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Transcript of Episode 13: Namatjira’s Creek

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Whose land do you live on? Not, like, who owns the deed to the land you live on. But whose ancestral land do you live on? For example, the space where I record Art History for All is situated on the ancestral land of the Chumash, Tongva, and Fernandeño Tataviam peoples.[1] Your house might be on the ancestral land of one of many hundreds of groups of  indigenous peoples displaced by colonialism—too many to even begin to list. And I’m not just talking about North America, either, though it’s easy to forget that if you live in the States like I do. South America and Australasia also have a long history of colonialism and displacement of indigenous people—in a particularly extreme example, over the course of just half a century, Aboriginal people in Tasmania were reduced from a population of 10,000 to a few hundred.[2] Aboriginal Australian people have experienced monumental changes in all aspects of life ever since the claiming of the Australian continent by the British in 1788, and reading about Aboriginal history may remind Americans in particular of how white settlers dealt with Native American populations—as a problem to be solved, or a nuisance to be eradicated, rather than a group of people who were here before any European set foot on their land.

The responses that indigenous people all over the world have had to European colonization are as diverse as they are. When they had a choice, some chose to assimilate into the white settler culture, while others chose to rebel against it or attempted to escape it entirely. Those who chose to assimilate, whether completely or partially, are just as interesting as those who resisted, partly because assimilation to a new norm can often leave one in a gray area that’s even more precarious. Aboriginal Australian artist Albert Namatjira has been consistently characterized as inhabiting such a gray area. Namatjira was a member of the Western Arrernte group of Aboriginal Australians, who have historically inhabited lands around the town of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. Namatjira grew up in and around the Lutheran mission at Hermannsburg, a little over 125 km west of Alice Springs. Most of his work consisted of watercolor landscapes depicting places in Arrernte territory, some of which were of personal or ancestral significance to him. The painting I’ll talk about today, created around 1950, is one of these landscapes, entitled Catherine Creek, Northern Territory, after the location it depicts. What’s notable for many about Namatjira’s work is that he painted in a European medium and in a naturalistic European style, as opposed to drawing primarily on Aboriginal motifs, as many successful Aboriginal artists who came after him have done. But why should such a thing be notable? And why would a landscape painting be significant at all? I’ll confess I’m personally not terribly excited by landscapes for the most part, but digging deeper into Namatjira’s background brought me a new appreciation for his landscapes in particular, so his background and context will be a major focus in this episode. Catherine Creek is one of over 2,000 watercolors Namatjira completed, and it’s not necessarily a major work, but we can use it as a focal point in order to discuss larger issues surrounding Namatjira and his art.

A quick note before we begin: This is the first episode where I’ve used a new strategy to choose the image and artist I’ll discuss. Rather than trying to draw on my own knowledge base, which is primarily biased toward European art, I decided to instead use a geographic coordinate randomizer on random.org to determine the country or region to choose an artist from. Now, given that about 71% of the Earth’s surface is covered in water, this method does put you in the ocean quite a lot, but when this happened I would just re-randomize or choose the nearest landmass. Randomizing regions cuts through my own personal bias and significantly limits the number of times I can choose a European artist, instead encouraging me to look at art from the other 94% of land area on earth.

Now, let’s get into Albert Namatjira and his painting of Catherine Creek—quickly, before I start trying to do an Australian accent!

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A description of Albert Namatjira’s Catherine Creek, Northern Territory. Watercolor on paper, circa 1950.

The painting is 37 cm square—about 14.5 inches. In the background and right foreground we see the craggy walls of a canyon or gorge. Brilliant blue water flows from the lower foreground to the middle ground, disappearing to  the right around the bend of the canyon. The banks of this creek are fairly flat, sloping down from the sides of the canyon into the water and distinguished from the canyon walls by a more yellow cast to the soil, as opposed to the reddish rocks shaded with purple above. Four ghost gum trees, one of which has a much thicker trunk than the others, are growing on the bank at the left, their pale trunks extending up into cloud-like clusters of green foliage. There’s more foliage scattered across the lower part of the canyon walls in the background, too—some of it is clearly more trees, while some appears to be brush or shrubs. A few trees and shrubs stand at the top of the canyon wall in the background, against a pale gray sky. The whole scene is rendered fairly softly with the gentle washes of color typical of most watercolor painting.

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The Australian continent was claimed as part of the British Empire in 1788. Treaties and arrangements that the British made (or didn’t make) with Aboriginal peoples vary depending by region and group, but by the mid-19th century British colonial control was firmly established in Australia, and maintaining that control in part meant claiming and developing as much land as the white settlers could, Aboriginal claims and traditions be damned. Much Aboriginal land was labeled terra nullius, or no one’s land, allowing colonists to take control of it regardless of whether Aboriginal people lived there, hunted there, or considered it a sacred place.[3] The application of British legal statutes in the new Australian colony criminalized many indigenous activities, including “hunting and gathering on traditional lands.”[4] This gave the British further justification for killing or displacing Aboriginal individuals or groups. As political scientist and historian James Jupp put it in a recent book, Aboriginal Australians were quote, “British subjects, but without the effective rights the settlers enjoyed.”[5] End quote. As time went on and other groups besides the British began to come to Australia, a variety of structures were put in place in order to encourage Aboriginal people to assimilate into the Australia that the white settlers were constructing. Hermannsburg was one such structure—a mission established by German Lutherans in order to convert, educate, and minister to the Western Arrernte people.

Albert Namatjira was brought up in this mission and lived near it for nearly all of his life. He was baptized with the name Albert in 1905 as a result of his parents’ conversion to Lutheranism.[6] Namatjira was set apart from the traditional Arrernte way of life fairly early on, and he remained so as he grew older. He was never fully initiated into Arrernte society as an adolescent, for instance, and when he finally got married at eighteen, it was a so-called “half-right” marriage.[7] Arrernte bonds of kinship are complex, and they dictate an even more complex set of marriage rules. Namatjira’s choice to marry a woman who was not in the correct kinship category alienated him from his family for three years, before they finally accepted him and he returned to the Hermannsburg area in 1923.[8] Like many other Western Arrernte at the mission, Namatjira created and sold crafts in order to help sustain the mission, as part of a strategy implemented by Pastor F.W. Albrecht, who took over the mission in 1926. Periodically, white artists would visit the mission to display their works or teach the Arrernte craftspeople new techniques, but it was the 1936 visit of painter Rex Battarbee that had the greatest impact on Albert Namatjira’s artistic career. Philip Jones, Senior Curator of Anthropology at the South Australian Museum in Adelaide, quotes directly from Pastor Albrecht when discussing Namatjira’s response to Battarbee and John Gardner’s watercolor landscapes:

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“…None of the Aranda people had seen their own country depicted as Battarbee and Gardner rendered it, and the shock and thrill of recognition may be compared with similar accounts of Aboriginal and New Guinea people confronting photographs of themselves for the first time. Namatjira’s own response was documented later by both Battarbee and Albrecht:

[Quote] ’…After looking closely at the work Albert came to me in a serious mood asking how much the artists would receive for their pictures. Upon being told that prices up to 15 guineas might be paid Albert remarked, “I can do the same”. Not unnaturally I expressed my surprise at the statement and entertained some doubts. However, Albert returned after a short while and said, “I still think I can do it.”’  [End quote]

The anecdote is usually told to illustrate the strength of Namatjira’s resolve to succeed as an artist. What it also reveals is the speed with which he had grasped the fact that, as well as being powerful works of art, the paintings were a way of earning a good living.”[9]

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It’s not surprising that Namatjira focused on the money-making potential of watercolor painting—as white settlers encroached on traditional indigenous ways of life, the ways Aboriginal people could sustain themselves and their families became increasingly limited. Being tied to the Hermannsburg mission didn’t necessarily help: in the 1920s the region was hit by severe drought, and many of the residents were afflicted with scurvy and malnutrition, with 80% of children at the mission dying from these illnesses between 1926 and 1929.[10] Combined with poverty and the threat of racist violence, Aboriginal people became increasingly dependent on the mission, and given how isolated the mission was, especially before the growth of Alice Springs during the Second World War, the primary opportunity for Aboriginal mission residents to earn money was by selling art or crafts.[11] This need to provide for oneself and one’s family by no means devalues Albert Namatjira’s work conceptually—essentially every artist you’ve ever heard of, especially from the modern era, has had to prioritize income over ideals. The so-called “starving artist,” foregoing food in favor of creative integrity, is essentially a myth—and it doesn’t mean that the well-fed artist’s work is any less worthy of study.

Namatjira’s determination to paint was slowed somewhat by Battarbee’s infrequent visits to the mission, since when Battarbee was gone there was nobody to teach him watercolor techniques. But once Namatjira had learned, he quickly became a national, and later an international, sensation. In 1937, Battarbee took some of the paintings that Namatjira had made and showed four of them at a Lutheran Synod. In 1938, Namatjira was exhibited for the first time in a group show in Melbourne, and he had his first solo show in Melbourne later that same year.[12] In 1939, the Art Gallery of South Australia made the first institutional purchase of Namatjira’s work, further legitimizing him in the eyes of the white art world.[13]

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As time went on, Albert Namatjira’s star seemed to be rising ever higher, but that didn’t mean he was suddenly free from the constraints of being an Aboriginal Australian in a white Australian’s world. His success encouraged the growth of the Hermannsburg art community during World War II, at the same time that Alice Springs was also growing, creating a larger local market for the Hermannsburg painters’ works. Along with this growth came concerns on the part of the white government, allegedly out of concern for the Arrernte people’s well-being but more likely out of concern for the cohesion of white society. Aboriginal people were forbidden from moving to Alice Springs due to the town’s supposed “corrupting influences,” and an Art Advisory Committee was established in order to “price and control paintings.”[14] Namatjira and other Arrernte artists from Hermannsburg, including Namatjira’s own children, continued to sell and show work, but their success was artificially limited by colonialist forces. Even Namatjira’s ability to purchase and own land with the money he’d made from his work was limited: around 1950, the same time that he painted Catherine Creek, Northern Territory, he had been refused permission to lease 460 square miles of grazing land. In 1951, after he had bought land in Alice Springs, territorial administrators refused to transfer the land title to him.[15] At the very same time he was being denied these rights, he was praised by white Australia up until his 1959 death as, quote, “a perceived emblem of the success of white policies of assimilation.”[16] End quote. Three films were made about him, and he was even brought to meet Queen Elizabeth II when she visited Canberra in 1954. At that same event, Namatjira was apparently so popular among the society set that women were crawling on all fours through the crowds in order to get his signature.[17]

But Namatjira was still not a citizen at that time, nor were any of his family members. He was still just indigenous enough to keep him out of the world of white Australians, separate from their legal rights and privileges. A campaign initiated by white Australians eventually succeeded in granting Namatjira citizenship in 1957, but he lived the bulk of his life without the ability to claim membership in the society that had taken over his people’s land and seemed to so adore his paintings. Indeed, it was fairly clear that many people valued Namatjira’s work specifically because he was an indigenous man painting in a European mode—it was novel, a sort of curiosity, but it wasn’t necessarily capital-G Great Art. Namatjira’s indigenousness aside, both watercolor painting and landscape painting have been situated fairly low in the hierarchy of European art for centuries, which consequently limited both the potential for fame and the earning potential of artists who undertook either or both of those genres. In the twentieth century, as forms of modern art that rejected realistic depictions rose in popularity—think of Malevich’s Black Square, the subject of Episode 5 of this podcast—landscape painting became even less popular.[18] Though it wasn’t the only reason, the perceived novelty of Namatjira’s ability, as an Arrernte man, to paint in the style of European artists, was certainly a factor in the popularity of his work during his lifetime. Reading through some of the scholarship on Namatjira, you don’t get a sense that there was one work, more than any other, that really made Namatjira’s career—his whole body of work was a phenomenon in and of itself.

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  Those who had a vested interest in maintaining the value of the Hermannsburg painters’ work insisted on also maintaining their quote-unquote “authenticity” as Arrernte people, in part by, as I mentioned earlier, physically keeping them away from centers of white Australian life. There was a great fear on the part of white Australians that if Arrernte painters moved away from their ancestral lands, they would start painting from memory rather than from life, which would also somehow have an impact on the quality and authenticity of their work.[19] However, as historian and professor of Australian studies Tim Rowse emphasizes, the capacity for memory in a variety of forms, including using images as tools for memory, is a big part of traditional Aboriginal life.[20] Memory and forgetting are also recurring themes in discussing Aboriginal life both before and after European contact. Anthropologist T.G.H. Strehlow, who studied the Arrernte around the same time that Namatjira was active, emphasized how even the Central Desert landscape itself relates to how the Arrernte approach memory:

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“Mountains and creeks and springs and water-holes are…not merely interesting or beautiful scenic features…they are the handiwork of ancestors from whom [an Arrernte person] has descended. He sees recorded in the surrounding landscape the ancient story of the lives and the deeds of the immortal beings whom he reveres; beings, who for a brief space may take on human shape once more; beings, many of whom he has known in his own experience as his fathers and grandfathers and brothers, and as his mothers and sisters. The whole countryside is his living, age-old family tree.”[21]

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I’m inclined to take Strehlow’s statements with a grain of salt, given the period in which he worked, but the emphasis on landscape as a reminder of family, ancestors, and/or a higher power is notable. This is bolstered by the fact that Arrernte people associate themselves with specific locations based on where they were born or conceived, further connecting people to places and thus creating mnemonics for both.[22] For example, Albert Namatjira was conceived at a place represented by the carpet snake totem, and the country of his father was represented by the flying ant—Namatjira spoke of his father as a flying ant who flew, quote, “all the way down from the Macdonnell Ranges, way over from Mount Sonder, way down the Finke River, way down the Ormiston. The ‘old men’ they tell us these things and I tell my sons. They, too, must know about my father’s country.”[23] End quote.

Namatjira may have been cut off from some of the knowledge- and memory-sharing that he might have otherwise been able to access, partly as a result of never being fully initiated as an adolescent, and partly because of his only half-right marriage. But he was certainly highly aware of the importance of place. It would make a lot of sense, then, if he primarily depicted these types of significant places in his landscapes—but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Catherine Creek, Northern Territory, for instance, doesn’t seem to be anywhere particularly close to Hermannsburg, and when you attempt to search for it on Google Maps, no such place spelled this way appears. The Katherine River, spelled with a K, and an associated town of the same name, does appear—but it’s over 1,300 km north of Hermannsburg, well outside Arrernte lands. We know that in 1956 Namatjira was gifted a truck by Ampol Petroleum in order to travel to different locations to paint, and in fact he attempted to go paint at Uluru, the sacred rock that is often the defining landmark of the Australian outback.[24] He ended up being told to leave by Pitjantjatjara and Yankantjatjara men whose country Uluru was in or near.[25] But Uluru is significantly closer to Hermannsburg than Katherine is, and as far as I’ve been able to discern, in 1950 Namatjira didn’t have that easy means of transportation. There may very well be a simple answer for this that isn’t contained in the research I’ve done, but it’s very interesting that such ambiguities should arise at all in relation to an artist with such a strong sense of place. Namatjira’s art is so place-specific that two ghost-gum trees near Alice Springs that featured in a number of his paintings were supposed to be added to a national heritage register before being destroyed by arson in 2013.[26]

But specific geolocation aside, let’s consider Catherine Creek, Northern Territory as an image. The small creek bed in a canyon that it depicts feels secluded and peaceful, a place to go and sit and be by oneself. The space seems almost fully enclosed by the canyon walls, as though it’s naturally formed a room. I’d venture to say that when most non-Australians think of the outback, they think of wide-open spaces, not tranquil hideaways. Many of Namatjira’s other works do depict more wide-open spaces, so this painting feels like a bit of an outlier both in terms of the general conception of the Australian landscape and in terms of Namatjira’s body of work. Between the cool blue of the creek in the foreground and the cool tones of the purple shadows on the rocks, this landscape also pushes back against the perception of the outback as extremely hot. It’s the ghost gums and the reddish rocks that make up the canyon walls that keep the image anchored in Australian country. Far from the hostile environment fit for only the hardiest adventurers, as I think many non-Aussies perceive the outback to be, this place is an oasis of sorts, offering a space for contemplation that appears that much softer and more comfortable as a result of Namatjira’s gentle washes of watercolor. The fact that around the time he painted this Namatjira was struggling to lease or acquire land of his own adds a further layer of possible significance—here is an uncontested space, a space that doesn’t require citizenship or judicial approval to enjoy.

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Unsurprisingly, Namatjira’s fame has continued since his 1959 death, and he is firmly entrenched among the ranks of capital-G Great Australians. Catherine Creek, Northern Territory is in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, just one of many of Namatjira’s works in major art institutions. Still, Namatjira remains an outlier in some ways—much of the Aboriginal Australian art that rose to prominence after Namatjira, primarily in the 1980s, is a genre of acrylic-on-canvas work called dot painting that draws on aspects of Aboriginal spirituality, ritual, and worldview known as the Dreaming. In comparison to these works, Namatjira’s small watercolors can seem almost boring to some, but they also have an accessibility and a familiarity that stands the test of time.

Albert Namatjira’s descendants have worked hard to protect his legacy, from teaching younger generations the watercolor techniques that Namatjira used to partnering with Australian arts organizations to produce a stage production and a documentary based on Namatjira’s life.[27] Most recently, in October 2017, the Namatjira Legacy Trust was able to take back control of the copyright of Namatjira’s work, which was sold by a public trustee to Legend Press in 1983 without consulting the Namatjira family.[28] The Namatjira family received compensation for income lost as a result of the sale of the copyright, and the Trust can now allow Namatjira’s paintings to be reproduced and shown more widely, thus raising Namatjira’s global profile. Gloria Pannka, Albert Namatjira’s granddaughter, is particularly committed to continuing his legacy of watercolor painting and teaching it to younger generations—passing on knowledge, passing on memories, and passing on Albert Namatjira’s approach to the place his descendants still call home. Another of Namatjira’s descendants, Vincent Namatjira, has followed a different path in terms of genre and medium than Albert—he does politically charged paintings of world leaders in acrylics and recently displayed his work at Art Basel Miami Beach in late 2018.[29] Thus, Albert Namatjira’s legacy does continue, even if in smaller or more roundabout ways.

The impact of Albert Namatjira’s life and work is so far-reaching, it’s difficult to sum it up in a neat, succinct way. The themes and questions that surround Namatjira’s legacy, and likewise connect to the Aboriginal situation more broadly, are always in need of further discussion—how does one most effectively preserve tradition and memory while still adapting to change? How should we amend legislation and institutionalized practices that negatively impact Aboriginal people? Where does Albert Namatjira, among other Aboriginal figures, fit into Australian history, or world history, for that matter? Is a soft little watercolor landscape painting as meaningful, as worthy of praise and study, as works that are better-known or more conceptually challenging? Now that Albert Namatjira’s work can potentially reach more people, we’ll be able to see how these questions are approached, and which new ones form.

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Thanks so much for listening to Art History for All! A transcript of this podcast, with links to images and citations, can be found at arthistoryforall.com. Updates about episodes and other fun artsy chatter can be found on our Twitter, @arthistory4all, with the number 4. Subscribe to us on your pod catcher of choice, and don’t forget to drop a rating and review, and tell your friends about us, too! If you really, REALLY like the podcast, please feel free to leave a tip on Ko-Fi, at ko-fi.com/arthistoryforall.

This podcast was produced and narrated by me, Allyson Healey. The theme was composed by Bruce Healey. Credits for other background and interstitial music can be found in the podcast description or at the end of the transcript. Keep a look out for our new episodes releasing the last Monday of every month.  Thanks so much for listening, and remember to look closely: you never know what you might see.

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[1] According to a search via native-land.ca.

[2] James Jupp, “Indigenous Australia and the South Pacific,” in An Immigrant Nation Seeks Cohesion: Australia from 1788 (New York: Anthem Press, 2018), 44-45.

[3] Jupp, 41.

[4] Ibid., 42.

[5] Ibid.

[6] J.V.S. Megaw and M. Ruth Megaw, “Introduction: The Heritage of Namatjira and the Hermannsburg Painters,” in The Heritage of Namatjira: The Watercolourists of Central Australia, edited by Jane Hardy, J.V.S. Megaw and M. Ruth Megaw (Melbourne: William Heinemann Australia, 1992), 3-4.

Philip Jones, “Namatjira: Traveller Between Two Worlds,” in The Heritage of Namatjira: The Watercolourists of Central Australia, edited by Jane Hardy, J.V.S. Megaw and M. Ruth Megaw (Melbourne: William Heinemann Australia, 1992), 121-122.

[7] Megaw and Megaw, “Introduction,” 3-4.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jones, “Namatjira: Traveller,” 111.

[10] Jane Hardy, “Visitors to Hermannsburg: An Essay on Cross-Cultural Learning,” in The Heritage of Namatjira: The Watercolourists of Central Australia, edited by Jane Hardy, J.V.S. Megaw and M. Ruth Megaw (Melbourne: William Heinemann Australia, 1992), 143.

[11] Ibid.

[12] M. Ruth Megaw, “A Brief Chronology,” in The Heritage of Namatjira: The Watercolourists of Central Australia, edited by Jane Hardy, J.V.S. Megaw and M. Ruth Megaw (Melbourne: William Heinemann Australia, 1992), xvii-xviii.

[13] Megaw and Megaw, “Introduction,” 8.

[14] Megaw and Megaw, “Introduction,” 8-10.

Megaw, “Chronology,” xviii.

[15] Megaw, “Chronology,” xix.

[16] Megaw and Megaw, “Introduction,” 9-10.

[17] Julie T. Wells and Michael F. Christie, “Namatjira and the Burden of Citizenship,” Australian Historical Studies 31, no. 114 (2000): 110.

[18] Megaw and Megaw, “Introduction,” 10.

[19] Tim Rowse, “Painting from Memory: Art, Economics & Citizenship 1940-60,” in The Heritage of Namatjira: The Watercolourists of Central Australia, edited by Jane Hardy, J.V.S. Megaw and M. Ruth Megaw (Melbourne: William Heinemann Australia, 1992), 177-178.

[20] Rowse, “Memory,” 179.

[21] Strehlow, quoted in John Morton, “Country, People, Art: The Western Aranda 1870-1990,” in The Heritage of Namatjira: The Watercolourists of Central Australia, edited by Jane Hardy, J.V.S. Megaw and M. Ruth Megaw (Melbourne: William Heinemann Australia, 1992), 33.

[22] Morton, “Country,” 27.

[23] Quoted in Morton, “Country,” 38.

[24] Jones, “Traveller,” 129-130.

[25] ibid.

[26] Phil Mercer, “Australia ghost gum trees in Alice Springs ‘arson attack,’” BBC News, 4 January 2013. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-20907588

[27] ABC News (Australia), “Namatjira’s story,” YouTube, 6 August 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XxTp58aAn2E&t=80s

Big hART, “Official Trailer Namatjira Project Film,” YouTube, 11 July 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cW3phsGSCl8

[28] Stewart Brash and Emma Haskin, “Albert Namatjira descendants win copyright compensation after decades of negotiation,” ABC News, 27 August 2018. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-08-28/albert-namatjira-descendants-compensation-copyright-fight/10172514

[29] Natalie King, “Vincent Namatjira in Conversation,” Ocula, 24 November 2018. https://ocula.com/magazine/conversations/vincent-namatjira/

Additional Music Credits:

All background music for this episode was composed by Bruce Healey.

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