Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira at
Type
Essay
Category
Fair Australia Prize

Essay winner: Aussie Albert

Alice Springs, 28 September 1958: Albert Namatjira, first Australia’s first citizen, enjoying a quiet drink with his mates down at the local. That’s Albert on the left of the photo, hand in pocket standing alone appearing bemused – the man whom fellow painter Charles Blackman said had the saddest eyes he’d ever seen – looking through the crowded room into the distance. For over a year now Albert has been permitted to slip into the front bar for a coldie or two, but his wife Rubina, also a citizen – First Australia’s second citizen – can’t because she’s a woman, and his five grown-up sons, Enos, Oscar, Ewald, Keith and Maurice, can’t because they’re still wards under the protectorate of the Northern Territory government. It shouldn’t matter though, there are plenty of chaps to chat to here on this spring afternoon, including the couple of blokes from Sydney who have come up to the Alice to do a story on him for the newspaper down there. Albert’s back in the news, though since meeting his Queen Elizabeth a few years back his huge popularity amongst Australians hasn’t waned. Now that he’s been summoned to appear on 6 October – in just over a week’s time – to defend charges arising out of supplying alcohol to his cousin Henoch Raberaba, who as a ward also can’t have a drink with him in the bar today, the newspaper’s editor has deemed him worthy of another feature article. It’s kind of funny then, or so the journalist and his photographer mate may think, to take Albert to the pub as part of their shoot. Perhaps they’re just thirsty after traipsing around town for a few hours under the outback sun, or maybe they’re thinking of showing their Sydney readers that Albert is really one of us; after all, they’ve previously seen him hanging out with bronzed beach babes aboard a private cruiser in Sydney harbour and surrounded by a bevy of Olympic golden girls. Our Aussie Albert, Australian as Vegemite.

Albert’s been let into the boys’ club, the first, the one and only Indigenous Australian allowed in, but no-one’s talking to him, he’s not part of the forum, he’s not in the team. Full backs to the black, a right white phalanx, elbowing out Albert confined out back. Albert on the inside out, facing into the light, the brightest white shirt of the drinker closest to the camera also emits the pointiest elbow, part of the unison of tergiversation, finger pointing and back-handed compliments being directed at him. Now Albert’s inside with his new mates he might be thinking he’s far better off outside with his old ones. There’s no doubting the shadow he casts across the bar though, his silhouette against the tiled wall running all the way up to the wide brim of his stockman’s hat. Two Alberts, one black and the other white. He’s not a wanderer between two worlds as some suggest, because he’s in two places at once. He’s an antonym, there’s no grey area for Albert to occupy. His citizenship is all black and white – he’s the first of the First Australians to raise the bar and be barred from the bar. No wonder, when he’s on the crest of the fall between indictment and confinement, between fame and oblivion.

Auratic Albert, standing there alone, crowned by a fan. A cord tangles its way between Albert’s hat and the back of one of his new mates via the uncirculating fan rendering their need for dialogue superfluous, given such a manifestation of electrical connectivity symbolising their unspoken accord. After all, as Albert has himself continually demonstrated with watercolour depictions of his Arrernte country, a picture tells a thousand words. Besides electricity, other European-derived devices are evidently deployed in the bar for Albert to observe, now he’s finally been allowed in to see them. There’s an escutcheon nailed to and dangled from the wall above the portal in the background, acknowledging past victories on billiards battlegrounds. Within the shield inescutcheons are marshalled, indicative of each triumphant combatant’s identity and inheritance of prize and title, presumably following an annually re-occurring tournament. Next to the shield the writing is on the wall, ‘DOGS ARE STRICTLY PROHIBITED on these premises’. At least you’re not a woman Albert. Dogs don’t read but if they could they’d already have been let inside to see the sign. Women, even if they can read, just know not to be inside – it’s an unwritten rule, a further sign of the times. It’s about place, about knowing your place – it’s about the back of the bus, the front of the bar. It’s about being (no) better than them.

The framed photographs pictured through the open portal – there is no door, only an exceedingly wide jamb – confined to the corridor on the way to the lavatory, appear to be team photos, perhaps of premiership-winning football teams sponsored by the pub and taken outdoors on the field of victory in Albert’s traditional Arrernte country. They’re placed in the background of the photograph, outside the bar, creating a distance, a western perspective – that is only seen if you can take your eyes off Albert whose presence on the left looms large in the foreground. The footy team photos on the dim distant furthest wall certainly lack the perspicacity of Albert’s depictions of Mount Sonder on the horizon, but at least they might depict one of his relatives on the winning team. No Aboriginal name would be on the shield as billiards is an indoor game, inside the pub, but football – that’s another story – that’s a game played outside that has now become a solid, albeit culturally arduous career pathway into acceptance within the non-Aboriginal Australian society for a young man with talent growing up in a remote Aboriginal community.

Kalgoorlie-Boulder, 29 August 2016: fourteen-year-old Elijah Doughty, riding a red 70cc Chinese motorcycle, is on the way to visit his girlfriend Koshanta. Elijah’s elated because his football team, the Under 14s Kalgoorlie City Kangaroos, are playing in the grand final next weekend. He’s got a good pair of hands. He plays full forward for the Kangaroos and is the team’s leading goal kicker. As he makes his way down Clancy Street he’s chased by a man in a two-tonne twin-cab Nissan Navara ute.

The man later says he believes Elijah was riding a motorcycle that belonged to him – one of two that were stolen the evening before from a container in the backyard of the man’s nearby rented house. The other missing motorcycle – a 50cc Honda – wasn’t running at the time, but the man claimed it was of sentimental value to his family, as his wife had ridden it decades ago as a girl. Informed by an officer that stolen motorcycles are often dumped in the nearby Gribbles Creek Reserve, the man spends a sleepless night searching under bushes by torchlight, in the hope of finding and reclaiming his property, then takes the next day off work and drives down early in the morning to lie in wait adjacent to the reserve. He waits for hours before sighting a rider. In the account he offers police, he claims he made a ‘split-second’ decision to give chase, following the motorcycle into the reserve.

So as the ute travels in a straight line at an average speed of 67 km/h, gaining at a rate of 5.65m a second on the underpowered 70cc motorcycle travelling at a speed of 46km/h, impact can be calculated as occurring in twenty-six seconds. The collision results in Elijah’s skull splitting in half, brain stem snapping, spinal cord severing and other injuries consistent with being run over by a vehicle (multiple broken ribs, fractured pelvis, de-gloved limbs). Elijah’s body is found 9.5m from the largest piece of motorcycle wreckage, while the ute continues in a straight line for another 34m before stopping. While all this can be calculated from analysing CCTV footage, what is not categorically able to be corroborated or refuted is the claim by the driver that the tailgated motorcycle veered unexpectedly to the right, precipitating the collision. Police and ambulance vehicles attending the scene minutes later have driven over the ute’s tyre tracks, obliterating substantiating evidence. Telephoning the same policeman he’d spoken to the previous evening, the man is advised (incredulously) to commence CPR on Elijah, an action he is said to have been performing when the police arrive. (The forensic pathologist later informs the court that Elijah’s death was likely to have occurred instantaneously, on impact with the ute.)

The next day riots break out in Kalgoorlie, largely because the then fifty-five-year-old FIFO worker – his name suppressed by the court for his and his family’s safety – is charged with manslaughter and not murder. It’s all about words again nearly a year later when the majority of the jury – incredibly without Indigenous representation – finds the man not guilty of manslaughter but guilty of the lesser charge of ‘dangerous driving occasioning death’. It would seem to the Aboriginal community in Kalgoorlie-Boulder that nothing has changed in the Australian justice system in 175 years, since defence Counsel Redmond Barry argued unsuccessfully that half the jury trying the two Tasmanian Palawa men Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner for murder, on highly circumstantial evidence, should comprise of people able to speak their language. Instead, the community witnesses defence lawyer Rafferty’s argument that it was ‘utterly impossible’ that the man would run over Elijah and destroy the motorcycle and claiming that it’s ‘the last thing you are going to do – the whole purpose of the chase is to get the bike back in one piece’ hold sway with the jury.

Chief Justice Martin, with no other version of the event or evidence to suggest otherwise, accepts the man’s testimony. Given the man’s remorse, previous good character and lack of criminal conviction, the discounted sentence for the offence of dangerous driving occasioning death is for three years imprisonment. With time served and parole granted he could be released early next year.

Bad guys on motorcycles chased by cars – we’ve seen this before. In the 1979 film Mad Max, Max Rockatansky is a law enforcement officer with the Main Force Patrol whose wife Jessie and infant son Sprog are chased and run down by members of a motorcycle gang, ‘The Acolytes’, precipitating his violent retribution. Max hunts down the gang members one by one, culminating in the gang’s leader Toecutter being tailgated by Max in his super-charged patrol car at high speed until his motorcycle collides head-on with an oncoming semi-trailer. Toecutter’s grisly demise is an admixture of poetic justice and lex talionis, an example of life for life, eye for eye. Like Max, who’s able to fulfil his personal need for retribution, meting out his own punishments, aligned with and condoned by a society quaking in fear at the lawlessness threatening its destruction, grateful for someone willing and able to stand up against the anarchists overriding their settled existence, the driver who chased and ran over Elijah appears to take the law into his own hands, to become an angel who did not stay within his own position of authority. However, the difference in scale between crime and punishment of the two events bear no comparison (not least because one is real). Elijah’s punishment – it was never proven that he stole the motorcycles, nor had he been charged previously for doing so – does not fit the alleged crime. While Max was a police officer who violated the authority placed in him after his family was brutally slain, the citizen responsible for Elijah’s death exhibited vigilantism in a futile quest to retrieve property of relatively insignificant value, providing no justification for driving dangerously.

An underlying assumption is that Toecutter and Elijah deserve what they get because they have transgressed from the norm, they have usurped the pre-ordained and natural order of things and they must be put back in their place. They represent an evil blight on a good, hard-working, law-abiding society, that is less sympathetic to their violent demise, that believes all who live by the sword die by the sword.

For some time, sections of the Kalgoorlie-Boulder community had been inflamed by the high incidence of petty crime in the city, resorting to social media pages to help foster and spread entrenched, racist views that excused or justified violence towards Aboriginal children, including the event of Elijah’s death. Although there was no evidence at the man’s trial that he was aware of or shared any of these sentiments, the jury was told his wife had immediately posted about the motorcycle thefts on the main Facebook group page dedicated to local crimes, eliciting the offer of a $1500 reward for the return of the 50cc Honda and comments from followers in response.

A post from one Kalgoorlie member of the group made hours after Elijah’s death – ‘They need mowing down’ – instantly recalibrates Elijah as not human, but as an animal, and recalls a scene from the 1970 Australian film Wake in Fright. At the beginning of the infamous kangaroo hunt, drunkards in arms Doc, Dick, Joe and John careen a big American sedan through the scrub, pursuing and eventually running down a red kangaroo. The sedan stops and Doc produces a knife, castrating the roo and pocketing the prize. This could be a revved up bicentennial re-enactment of the first kangaroo hunt on 22 June 1770 organised by Joseph Banks at Botany Bay which ended in failure, before another successful attempt was made soon after where specimens were shot in the name of scientific discovery. In the years following Federation, the Australian Coat of Arms was designed and included the kangaroo as a male staunchly holding up his side of the shield, symbolising the nation’s progress. The fate of Elijah and the kangaroo are symptomatic of a quandary at the heart of our society: how does Australia afford respect and help perpetuate the richness of Aboriginal people and cultures, as well as maintain its own lineage of symbolism, innately and historically linked to bigotry and injustice?

The Kalgoorlie riots that occurred the day after Elijah’s death are reminiscent of another riot resulting from an incident in another time and place but with a similar narrative and the same ending: seventeen-year-old Thomas ‘TJ’ Hickey dies on 15 February 2004, after being chased on his bicycle down a footpath by police in Redfern the previous day – allegedly being rammed into a concrete railing and impaled on an adjacent fence. The coroner rules the police not responsible for the ‘freak accident’. The continuing contention is not so much in how the tragedy happened, in the divergent versions of how the chase unfolded and who was ultimately responsible for TJ’s death. It’s in the wording of a proposed public commemorative plaque. A previous plaque that included the words ‘arising from a police pursuit’ has long been vetoed for display by council and police because its provocative wording was deemed offensive. Police have sought to change the wording to ‘tragic accident’. Words are important not just in a legal sense (where in Elijah’s case murder, manslaughter and dangerous driving occasioning death commingled at various stages in the minds of observers), but in opening a dialogue between points of view, as a means of attempting to better understand one another.

Albert didn’t get run over, instead the Australian Petroleum company (Ampol) gave him a truck to run around in. In this poignant moment in the bar in the photograph above, it’s again clear that no-one is speaking to Albert, that no-one’s interested in listening to him, that he’s spoken about, he’s spoken for, but not to. The government changed Albert’s status by words from ward to citizen, legitimising his right to purchase alcohol. They made him the only one in his extended family allowed to do so, the system being blind and ignorant of his cultural responsibilities to them. In a little over a week he won’t be able to drop into this bar to have a coldie with his new mates because he’ll be convicted for supplying alcohol to Henoch and sentenced to six months hard labour. Albert’s sentence, despite being reduced on appeal with the help of Melbourne barrister Elijah Carter, is still upheld, a conviction for a crime impossible for any other citizen of Australia to commit. When he’s released from custody on 18 May 1959 Albert, Australia’s most famous artist, will never paint again and will die soon after on 8 August.

Following the August 2016 riot caused by Elijah’s death, representatives of different government bodies gathered in Kalgoorlie-Boulder to discuss solutions with local Aboriginal leaders and the police. Plans for a youth drop-in centre where kids could play pool and electronic games as well as have access to trained youth workers and other support services are mooted. A year later progress has been slow – some say non-existent, others admit to the ball being dropped – but one Aboriginal leader, Linden Brownley, has begun something on his own, conducting guided walking tours for visitors that highlight and talk about Aboriginal culture in the city. This example of a grassroots, ‘bottom-up’ solution reflects a wider one espoused by the recent ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’, which asks, among other things, that we give Indigenous people a say in issues that directly affect them, while the Referendum Council advocated a constitutional body to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders a voice in their own affairs, allowing local communities to be consulted and participate in political decisions affecting them, in line with similar international bodies.

In a fairer Australia, Indigenous voices must be included, as Redmond Barry argued for 175 years ago; there should be no more cases, such as the trial surrounding the killing of Elijah Doughty, where these voices are absent. This representation would create an opportunity for greater understanding and respect between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, which is fundamental to a reconciled future, a sentiment so eloquently espoused in the heartfelt Uluru Statement. Maybe that’s what Albert’s looking at in the bar, out towards the horizon – at the vanishing point of the great divide.

 

 

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Julian Bull studied natural resources management and landscape architecture at the Universities of Adelaide and Melbourne. His numerous articles on landscape architecture, urban design and art have been published in Australia and overseas.

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