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. One of his pictures hangs in Australia's Parliament House in Canberra, another was presented to Pope John Paul II on his visit to Alice Springs in 1986.
Rubuntja considered both modes of painting equally valid in expressing his sense of a sacred connection with the land. "Doesn't matter what sort of painting we do in this country," he remarked, "it still belongs to the people, all the people. This is worship, work, culture. It's all Dreaming."
Rubuntja's gifts at reconciling different visions also found scope in the political sphere. With the emergence of the Aboriginal land rights movement in the 1970s, he took a leading role. In 1976 he led a march of over a thousand Aboriginal people through Alice Springs demanding the passage of the Land Rights Act proposed by Malcolm Fraser's Liberal government. He then embarked on a nationwide speaking tour to keep up the pressure.
He served as chairman of the Central Land Council in 1976-1980 and 1985-88, bringing both his humour and his deep local knowledge to bear on proceedings. He was instrumental in protecting numerous sacred sites in and around Alice Springs. And it was in part due to his efforts that, in 2000, the Federal Court of Australia made its groundbreaking ruling, recognising Arrernte native title over large areas of greater Alice Springs. (It was the first time that Aboriginals had been given title over municipal land.)
In all his negotiations Rubuntja displayed a remarkable ability to integrate indigenous and non-indigenous concepts and to achieve satisfactory resolutions. He believed that white and black law were not incompatible, but had both to be properly understood by all parties. It was a vision that he also brought to his time on the Council of Aboriginal Reconciliation in 1991 and 1995. He was made a member of the Order of Australia in 1995.
Wenton Rubuntja was a distinctive and stylish figure in Alice Springs with his wide-brimmed cowboy hat and fine white beard. He had married his wife, Cynthia Perrurle, in the mid 1950s, and together they presided over a large family of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. (Their son Mervyn was judged the "best baby" in a 1959 national competition sponsored by Heinz baby food.) In 2002, together with Jenny Green, Rubuntja published his autobiography, The Town Grew Up Dancing.
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