Thursday, March 21, 2013

Albert Namatjira – rooms (and humpies) for the memory

In memoriam, the plaque’s on the wall and time stands still.”
- Michael Hutchence, “Rooms For The Memory” lyrics


The funeral arrangements for Albert Namatjira in Alice Springs on the afternoon of Sunday 9 August 1959 were presumably hastily made – the artist had died only the previous evening.  Nonetheless, they seem, from one newspaper report at least, to have been a pitch perfect send-off to a great, but complicated man. 

In this respect, the funeral was in contrast, in more than one way, to the Namatjira memorial pillar near Hermannsburg, almost three years in gestation, as unveiled on 22 July 1962 by the then Minister for Territories Paul Hasluck (PDF).  Privately funded, it appears to have been the subject of behind-the-scenes tussling over its design and location.  You might call the end result fitting enough – a painstakingly unoriginal design by a committee (literally or proverbially), whose main focus may well have been getting Minister Hasluck to officially sanction their handiwork.  A chief proponent of the assimilation policy, Minister Hasluck could have only been pleased to see his policy rendered in solid architecture – a white cultural monolith superimposed on, with no apparent Namatjira-family consultation but with heavy symbolism, to white eyes, nondescript, vacant land.

The on-the-hop funeral

“[I]n bright clear sunshine, his body was carried in its coffin from the [Alice Springs] hospital, and Pastor Albrecht held a service in the street outside. The service . . . was conducted entirely in Arunta”.

- “300 at graveside for funeral of Albert Namatjira”, SMH Monday 10 Aug 1959 p 1

It is unclear why such a functional, secular location, and not the local Lutheran Church or else a significant site (to Namatjira personally, or Aranda generally) was chosen for the first stage of the funeral, but whatever the intention, the quasi-street protest tone of the first service seems to have given the next stage, the procession to the cemetery about 1 km away, a sort of spontaneous, rolling momentum:

“As the funeral moved off, with many natives walking beside it, local white businessmen, station owners, and Namatjira’s friends joined the procession on foot, and in cars and truck until the cortege numbered more than 300 – more than a third white people.” (ibid)

The final graveside ceremony took place in a lonely part (to this day) of the Lutheran section of the Alice Springs cemetery.  Namatjira was buried “after a moving ceremony, this time “half in the Arunta language and half in English.”  A “native choir” from Hermannsburg sang, and Pastor Albrecht quoted from the Bible: “By the grace of God, I am what I am.”  (ibid)

There were no white dignitaries – even local ones – present on the day, it would seem:  “Wreaths were laid on behalf of the Northern Territory Administrator [then JC Archer (1900 - 1980)] as well as many from leading citizens of Alice Springs and Darwin.” (ibid)

Undoubtedly, the relative haste of the funeral arrangements would have precluded some high-profile, interstate white associates of Namatjira – in the last few years of his life, at least – from attending in person. Perhaps this was in fact a motivating factor in the timing of the arrangements.  In any event, some “Sydney friends and admirers of Namatjira” did later get to try to, at least, pay their respects.

The stodgy memorial

The Namatjira memorial is a rod-shaped 6 metre high, 1 metre square, stone-work pillar, with a small plaque on its north side.  The wording on the plaque has changed at least once.  In 1979, it read:

1902 – 1959

More recently and apparently currently, the plaque reads:

28-7-1902 – 8-8-1959

I have not been able to find any documentary explanation of the change in the plaque’s wording – which shifts the primary focus of commemoration from the deceased artist himself to the landscape around the pillar (the Finke River plain and surrounding hills, including Mt Hermannsburg – a frequent subject of Namatjira’s art, at least when he lived in the Hermannsburg area pre-1951.)

By now less directly commemorating the deceased artist, perhaps the grim monolith is more honestly, if belatedly, stating what it was always about: a monument to assimilation. 

The vaunted landscape all around the artificial object is a figleaf here – a pillar is antithetical to a clear, usually elevated ground-space for viewing a view (which I am taking to be the white norm for highlighting landscapes generally).  So the monolith’s plaque has become mainly about the monolith itself – a development which, intentionally or otherwise, Namatjira’s descendants may have welcomed.

Further back, to its originally proposed format and location, the Namatjira memorial, at the drawing-board stage, saw more startling changes.  The earliest documentation of a proposed memorial – other than a cemetery headstone – that I am aware of is from 14 months after the artist’s death:

 “Memorial.  Author Frank Clune left yesterday [11 October 1960] for Alice Springs to complete arrangements for the erection of a memorial to aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira. 

The memorial will consist of a two-ton rock selected from Namatjira’s country and in the shade of which he may have rested as a child.

It will be placed at his camping spot just outside Alice [i.e. at Morris Soak], and a plaque will bear the simple inscription: “Albert Namatjira. Died Aug. 7, 1959 [sic]”.

The cost has been met by Sydney friends and admirers of Namatjira [i.e. presumably, Frank Clune, and possibly also Lord Mayor Harry Jensen and Sydney art-dealer and publisher John Brackenreg].

- SMH Column 8, 12 October 1960, p 1.

Needless to say, despite the article’s suggestion that arrangements for this memorial were well-advanced, it never transpired, either in another format at Clune’s preferred location, nor elsewhere, as a two-ton boulder, no doubt inspired by the eight-ton boulder that is the bulwark of the 1952 John Flynn memorial* (and reliquary), also just outside Alice Springs.  

Clune’s nominating the boulder to have come “from Namatjira’s [childhood] country” – presumably meaning around Hermannsburg, which is 130km west of Alice Springs – seems a sincere touch, an effort to be culturally appropriate, and perhaps even a rebuke to the boulder-procurers for the original John Flynn memorial, whose act in removing one of the “Devil’s Marbles” some 480km south* seems, in hindsight at least, a cold and pointed sacrilege.  Perhaps this is the reason that Clune’s idea for a Namatjira “remake” of the John Flynn memorial never took off.

Surely equally controversial for Clune’s vision of a Namatjira memorial, however, was its location at the late artist’s “camping spot” at Morris Soak, just west of the then boundaries of Alice Springs.  Clune’s sincerity in nominating this location is harder to assume, although it is clear that a shaded humpy at Morris Soak was Namatjira’s main residence between 1951 and his death in 1959.  Reminding white Australians of this fact, for posterity, would perhaps be seen as provocative. 

Nor, aside from the boulder’s provenance, would Clune’s Namatjira memorial have a “landscape” nexus.  While Namatjira did paint frequently at Morris Soak, it was mostly of country further west, from memory, and very rarely of the Alice Springs area.  A Morris Soak memorial would inevitably draw attention to the last lived decade of Namatjira the man, then – a story, among other things, of a spectacular and pointed failure in the assimilation policy.

Ironically, Clune’s aborted, poignantly-located, rounded Namatjira memorial would have been just as inwardly focused as the pro-assimilation blunt shaft that replaced it, at a safe distance from Alice Springs (and perhaps even Hermannsburg, for that matter) – only the narrative would have been opposite.

It is unclear why Clune’s Namatjira memorial was never built – but financial difficulty seems unlikely, given the relatively modest scope of the project [see Postscript 11 June 2013, below].  What is clear is that the proposed Namatjira memorial lay fallow during the first half of 1961, and when it was resurrected, it was with fresh funds, format, location and a new instigator, to boot: 

“In mid-1961 Rex Battarbee [Namatjira’s early artistic mentor, and later, dealer] launched a fund to erect a cairn at Hermannsburg in memory of Namatjira.”
- Robin Smith and Keith Willey, The Red Centre, (1974, orig pub 1967) p 72.

And the rest is history.

A sidenote concerns the design of the successful Namatjira memorial – just like Clune’s aborted one, it had a strikingly-similar nearby antecedent, in the long-demolished “Ayers Rock + Mt Olga National Park” entrance gate/arch (see photo in Smith and Willey, The Red Centre, p 2).  I am speculating on the “antecedent” part of this, as I have not been able to locate a date of construction/opening for the Ayers Rock entrance gate/arch (the attached plaque, which would no doubt indicate this, is not legible in the photo).  

What is clear from the above-referenced photograph is that the Ayers Rock entrance gate/arch consisted of two rod-shaped 4 metre high, 0.8 metre square (both approx), stone-work pillars; the left-hand one (as you enter) had a small plaque on its south-east side (the “arch” aspect is the text, above, being suspended as metal lettering, with only a modest metal bar to assist, between the two pillars). 

In other words, apart from being two metres taller, and a bit thinner – and of course, singular – the Namatjira memorial is a copy (or vice versa) of the former Ayers Rock entrance gate/arch.  I presume that the latter was demolished in part, at least, for being culturally inappropriate.  A probable saving feature of the Namatjira memorial, on the other hand, is that it is quite easy to miss, even if you’re visiting Hermannsburg, on an ersatz Western MacDonnells Namatjira tourist-trail drive (well, I missed it in December 1994, anyway).        

Finally, let me say I’m a fan of forsaken pillars more generally.  Below are my photos of remnant pillars from the former insane asylum at Yarra Bend Park, Melbourne (a solid one of an original front-gate pair), and the precarious right-hand driveway pillar of Lulworth, Patrick White's childhood home below King’s Cross (Sydney), at 73 Roslyn Gardens (not sure if the left-hand pillar is still extant; i.e. that this is also the surviving one of an original front-gate pair).

Remnant pillar from the former insane asylum at Yarra Bend Park, Melbourne

Plaque, remnant pillar from the former insane asylum at Yarra Bend Park, Melbourne

Right-hand driveway pillar of Lulworth, Patrick White's childhood home below King’s Cross (Sydney), at 73 Roslyn Gardens

Plaque (not original), right-hand driveway pillar of Lulworth, Patrick White's childhood home, later St Luke's Hospital, below King’s Cross (Sydney), at 73 Roslyn Gardens

Postscript 11 June 2013

Since writing this post, I have come across an article which might be termed the missing link between Frank Clune’s proposed Namatjira memorial “1.0” and the end result, “2.0”.  Befittingly perhaps, this article – a copy of a magazine clipping, clipped and initially kept by TGHS Strehlow in a “Namatjira” file, now at the Strehlow Research Centre – had been read by me two years ago in Alice Springs, and then filed away at the bottom of my own “Namatjira” miscellaneous file [ok, pile], unseen again until the other day. 

Had this April 1961 article by Frank Clune**, on Namatjira memorial “1.5” been my (conscious) starting point, the above post may well not have been written, for Clune does a good job connecting the threads of the two Namatjira memorials into one superficially seamless intention – of an Alice Springs mini-memorial cemetery headstone and a Hermannsburg memorial proper. 

The former still has Clune as the instigator (of which more below), but Clune’s very early mention of a Hermannsburg memorial (April 1961, 15 months before its ceremonial opening) suggests that this, in contrast, was also not his “baby”:

 “In October 1960 I flew by TAA from Sydney to Alice Springs to arrange a memorial to aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira, who had died more than a year before – on August 8, 1959.  Money for the memorial had been raised by a radio appeal, which led 40 people to donate £310, in sums ranging from £25 to 5/-.

The main purpose was to erect a headstone of Albert’s grave, and Pastor FW Albrecht and artist Rex Battarbee of Alice Springs agreed to act as local advisers on the form the memorial would take . . . The headstone and plate cost £103, and the remainder of the fund [i.e. £207] was used to build a memorial to Albert at Hermannsburg.”

The past tense “was used to build a memorial . . . at Hermannsburg” is curious; unless Clune is referring to a short-lived precursor of the 1962 pillar.  Assuming that there was only ever one Hermannsburg Namatjira memorial, perhaps Clune is just reassuring donors that their donated money is safely sunk, even though the physical memorial was yet to be built (AFAICT).

The “radio appeal” reference is also mysterious.  Remember that the October 1960 SMH report has funding for Clune’s two-ton boulder memorial as coming from “Sydney friends and admirers of Namatjira” – which seems to be a more select grouping than a “radio appeal”. The highest single donation in the radio appeal was a relatively modest £25, so if the two references are to the same funders, then the well-off “Sydney friends and admirers”, whose names I speculate on above, were not particularly generous.  It is possible instead that in October 1960 there were separate pools of “radio appeal” and anonymous private donor funds – the latter which Clune chose not to mention in April 1961.

Alternatively, the “radio appeal” was possibly the same as the mid-1961 public fund, launched by Rex Battarbee, referred to above.  If the “public fund” was instead in early 1961, it could be the same thing, despite the fact that it didn’t yet exist when Clune went to Alice Springs (Clune seems to have a knack for backdating future acts).  If it wasn’t the same thing, then there must have been a second, post April 1961 funding drive, particularly for the Hermannsburg memorial.  Supporting this is the length of time it apparently took to build this memorial, as well as the difference, above, between the radio appeal’s £207, and the actual cost of the Hermannsburg memorial (my guess is that it would have cost at least double that).

Whatever the source and destination of the memorial/s funds was and would be, one very clear change had taken place between Clune setting off, with some funds “in the bag”, for Alice Springs in October 1960, and his April 1961 progress report (if I may call it that).  The what the early donors had donated towards had substantially changed shape in those months.  Literally, it was cut down.      

In a nutshell, the proposed two-ton boulder (though from not Hermannsburg, and only “nearly” that weight) became, in reality, Namatjira’s grave-site headstone at the Alice Springs cemetery (in lieu of standing sentinel at Morris Soak).  And as you might imagine, “headstone” usually connotes at least one flat, inscripted surface, so the boulder had to be radically cut to fit this purpose, not to mention Clune’s narrative continuity:

“For the headstone they [Pastor FW Albrecht and Rex Battarbee] chose a four-foot high granite gibber weighing nearly two tons, transported two miles from Mt Gillen.  One side was worked smooth to carry a bronze plate with the wording:

Altjiraka Nguangiberantama Jinga Nama Nana Jinga Namanga [“By the grace of God, I am what I am” in Aranda] – 1 Cor 15 10a.  Artist Albert Namatjira.  Born at Hermannsburg July 28, 1902.  Died at Alice Springs August 8, 1959”.

“Worked smooth”, indeed, Frank Clune.  A photo of the now-replaced*** headstone in Clune’s article shows the polished face and attached plaque.  The headstone appears to be considerably less than four-foot high, however – my guess is that it would be only 80-90cm high.  Possibly, it was the upright, longest axis of the boulder that was “worked smooth”, i.e. sawn off, and mostly discarded, leaving a remnant stump for the headstone.  If so, Clune’s euphemism is a master-stroke in the pointed destruction of a sculpted boulder, disguised, you might think charitably, as a well-meaning (for that time, at least) effort to be culturally appropriate.  But bear in mind that Clune needed to have both his (round) boulder and his (flat) headstone too – he could not have admitted that the boulder had been butchered in the course of becoming a headstone, because this would have admitted defeat for his Namatjira memorial “1.0”.

In writing the initial post above, perhaps I underestimated Frank Clune’s ego, but more certainly, I misjudged the fact that what today seems obscure historical detail was 50 years ago, living current-affairs.  That is, someone would have noticed that the Namatjira memorial boulder in Alice Springs, as proposed by Frank Clune in October 1960, was stillborn – replaced by the Hermannsburg one – unless and until Clune retrospectively re-badged it as a headstone.

The irony is that I too probably would have bought Clune’s story, had I started with it, instead of with a puzzle of two competing Namatjira memorials (albeit subconsciously, I might have earlier filed away in my head something of Clune’s recently (re-) discovered article). 

Hence, in a salute to going the slow, but “proper”, way round, my sub-heading is emphatically “postscript”, and not (another) “update” – and the original post remains intact, bar one insertion. 

The puzzle is solved, but only by unpicking a fortuitously-found PR article that carefully sought to persuade readers that there was no puzzle in the first place.  You could say that Frank Clune’s Namatjira memorial was built – and in its well-concealed hubris and dissembling, now stands even uglier and less culturally appropriate than the pillar standing on the plain near Hermannsburg airport today.


Footnote update 4 May 2013

"John Flynn, a revered Territory pioneering figure, asked to be buried under one of the Marbles.  A giant boulder was carried to his grave in Alice Springs where it stands guard to the end of time".
- Frank Alcorta, Explore Australia's Northern Territory, Revised ed. 1992, p 117

Proving that in Indigenous Australia, "forever" is a short time (about 7 years will do it, it seems).  And/or that animate objects pressed into service, standing guard for dead white Australia, will one day just chuck in their jobs and go walkabout - as Flynn himself may have put it.

** Frank Clune, “Memorials honour a famous artist”, Transair [TAA Magazine] April 1961, n.p.   

***   “In 1993, the Ngurratjuta Pmara Ntjarra Aborigial Corporation resolved to commission a project to restore and upgrade the grave of Albert Namatjira to a condition befitting a man of such unique character and talent . . . Expressions of interest were sought from artists around Australia, with the successful submission coming from the Hermannsburg Potters, many of whom are related to Albert.  This group proposed a terra-cotta tile mural with the bronze plaque from the original headstone, set into a specially selected piece of local sandstone [i.e. the original headstone, aka the sawn-off remnant of Frank Clune’s “nearly” two ton Mt Gillen boulder, was removed, bar its plaque.  The replacement headstone is also, at about 160cm, substantially taller than the original] . . .  The terra-cotta mural in relief was made by three members of the Hermannsburg Potters. The relief work was moulded by Kay Tucker and the mural was painted with underglazes by Elaine Namatjira (Albert’s granddaughter) assisted by Elizabeth Moketarinja.  The country depicted in the mural is a compilation of three of Albert Namatjira’s dreaming sites in and around the Western MacDonnell Ranges . . . This memorial to Albert Namatjira was unveiled on 31 August 1994 by Mr K Gus Njalka Williams OAM, the Chairman of Ngurratjuta . . .”

-          “Hermannsburg Potters Headstone Mural for Albert Namatjira’s Grave”, Araluen Arts Centre and Northern Territory Government, A4 information sheet, c. 2011

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