Battarbee and Namatjira


Last night I had a dream about Albert Namatjira—the first I can recall, though there was one other, maybe three years ago, about Rex Battarbee.

I saw before me an intricate diagram in two parts that were slowly coming together to form one. The marks upon them were seemingly abstract, scored lines like those you see on the walls of ancient caves at Lascaux or Chauvet; but as top and bottom joined into a single image I saw that they in fact made a face. Albert began inscribing his own initials into what I now understood to be a self-portrait; but the truly weird thing about the dream was that the image also functioned as a map which could be used as a guide to the den of a serial killer. Albert took us there using the same method that allowed him to navigate back to favourite painting sites; we arrived at a grisly place where fragments of dried human flesh, human bones, littered the chaos of an underground rock shelter. The dream ended in a lament: of the killer for the loss of his lair, and with it the only happiness he knew.

My Rex Battarbee dream was altogether sunnier and came in the very early days of my work on the project. We were outside, on a brown lawn behind a house that may have been in the country somewhere; or in the suburbs. There was a barbecue cooking, a few people standing around, and one of them was Rex. He had a friendly, confidential manner as he came up to show me his new shirt. It was made of cotton in a variety of colours, not exactly paisley but tending in that direction; but as I looked at the geometric intricacies in the pattern in the cloth, I saw it morph from shirt to skin. In other words, I found myself looking, not at a shirt, but at a pattern of tattoos. Rex was proud of this new garment in an open-hearted, almost childlike way; his showing it to me was a kind of gift which, when I woke, felt like a permission.

I think about these two dreams on the flight from Melbourne back to Sydney; they seem to top and tail the progress of my inquiry in a fitting, if enigmatic, way. They seem to say something that cannot otherwise be said.

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