Copyright restored to poor family of Australian Aboriginal artist

SYDNEY (Reuters) – The impoverished family of Australia’s most famous Aboriginal artist, Albert Namatjira, has been given copyright to his works after years of fruitless campaigning triggered the intervention of a philanthropist.

Namatjira’s vibrant water colors are internationally celebrated for the way he captured the hues of the Western Desert in the center of the country.

One of his paintings was given to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth in 1947 on her 21st birthday and he met the queen during her 1954 coronation tour in Canberra.

Dick Smith, the Australian businessman whose intervention secured the agreement, told Reuters it was the most satisfying philanthropic thing he had done.

“It’s a just cause,” Smith told Reuters in a telephone call on Saturday.

Born in 1902 in Hermannsburg, a remote Aboriginal community in central Australia’s West MacDonnell ranges, Albert 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, 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 Brackenreg’s company, Legend Press, in 1983 without consulting the family, ABC News reported.

An undated photo released on October 14, 2017 shows Australia’s most famous Aboriginal artist, Albert Namatjira, sitting on a rock as he paints. Pastor S.O. Gross-courtesy of the Strehlow Research Centre/Handout via REUTERS

All royalty payments to Namatjira’s descendents ceased and when Brackenreg died, he passed copyright to his children.

Eight years ago, arts organization Big hART, began campaigning for the return of the copyright.

They put together a theater show called “Namatjira” which toured Australia for three years before traveling to London where in 2013 Queen Elizabeth met two of Namatjira’s grandchildren.

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

Smith persuaded Brackenreg’s children to give copyright to the Namatjira Legacy Trust, which represents the family, for A$1 on Friday.

Smith also donated A$250,000 ($197,200) to the trust.

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

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

($1 = 1.2677 Australian dollars)

Reporting by Alison Bevege

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