Northern Territory authorities to sell 100 per cent of Namatjira’s copyright to Legend Press, for $8500, without consulting the family.
Yesterday’s agreement not only means royalty payments will again flow to the Namatjiras and their community, via the trust; it also means family members will control how their revered grandfather’s images are reproduced in everything from gallery catalogues and websites to merchandising, films and school textbooks.
In recent months, The Weekend Australian revealed how Legend Press had been accused of stifling Namatjira’s legacy by taking a restrictive approach to the copyright and inhibiting circulation of the painter’s images, even at flagship institutions such as the National Gallery of Australia and Art Gallery of NSW. Legend Press denied those allegations, citing “unresolved’’ copyright issues with different institutions.
Posing with her grandfather’s paintings at Alice Springs’s Araluen Arts Centre — the same paintings Legend Press had prevented Big HART from reproducing — Pannka indicated the new regime would result in wider exposure of Namatjira’s works.
“We really want his images to be more available so the family can see them and the younger generation can see them,” said Pannka, who paints using the same delicate watercolour techniques Namatjira did.
“He was the first Aboriginal painter, and he was a teacher as well, and we want his images to be published.’’
Yesterday’s deal was complet- ed after an 11th-hour negotiation by Smith, who also made a $250,000 donation to the Namatjira trust.
The businessman and philanthropist attended yesterday’s copyright sale, but insisted that he was a minor player in the deal, which was also “driven by your (The Weekend Australian’s) campaign’’.
Smith is an ambassador for Aboriginal reconciliation but found it “hard to get a success in doing something worthwhile for Aboriginal people’’.
Because his salesman father, Herb, had worked for Legend Press founder John Brackenreg, he felt he could help “clear up the misunderstanding’’ swirling around the symbolically important copyright.
Two weeks ago Smith phoned Philip Brackenreg, John’s son and a current Legend Press owner, and reached an in-principle agreement. “It wasn’t as if there was any great, difficult battle; the phone call took about 15 minutes, and Philip was very much in agreement with solving this problem,” Smith said. “I think it is quite wonderful that the money (donation) is going to the trust and the family.”
(The Weekend Australian understands the Brackenregs received a modest payment for agreeing to the sale.)
In a statement, Philip Brackenreg said: “Due to the recent media attention to Namatjira’s copyright, Dick has negotiated with Legend Press to have the copyright transferred to the Namatjira Trust. Dick Smith has made a generous donation to the Namatjira Trust in recognition of John Brackenreg’s support of Albert Namatjira’s art.’’
John Brackenreg, who died in 1986, was an art dealer who represented Namatjira. Some say his reproductions of Albert’s works, including Christmas cards, prints and calendars, made the indigenous painter a much-loved, household name.
The second, less flattering view is the 1957 copyright deal he struck with the semiliterate painter was “exploitative’’. (Under that deal, which lasted for 26 years, for every $8 generated by net sales of Namatjira reproductions, the artist received $1 and Legend Press received $7.)
Acting for the trust in yesterday’s deal was Arnold Bloch Leib- ler, which worked on the case pro bono. Senior partner Mark Leibler said the copyright saga “just sort of screamed out for attention’’ and that “we’re very pleased with the outcome”.
“It’s going to go down in our nation’s history as having righted a terrible and emblematic wrong,’’ he said.
He added that by agreeing to the transfer, Legend Press “unquestionably have done the right thing, and they certainly deserve credit for entering into the agreement’’.
Marinos, chairwoman of the Namatjira trust and producer of the Big hART documentary Namatjira Project, described the sale as “incredible”.
“For decades the Namatjira family have been hoping this might happen,” she said. “It is hugely significant, both for the country and the family, but also as a symbol for real reconciliation.’’
While she saw Legend Press’s agreement as “a really positive thing’’, she noted that Namatjira’s works had been “stifled by the handling of the copyright (and this) has really negatively impacted on his reputation and the exposure (to his works) of his grandchildren who are practising artists”.
“Major public institutions not being able to reproduce those works has led to so many people not knowing as much as they should know about his story and his art work,’’ she said.
It is estimated the Namatjira descendants suffered heavy financial losses because of the sixdecade copyright dispute. Pannka and Marinos confirmed a legal campaign to tackle Territory authorities over their historical involvement in this injustice would continue.
Albert Namatjira’s Fink River Mission and Mount Hermannsburg (1951), which can now be published without having to be pixelated; below, the artist, right, and his granddaughter Gloria Pannka, far left
Albert Namatjira paintings from around his home community of Hermannsburg, which The Weekend Australian can now show without pixelation
Albert Namatjira’s granddaughter Gloria Pannka
Arnold Bloch Leibler lawyers, from left, Gabriel Sakkal, Mark Leibler and Zavan Mardirossian; Dick Smith, right