The Namatjira family hope a new film telling the story of their plight to regain the copyright of the iconic Australian artist will help heal wounds from the past
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19 Sep 2017 - 1:20 PM  UPDATED 21 Sep 2017 - 1:20 PM

Albert Namatjira died almost sixty years ago, but his story of injustice is still being fought for. 

Most know him for his scintillating watercolour paintings which made him one of the first well-known Indigenous Australian artists. 

His artworks still hang in some of the most prestigious galleries around the world, but his family have not earned anything from copyright or royalties from reproductions of his works. 

In the early 1980s, the Namatjira rights was sold by the Northern Territory government to a Sydney family for just $8500. In 2012 his national earnings were said to be worth over $10 million. 

Before he died in 1959, Albert supported a community of up to 600 people on the proceeds of his artwork. Yet, he was a man caught between cultures, paraded as a great Australian, whilst treated with contempt. 

Albert wanted to lease a cattle station and build a house in Alice Springs but because he was Aboriginal he wasn't allowed. 

Indigenous leader Charles Perkins spoke of Albert at the time. 

"He was definitely the beginning of a recognition of Aboriginal people by white Australia," he said. 

He was the first Indigenous person to be made a citizen by the Australian Government, he was widely celebrated but in 1957 he was imprisoned for something he didn't do, and in 1959 he Albert died a broken man. 

Now, the Namatjira family and community are continuing their fight to honour Albert's legacy and reclaim his copyright through a new documentary. 

The Namatjira Project follows the family's quest for justice takes them from their traditional Aranda country in the Northern Territory to Buckingham Palace. The family teamed up with arts and social change organisation, Big hArt, to tour a theatre production about Albert's life, raising awareness, calling for support and a for a return of the copyright. 

Producer Sophia Marinos has worked with the Namatjira family for the past eight years with her work at Big hArt. 

"It's been such an honour to be welcomed into the family, to sit side by side with them to create the theatre show and series of exhibitions, to create this film," she said. 

The film is the result of a long-term collaboration between the family and Big hArt. 

Albert's granddaughters, Lenie Namatjira and Gloria Panka, said the family has been working hard for a long time to get their grandfather's story known. 

"Back when we were kids nobody knew that was the start of the Hermannsburg watercolour movement or anything about the copyright. We didn't know that we would have to work so hard to look after this story in the future," they said. 

The family say the most important thing is to keep Albert's story going and to keep their culture strong. 

"We wanna make sure our kids are learning the way were taught by our parents. One day they will be grandparents and teaching this story to their kids too."  

The family and Big hArt are invited to stage the show in London and use the opportunity to mount international pressure. Queen Elizabeth invites the Namatjiras to Buckingham Palace, with UK media picking up the story, of this famous family's struggle.

However, back home in Australia the silence is deafening and the family return home powerless. 

Today, Albert's home town of Ntaria (Hermannsburg) in the Northern Territory is a community struggling to survive. More than half live in overcrowded conditions and live on income support, while around 11 per cent will be displaced and admitted to hospital with chronic illnesses. 

The copyright should have expired eight years ago in 2009, on the 50th anniversary of Albert's death. But unless something changes, due to the Australian-US Free Trade Agreement, Legend Press's ownership of all Albert Namajira's copyright will not expire until 2029. 

Earlier this year, the family along with Big hArt launched the Namatjira Legacy Trust. It's hoped the Trust will restore the copyright and ensure the traditions of the Western Desert watercolour movement lives on.

Lenie Namatjira and Gloria Panka are directors of the Trust and say it will ensure their cultural knowledge and paintings will be continually passed down through the family.

"With Big hART and theIltja Ntjarra Many Hands Art Centre, we've been teaching our younger ones at Hermannsburg School. We take the kids to the places that Albert and Rex (Battarbee) used to paint together,  we paint the West McDonnell Ranges, Finke River and Palm Valley, because that land belongs to our grandfather and to us."  

"When we paint we honouring our grandfather and the future of our movement." 

The Namatjira Project has been screening around the country with a special screening at the Adelaide Film Festival on October 14. 

All images supplied by Big hART. 

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