A whole new land­scape opens up to cel­e­brate Na­matjira

The Weekend Australian - - FRONT PAGE - ROSE­MARY NEILL

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

CHLOE ERLICH

Al­bert Na­matjira’s grand­daugh­ter Glo­ria Pannka

Arnold Bloch Leibler lawyers, from left, Gabriel Sakkal, Mark Leibler and Za­van Mardirossian; Dick Smith, right

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