Obituary: WENTEN RUBUNTJA ; Aboriginal Painter and Activist

By Hossack, Rebecca | The Independent (London, England), August 13, 2005 | Go to article overview
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Obituary: WENTEN RUBUNTJA ; Aboriginal Painter and Activist

Hossack, Rebecca, The Independent (London, England)

Wenten Rubuntja was one of the leading figures of the Aboriginal cultural and political world during the last 30 years. He achieved an international reputation as a painter, and as a political activist was a key figure in the establishment of the Aboriginal land rights movement in central Australia. Throughout his life he worked with great energy, humour and imagination to effect reconciliation between Australia's Aboriginal and the non- Aboriginal communities.

Born around 1923 at Burt Creek, Northern Territory, some 35 miles north of Alice Springs, Wenten Rubuntja was raised in the harsh world of the central Australian fringe camps, excluded from the 'white' world of Alice Springs but cut off from the fully nomadic life of his Arrernte forebears. His grandparents belonged to the generation that could recall the first coming of European settlers to central Australia in the 1860s. Since then things had developed quickly. At the time of his birth, his parents were working for rations in and around Alice Springs. There were, however, regular hunting expeditions. The young Wenten was taken to his father's traditional country at Mount Hay, where he was entrusted with the Fire Dreaming story that was part of his paternal cultural heritage.

There was much missionary activity around the camps, and Wenten " according to his own account " was baptised by both the Catholics and the Lutherans, and possibly by several other denominations as well. The missionary-churches' habit of offering ice-lollies along with the baptismal rite seems to have encouraged such enthusiasm. Although Wenten briefly attended mission schools, he never learned to read or write. The outlines of the Christian story and the Christian message, however, remained important to him, though he adapted both to the traditional Arrernte world-view. (He would refer to Bethlehem as 'Jesus's traditional country'.)

With the coming of the Second World War, Wenten Rubuntja found work hunting kangaroos to provide meat for the Australian troops. He later did many of the menial cattle-station jobs open to Aboriginals. He spent time working as a stockman, a brick-maker, a gardener, a butcher and a cook.

In the 1950s he also began painting, inspired by his father's cousin, the great Albert Namatjira, founder of the distinctive " and naturalistic " Aranda watercolour style. His accomplished depictions of the dramatic desert and gorge landscape around Alice Springs soon found buyers.

With the emergence of the dot-and-circle painting movement at Papunya in the 1970s, Rubuntja also began to work in this style.

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