Monday, January 12, 2015

Naming a crater on Mercury and the politics of Indigenous identity

The Mercury-orbiting Messenger spacecraft, a collaboration between NASA, the Carnegie Institute for Science, and the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, is celebrating its tenth anniversary. As part of the celebrations, they're having a competition to name a crater (it closes on 15 January 2015).

It's a celebration but it's also a swan song. Somewhere around March this year, the plucky little spacecraft will run out of fuel and end up as a smear on the planet's surface.

Features on our solar system's innermost planet are named for artists. There's five craters that need names. This is how it works:
According to the IAU rules for Mercury, impact craters are named in honor of people who have made outstanding or fundamental contributions to the Arts and Humanities (visual artists, writers, poets, dancers, architects, musicians, composers and so on). The person must have been recognized as an art-historically significant figure for more than 50 years and must have been dead for at least three years. We are particularly interested in submissions that honor people from nations and cultural groups that are under-represented amongst the currently-named craters.  See the current list of named Mercury craters.
I was lying in bed one Saturday morning, lazily turning various thoughts over in my mind, when inspiration struck. I should propose the Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira.

Most Australians would be familiar with his work, even if they're not aware who the artist is. Here's a couple of examples:
Alice Springs Country. Watercolour on paper, by Albert Namatjira. Credit: Australian Art Auction Records

The Finke River Gorge at entrance to Glen Helen. Watercolour and gouache over pencil, on paper.  Credit: Queensland Museum
I thought Namatjira would be a good name for Crater C, which has yellow-orange volcanic deposits, not unlike the colours of central Australia in the scenes that became Namatjira's most iconic. And Aboriginal people are definitely an under-represented group in the names not just on Mercury, but in the rest of the solar system.

On looking up the list of existing names, I discovered that there are two Australians already on Mercury (so to speak). They are Clarice Marjoribanks Beckett, a painter, and James "Frank" Hurley, a photographer, and both fascinating people in their own right as you can see if you follow the links. One criterion was met already: only two Australians in a gazetteer of 372 names, and neither of them Aboriginal.

So I started researching and writing, and finally submitted the following 2000-character blurb on Namatjira:
Albert Namatjira (1902-1959) was an Arrernte man born in the Northern Territory of Australia. He was the first Aboriginal artist to become well-known to the white Australian public, and his work won international acclaim. Growing up on the Hermannsburg Mission, he was initiated into Aboriginal cultural law at 13.  In his 20s he learnt to paint from artists visiting the mission and quickly became proficient. His first solo exhibition was held in Melbourne in 1938, and a school of artists built up around him. His paintings represented the colours of the Australian landscape like no other. His distinct style combined Aboriginal approaches to country with modern European landscape painting. He is best known for his paintings of the McDonnell ranges. In his lifetime he received honours such as Queen Elizabeth II's coronation medal (1953) and honorary membership of the Royal Art Society of New South Wales (1955). In 1968, he was the first Aboriginal person on an Australian postage stamp. As an Aboriginal man of this era, he experienced the tensions between expressing his Aboriginal identity and Australia’s administrative regime which tightly controlled the freedoms of Aboriginal people. Nevertheless, he became one of Australia’s most well-known and popular artists with his work represented in major galleries. In 2002, the National Gallery of Australia mounted a major retrospective of his work. This is how they described his art: 
"Namatjira's paintings express his relationship with the Arrernte country, particularly the Western Arrernte lands, for which he was a traditional custodian. Through his intense scrutiny of specific places and his sensitive response to their individual qualities, Namatjira enables us to see the Centre as a multi-faceted region of Australia. A region of extremes, central Australia is far from a 'dead heart'”. 
These words could equally be applied to Mercury: the eye of the artist allows us to see beyond the superficial to the complexity within.
For more details, see his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, which was a major source for the above.

My opinion is that this is an absolute winning proposal, and I really hope the committee thinks so too.
It's interesting, though. The rules of naming are very clear: the name should not have any 'political, religious or military significance'. That's fine as it stands. And Albert Namatjira wasn't a general, or used as a rallying point for radical Aboriginal resistance, or the centre of a cult. Events on Earth won't be upset by having a crater named for him.

But he was an Aboriginal man who lived through a period where Aboriginal people were treated like livestock, and were assumed to be on the verge of extinction. He grew up on a mission, one of the aims of which was to Christianise Aboriginal people and destroy their culture. (You'll notice my subtle attempt to describe these complex issues in the submission). He was treated as if he had given away his Aboriginality by working in a contemporary modernist tradition; yet if he had painted in a 'traditional' way, he would have been constructed as 'primitive'. You can read about how Australia's policies about Aboriginal people affected his life in the Australian Dictionary of Biography entry.

The International Astronomical Union, which administers the naming of planetary features in the solar system, is definitely right to be targeting groups who are marginalised or overlooked.

But there is a sense in which just being Indigenous in the modern world is already political. You can't be neutral as an Indigenous person in a colonial society. The very act of becoming outstanding in some way only serves to bring into sharp focus the inequalities that exist, and Namatjira's life illustrates that.

I hope I've walked the fine line of acknowledging the appalling treatment of Aboriginal people in White Australia while representing Namatjira for what he was: a brilliant artist with a unique vision who deserves to immortalised on Mercury.

Keep your eyes out for the results of the competition in late March/early April!

Insert Namatjira's name here.

Image credits:
1. Australian Art Auction Records
2. Queensland Museum.
3. Enchanted Learning


  1. Great name choice, and interesting points raised also.

  2. Anonymous8:28 am

    I don't know if you saw, but Namatjira is now a crater on Mercury. The name choice was independent of your efforts, but it is good to see that multiple people have the same idea :)

  3. No I didn't see that! Thanks for letting me know! But I wonder how it came about - another submission to the IAU unrelated to the Messenger campaign? Do you know any more details?

  4. Anonymous3:58 pm

    I was an intern at APL, where the MESSENGER mission was run from. As part of that, we had the chance to name a crater if we wanted to. I chose Namatjira after realizing that there weren't any Aboriginal Australians on Mercury (and maybe none in the Solar System?)

  5. Well I'm very glad you did (although slightly disappointed that my efforts sank without trace!). As it happens I can answer your question about Aboriginal names in the rest of the solar system - it is 0.3%. Here is a short paper about it:

    Would you be comfortable if I wrote another post about this?