Copyright restored to family of artist for $1

Albert Namatjira was the first Aboriginal artist to master a Western tradition.
Albert Namatjira was the first Aboriginal artist to master a Western tradition.PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY • The cost was just A$1 (S$1.07). With that payment, the impoverished family of Australia's most famous Aboriginal artist, Albert Namatjira, has been given the copyright to his works after years of fruitless campaigning triggered the intervention of a philanthropist.

Namatjira's vibrant water colours are internationally celebrated for the way he captured the hues of the Western Desert in the centre of the country. One of his paintings was given to Britain's Queen Elizabeth in 1947 on her 21st birthday. He met the monarch during her 1954 coronation tour in Canberra.

Mr Dick Smith, the Australian businessman whose intervention secured the agreement, said it was the most satisfying philanthropic thing he had done. "It's a just cause," he added.

Born in 1902 in Hermannsburg, a remote Aboriginal community in central Australia's West MacDonnell ranges, Namatjira rose to prominence as the first Aboriginal artist to master a Western tradition.

In 1957, he sold partial copyright for his works to a friend, Mr John Brackenreg.

Two years later, Namatjira died and his will passed the copyright remainder to his widow, Robina, and their children. This gave his family a source of royalty income when reproductions of the images were used.

However, his estate executors gave the administration of his will to the public trustee of the state of the Northern Territory, which sold the copyright to Mr Brackenreg's company, Legend Press, in 1983 without consulting the family, ABC News reported.

All royalty payments to Namatjira's descendants ceased and, when Mr Brackenreg died, he passed the copyright to his children.

Eight years ago, arts organisation Big hART, began campaigning for the return of the copyright. It put together a theatre show called Namatjira, which toured Australia for three years before travelling to London where, in 2013, Queen Elizabeth met two of the artist's grandchildren.

News reports caught the eye of Mr Smith, whose father once worked for Mr Brackenreg.

Mr Smith persuaded Mr Brackenreg's children to give the copyright to the Namatjira Legacy Trust, which represents the family, for A$1 last Friday. Mr Smith also donated A$250,000 to the trust.

It is the latest in his long list of charitable acts which included contributing to a ransom that freed Canadian journalist Amanda Lindhout and Australian photographer Nigel Brennan, taken hostage in Somalia in 2008.

Ms Sophia Marinos, chair of the Namatjira Legacy Trust, said the money would benefit the whole Aboriginal community with funds for language and cultural programmes.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 16, 2017, with the headline 'Copyright restored to family of artist for $1'. Print Edition | Subscribe