28 January 1924 – 6 December 2014
Last December saw the passing of tribal art collector and adventurer, Senta Taft-Hendry. At 85 years of age she was easily Australia’s oldest commercial pilot – yet she could possibly have been 90. Having arrived in Australia as a teenager without a passport in 1938, the lively adventurer with a talent for storytelling, would explain that her mother was 60 for three years and 65 for two, so she’d use her mother’s age to work out her own.
Born in Hanover, of Polish, German, French and Russian heritage, Senta Taft arrived in Melbourne, the youngest of six children.
Beautiful, unconventional and at times outlandish she became an air hostess for Trans-Australia Airlines (TAA) soon after it was established in 1946. Within months she’d become a ‘pin- up girl’ in the airline’s promotional material, and two years later, was involved in setting up the TAA office in Port Moresby. By 1960, addicted to the thrill of flying, she had her own pilot’s license – her passport to exotic international destinations.
Having first encountered indigenous art in Papua New Guinea, where she hitchhiked on cargo planes to visit highland and Sepik villages, Senta’s interest in nature, art, and indigenous spirituality, expanded and grew inexorably into a lifelong passion.
She lived in Kenya during the early 1950s, but during a quick trip back to Australia to see her family, fellow Melbournian, Don Chipp, suggested she apply to become the amenities officer for foreign participants to the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games, even though the position had been earmarked for a man. The future founder of the Australian Democrats, who was yet to enter parliament, Chipp was then chief executive officer of the Olympic Civic Committee. Following Senta’s African experience, her vivacity, beauty and skills in as many as six languages, won her the job. She was soon a celebrity. Posing for a ‘page- one’ photo in the Sydney tabloids, and was voted Number One Pin-up Girl by the 13,000 visiting sailors who made Sydney their home base during the Games. She frequently appeared in newspapers and magazines including the Australian Women’s Weekly.
Parlaying her contacts with a number of prominent business people she’d met through the Games, Senta was sent to Singapore, Malaya, the Philippines, Thailand and Hong Kong to promote a range of Australian products: from biscuits, meat, and light fittings, to gin, whiskey and wine. Surprising all with her charm and sparkling personality, and a joke for every occasion, she was a one woman equivalent of AUSTRADE, dreaming up new and exotic names for products that, through her wild imagination, extolled many and various human virtues that would appeal to Asian customers – from long life and mystic power to virility and fertility.
Senta spent the following 30 years travelling tirelessly and collecting artworks voraciously. She opened her gallery, Galleries Primitif, in 1959 at a time when Aboriginal art consisted of bark paintings, and artifacts, and little was known about the cultures that she visited on her collecting trips. It was fortunate indeed, that at this time she met Leo Fleischmann who would become her closest friend and confidant over the following 30 years. Leo’s fascination with tribal art saw him leave his full time job and travel through Aboriginal Australia. He eventually returned to manage the gallery and amass an unrivalled personal tribal art library. Leo attracted a circle of collectors with whom he shared his knowledge and unerring eye, always complimented by painstaking research. Together Senta and Leo collected and documented works that today adorn galleries and major private collections around the world. A heavy smoker, Leo died in 1993 leaving Senta to run the gallery alone over the following decades.
While she continued her travels to desert and jungle villages at the controls of light aircraft, Senta’s collection grew to thousands of pieces of tribal and contemporary art. Though her taste was eclectic and collection diverse, she had a particular fondness for the art and people of New Guinea, the Solomons, Timor and other small Pacific islands.
When back in Australia, at home in her gallery, Senta was always ready with a twinkle in her eye, to entertain guests and clients with stories of her adventures amongst cannibals, hostile head-hunters and ferocious animals. A favourite exhibit was her 12- foot stuffed crocodile mounted on the wall after a trip to Darwin. ‘When I got the croc,’ she explained to the Newcastle Herald in 2013, ‘his teeth were very black. I didn’t like the dentist very much because he had a terrible receptionist, so I made an appointment for my crocodile. Three of us carried it to the dentist on New South Head Road (in Sydney’s east) to have his teeth cleaned. It was hilarious. Yes he cleaned my crocodile’s teeth, but the receptionist didn’t stay long after that.’
In November 1961 Senta was field collecting in the same Asmat region as Michael Rockefeller, the 23-year-old son of the future Vice President of the USA. Though his death was mysterious and a huge reward was posted, Senta was convinced that he’d been killed and eaten by villagers in revenge for the death of two of their leaders three years earlier.
A year later while copiloting a Piper Cub airplane over Israel she came under sustained fire over restricted territory. After landing safely, she became a tour guide in the holy land, and later flew to Portugal, Canada, France, Italy and Hong Kong. Sponsored by the Indonesian government, she went on to collect West Irian and Sepik art, which she exhibited through the UK and USA during the mid 1960s.
Petite, spritely and mischievous, Senta Taft weighed in her prime just 6 stone (38kg), but showed no fear, and even in the most remote places she traveled without a weapon for protection. ‘Even sleeping in huts in remote villages for months on end I was not afraid,’ she wrote in her diary. “They could have done anything to me. They could have raped me, or eaten me, but I’d be no good for food, because I only weigh half a pea”. Senta Taft loved and believed in the dignity of the Aboriginal and Pacific Islander peoples she met. Many elders went on to become lifelong friends as she joined them in their struggle to keep their ancient cultures alive. She fervently believed that in accepting her amongst them, they had bestowed upon her the greatest honour. She collected for over 50 years during which she presented her acquisitions, not as art as we know it, but as spiritual and mystical objects, made for the purpose of perpetuating and placating the ancestors of their creators.
Before she died, Senta donated more than 200 pieces to the University of Newcastle. Thousands more adorned the walls of her Galleries Primitif in Woollahra and her home and the ‘lake house’ at Valentine (also gifted to the University of Newcastle Foundation). A memorial fund in Leo Fleischmann’s name at the Australian Museum was established by Galleries Primitif to further studies in Pacific Arts.
Senta Taft-Hendry is survived by her adored husband the eminent pathologist Dr. Peter Hendry, her nephews Danny, Mark and Gary and their children. The grand doyen of the ethnographic trade, she died peacefully on December 6th 2014, just a month or two after piloting a tiny light aircraft carrying her 99-year-old husband Peter over their Newcastle home. Amongst her papers, a birth certificate was recovered, dated January 28, 1924.
Adrian Newstead is the owner of Australia’s oldest Aboriginal art gallery.
Note from Dr Harry Beran:
So Senta was ninety when she died. Her passing is sad news. Leo Fleischmann was the manager of her Galleries Primitif from the 1960s until his death in 1993. During this time he formed a substantial collection of Oceanic and Aboriginal art and lived rent-free in a room in a house Senta owned in Paddington. The accommodation was part of his salary as gallery manager. He told me that he and Senta had an agreement. Should she, who I now realise, was four years older than Leo, die before him, he would be entitled to continue to run the gallery in Jersey Road until he was ready to retire and to live upstairs at the gallery rent-free. Should he die before her, she would inherit his collection. It was an agreement that suited Leo because it gave him security should Senta die before him.