Jul 282017

Today is the birthday (1902) of Albert Namatjira (born Elea Namatjira), a Western Arrernte-speaking Aboriginal artist from the MacDonnell Ranges in Central Australia, who was, without question, the most famous indigenous Australian of his generation, although then and now his name is probably little known outside Australia. His was a household name was I was a boy in South Australia in the 1950s and 1960s.

Namatjira was born and raised at the Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission outside Alice Springs and showed interest in art from an early age. It was not until he was 32, however, when he met Australian landscape artist Rex Battarbee, whose work was displayed at the Mission, that he began to paint seriously in Western style under Battarbee’s guidance. Namatjira’s watercolors of the outback gained popularity with Euro-Australians, perhaps because they were more easily assimilated into popular Western conceptions of art than traditional Aboriginal designs, and reproductions of his works hung in many homes throughout Australia. His success was a two-edged sword in so many ways. At the time, Northern Territory Aboriginal Australians were wards of State without the right to own property, vote, or buy alcohol. Namatjira was seen as a “success” story of assimilation into majority White culture, and towards the end of his life in 1957, he became the first Northern Territory Aboriginal Australian to be granted restricted Australian citizenship.

Namatjira’s family were traditional Aranda (Arunta), but they converted to Christianity, upon which they baptized their son and changed his name from Elea to Albert. After a Western-style schooling at the Mission, Namatjira, at the age of 13, went into the bush for initiation and was exposed to traditional culture as a member of the Arrernte community (in which he was to eventually become an elder). After he returned to the Mission, he married his wife Rubina at the age of 18. His wife, like his father’s wife, was outside the classificatory kinship system into which Namatjira should have married traditionally, and so he was ostracized by his clan for several years, during which he worked as a camel driver and saw much of Central Australia, which he was later to depict in his paintings.

Namatjira was introduced to Western-style painting of the outback via an exhibition at his Mission in 1934 by Battarbee and John Gardner, both landscape painters from Melbourne who were touring Central Australia in a Model-T Ford converted to a camper. Battarbee, returned to the area in the winter of 1936 to paint the landscape and Namatjira acted as a guide to show him local scenic areas. In return Battarbee taught Namatjira how to paint with watercolors.

Namatjira began painting in his own style which quickly became recognizable as distinctive. His landscapes normally highlighted both the rugged geological features of the land in the background, and the Australian flora in the foreground with very old, stately and majestic white gum trees surrounded by twisted scrub. His work had a high quality of illumination showing the gashes of the land and the twists in the trees. His colors were similar to the ochres that his ancestral kin had used to depict the same landscape, but his style was squarely within the norms of Western art aesthetics. Almost from the start his art was appreciated popularly in Australia, but always had a mixed reception from the art critics. These were the days when the Western modern art world was (ironically) more attracted to “primitive” or indigenous art styles and classic watercolor landscapes were out of vogue.

In 1938 Namatjira held his first exhibition in Melbourne, and subsequent exhibitions in Sydney and Adelaide quickly sold out. For the next ten years Namatjira painted ceaselessly, his works continuing to sell quickly, and his popularity continuing to rise. Queen Elizabeth II became one of his more notable fans and he was awarded the Queen’s Coronation Medal in 1953 and met her in Canberra in 1954. Not only did his own art become widely recognized, but a painting of him by William Dargie won the Archibald Prize in 1956. Apart from becoming popular and critically acclaimed, he also earned a lot of money.

Due to his financial success, Namatjira became the subject of “humbugging” among his kin – a ritualized form of begging (associated with the nomadic, forager lifeways of the indigenous peoples). Arrernte are expected to share everything they own, and as Namatjira’s income grew, so did his extended family. At one time he was singlehandedly providing for over 600 people.To ease the burden on his strained resources, Namatjira sought to lease a cattle station to benefit his extended family. He was originally granted the lease but it was subsequently rejected because the land was part of a returned servicemen’s ballot, and also because he had no ancestral claim on the property. He then tried to build a house in Alice Springs, but was cheated in his land dealings. The land he was sold was on a flood plain and was unsuitable for building. The Minister for Territories, Paul Hasluck, offered him free land in a reserve on the outskirts of Alice Springs, but this was also rejected, and Namatjira and his family took up residence in a shanty at Morris Soak—a dry creek bed some distance from Alice Springs. Despite the fact that he was held as one of Australia’s greatest artists, Namatjira was living in poverty. His plight became a media cause célèbre, resulting in a wave of public outrage.

In 1957 the government exempted Namatjira and his wife from the restrictive legislation that applied to Australian Aborigines in the Northern Territory. This entitled them to vote, own land, build a house and buy alcohol. Although Albert and Rubina were legally allowed to drink alcohol, his Aboriginal family and friends were not. When an Aboriginal woman, Fay Iowa, was killed at Morris Soak, Namatjira was held responsible by Jim Lemaire, the Stipendiary Magistrate, for bringing alcohol into the camp. He was reprimanded at the coronial inquest. Namatjira was charged with leaving a bottle of rum in a place, (on a car seat), where a clan brother and fellow Hermannsburg artist Henoch Raberaba, could get access to it. Namatjira was sentenced to six months in prison for supplying an Aboriginal with liquor. After a public uproar, Hasluck intervened and the sentence was served at Papunya Native Reserve. He was released after serving only two months for medical and humanitarian reasons.

After his incarceration, Namatjira continued to live with Rubina in a cottage at Papunya, where he suffered a heart attack. There is some evidence that Namatjira believed that he had had the bone pointed at him by a member of Fay Iowa’s family (a ritualized curse and death sentence). After being transferred to Alice Springs hospital he died of heart disease complicated by pneumonia on 8 August 1959.

Here’s a sample album:



Wallaby stew is noted in songs and poems of the Australian bush. As is fitting for today’s anniversary, the dish is a meeting of indigenous Australian and European cooking methods. Wallaby shanks are common for the dish and can be treated much like lamb shanks. Outside of Australia you may have a hard go of it finding the meat.

Wallaby Stew


4 wallaby shanks
plain flour, for dusting
extra virgin olive oil
4 large carrots, peeled and coarsely diced
4 celery sticks, chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 onions, peeled and quartered
2 cups red wine
2 pints beef stock
2 tbspn tomato paste
4 sprigs fresh thyme
salt and pepper


Dredge the shanks in flour and brown over medium-high heat in a heavy-bottomed pan.

Add the vegetables, thyme, and stock, and bring to a gentle simmer. Season to taste with salt and pepper (or pepperleaf if you can find it). Cover and simmer gently for at least 2 hours, or until the meat is very tender.

If need be, remove the meat and vegetables and keep them warm whilst you reduce the sauce.

Serve hot with the meat and vegetables covered with sauce.

Serves 4

May 152017

Today, the Ides of May, was the Mercuralia (Festival of Mercury) in ancient Rome. Before talking about Mercury let’s talk a little about the Roman calendar first, since it formed the basis of the calendar commonly in use throughout the West. The calendar purported to have been created by the legendary founder of Rome, Romulus, had 10 months of either 31 days (full months) or 30 days (hollow months). The year began in March and ended in December, with roughly 51 days added in winter before March to keep the calendar in line with the sun. Those of you who know your Latin roots know that /septe/ /octo/ /noven/ and /decem/ are seven, eight, nine, and ten respectively. What day of the month it was, was expressed by counting forward to key points in the month: kalends, nones, and ides. The kalends was the first of the month (and gives us the word “calendar”), the ides were the 15th in full months and the 13th in hollow months, and the nones were one week before the ides. The Roman week was 8 days long, but a week was counted as nine days (nones) inclusively. May was a full month so the Ides were the 15th. In case you are wondering, January, February were added in when reforms were made by Julius Caesar and Augustus who gave their names to what were formerly simply called fifth and sixth months.

Mercury was the Roman messenger god whose attributes were mainly borrowed from the Greek god Hermes, but there are some legendary tales extant regarding Mercury that are clearly distinct from Greek ones and in line with ancient Roman beliefs. He was the god in charge of (variously) trade, thieves, eloquence, messages, luck, and travel. His name, by folk etymology, was related to “merx” (merchandise), “mercari” (trade), and “merces” (wages).  The Ides of May was designated as his birthday from pre-Republican times, the Mercuralia, and on this day the merchants of Rome used laurel boughs to sprinkle their merchandise, their ships, and their heads with water from a fountain at Porta Capena known as aqua Mercurii. They also offered prayers to Mercury for forgiveness of past and future perjuries, for profit, and the continued ability to cheat customers!

Mercury was not one of the most ancient of the Roman gods but he did have a temple in Rome situated in the Circus Maximus, between the Aventine and Palatine hills. It was built in 495 BCE and dedicated on the Ides of May. That year saw conflicts in Rome between the patrician senators and the plebeians, which led to a secession of the plebs in the following year. At the completion of the temple’s construction, a dispute emerged between the consuls Appius Claudius Sabinus Regillensis and Publius Servilius Priscus Structus as to which of them should have the honor of dedicating the temple. The senate referred the decision to the popular assembly, and also decreed that whichever was chosen should also exercise additional duties, including presiding over the markets, establishing a merchants’ guild, and exercising the functions of the pontifex maximus. The people, because of the ongoing public discord, and in order to spite the senate and the consuls, instead awarded the honor of dedicating the temple to the senior military officer of one of the legions, Marcus Laetorius. The senate and the consuls, in particular the conservative Appius, were outraged at this decision, and it inflamed the ongoing situation leading to the famous secession of the plebeians the following year.

The temple was regarded as a fitting place to worship a swift god of trade and travel, since it was a major center of commerce as well as a racetrack. Because it stood between the plebeian stronghold on the Aventine and the patrician center on the Palatine, it also emphasized the role of Mercury as a mediator. Following Greek legends of Hermes, Mercury was associated with leading newly deceased souls to the afterlife. Additionally, Ovid wrote that Mercury carried Morpheus’ dreams from the valley of Somnus to sleeping humans. So, Mercury’s roles as mediator, messenger, and merchant are all intertwined.

Because of Mercury’s common roles he was easily syncretized with various indigenous gods throughout the Western Roman empire, taking on their local attributes and worship in different parts of Gaul and Britain. He also gave his name to a wandering star (planet), and hence one of the names of a weekday in Romance languages (Wednesday), which are mostly named for bodies in the solar system (as opposed to English which uses Norse gods primarily).  To this day Mercury is a symbol of speed, especially in delivering messages.

Romans offered a great many things to Mercury to procure favors especially in trade and business, including cinnamon, honey, lambs, and goats. I make braised lamb shanks quite often, sometimes with a resultant honey glaze/sauce. Cinnamon and honey are a natural pairing, so here’s my recipe for honey and cinnamon braised lamb shanks in honor of Mercury. You could use goat pieces instead if you like. This should be an Old World only recipe – no potatoes, for example. You could serve the shanks with noodles if you believe, as I do, that the Romans made pasta long before Marco Polo visited China.

©Honey and Cinnamon Braised Lamb Shanks


1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 lamb shanks
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 onion, peeled and sliced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
2 cinnamon sticks
4 tbsp honey
1 pint beef stock
1 pint chicken stock


Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a heavy cast-iron skillet. Add the onions and sauté until soft. Add the lamb shanks and brown thoroughly on all sides. Add the garlic towards the end, but do not let it brown.

Cover the shanks with beef and chicken stock. Bring to a simmer and add the honey and cinnamon. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Cook, uncovered, on a very slow simmer for 2 to 3 hours until the meat is falling from the bones and the braising sauce is thick and syrupy. You can do this step in the oven if you like at 325˚F.  If the sauce is not reduced enough, remove the shanks, turn up the heat to high and cook quickly until it is sufficiently reduced. Roll the shanks in the sauce to cover thoroughly and serve with Old World root vegetables.

Serves 4