SYDNEY (Reuters) - A pair of "ghost gum" trees in Australia's outback made famous in watercolors by Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira have been destroyed in a suspected arson attack, shortly before they were due to be placed on a national heritage register.
Namatjira is credited with bringing ghost gums, native trees featured in Aboriginal Dreamtime stories and named for their white bark that glows in moonlight, to wider public consciousness as a symbol of Australian identity.
Northern Territory Indigenous Advancement Minister Alison Anderson said the pair of ghost gums that frame the West MacDonnell Ranges and feature in many of the late Namatjira's works were found burnt to the ground a few days ago.
"In his watercolors (Namatjira) brought the beauty of the Central Australian landscape to the world and helped make it a symbol of Australian identity," Anderson said.
Authorities believe the fire was likely deliberately lit.
Susan McCulloch, author of McCulloch's Encyclopedia of Australian Art, told the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper the destruction of the ghost gums was "appalling and a tragic act of cultural vandalism".
Born in the Northern Territory in 1902, Namatjira held his first exhibition in 1938 and painted for the next two decades, earning international acclaim before his death in 1959.
Aboriginal Dreamtime stories have been passed down through generations to recount indigenous beliefs about the creation of the world and its creatures by totemic spirits in an era known as Dreamtime.
Reporting By Jane Wardell, editing by Elaine Lies