DEVOTED: Senta Taft-Hendry pictured here with the great love of her life, husband Peter Hendry. Pictures: Simone De PeakEVERY now and then the cosmos creates a character who is unique, eccentric and thoroughly unforgettable, one who walks ‘‘at a slight angle to the universe’’.
Such a person was Senta Taft-Hendry (known affectionately to all as Senta) who passed away on Saturday, December 6, at Merewether’s Lingard Hospital.
Senta was a free spirit who knew neither bounds nor boundaries, whether flying her plane around Australia, or exploring the jungles of Africa or Papua New Guinea, or creating her own version of history, life and the world in general.
She was a woman of great courage who, single-handedly and single-mindedly, explored the worlds of traditional peoples to secure, protect and promote their tribal art. Though short in stature and small in frame, she had a big and generous heart and a quick mind. She fought well above her weight. What she could not achieve through logic she attained through force of personality, persuasion and charm.
A 1964 file photo showing Senta Taft-Hendry with a traditional Sepik carving.
In short, whatever you thought when you entered a room where Senta was in full flight, you usually left in total agreement with her. Especially when the subject related to one or all of her three great passions – people, tribal art and her beloved husband, Dr Peter Hendry.
Senta Taft was born in Hanover, Germany, in 1924. Her mother, Malka Egra, and her father, Samuel Tagendhaft, both migrated from Poland to Germany where they met and married. They had four children: Bernard, Friedel, Paula and Senta. Both parents were religious. They observed Jewish ritual, kept the Sabbath, ate strictly kosher and attended synagogue.
In his memoirs, Senta’s brother Bernard describes how their father had the foresight to get the family out of Germany. After a period in Palestine in 1933 they travelled back to Europe, staying in Vienna, Bucharest and eventually Marseilles, whence they sailed to Tahiti and Noumea to await the visa that allowed them to settle in Australia.
By the time Senta arrived in Australia in 1938, at the age of 14, she had already travelled extensively and experienced a rich diversity of languages, cultures and the Jewish religion. Travel, languages, culture and religion – the seeds were sown – they would fascinate Senta for the rest of her life.
SPIRITED: Senta Taft-Hendry at the aero club.
Her diary reveals in much detail her story from leaving school at 19 until she marries her beloved Peter. It reveals how this extraordinary young women went from being a TAA air hostess to become a competent and experienced pilot.
She learnt to mix with the rich, the famous and the powerful, winning the hearts and minds of politicians like Don Chipp and Sir Robert Menzies. Her role as a public relations officer for the 1956 Olympics led to a position as a trade promotions officer for Australian business interests.
What drove this woman to such lengths to learn about traditional people, to learn to love them and to secure, protect and promote their art? According to Senta, it all started in the Northern Territory of Australia.
“When I finished my school years I became an air hostess and for years travelled between the cities of the south and Alice Springs, North Queensland and other distant corners of Australia,’’ she said.
‘‘That’s when I began collecting. I gathered a crocodile, birds, Aboriginal bark painting and all manner of things and shipped them back home.
‘‘I was the bane of the airlines. They used to say that what I didn’t make up in weight I would make up in freight.”
This passion for tribal art and for indigenous peoples and their cultures would lead to two of her greatest legacies. In 1959 she organised what is thought to be the first exhibition of Oceanic Tribal Art in Australia. From this came the creation of her gallery in Woollahra, the Galleries Primitif. In 2009 this gallery celebrated its 50th birthday, by which time it housed work from Papua New Guinea, Irian Jaya, Indonesia, Micronesia, Polynesia, Africa, North and South America, Canada, Easter Island and Australia. In addition, this gallery provided many artefacts to private and national galleries around the world.
The second great legacy was the creation of the Senta Taft-Hendry Museum at the University of Newcastle. Through a generous donation of her artworks and rare books the museum was established to encourage study, research and teaching in Oceanic art and culture.
Senta was driven not just by her art but by her respect for the spirit life represented in these works and by her love for the people who created them.
“It is important to note that these cultures did not produce works of art as we know them but rather as spiritual and majestic objects for placating their ancestors,’’ she said.
‘‘The objects that I have collected over 50 years are forms of art which express some of the customs and beliefs of the tribes in various areas. ‘‘It is the dignity of these people I have come to understand during my many trips among them, and it is indeed an honour for me to be accepted by such proud and ancient peoples.’’
Senta was ahead of her time. The gallery and museum stand as great memorials to Senta, her passion and her people.
Also still standing is her third great legacy, her marriage to her husband, former POW (Changi) and celebrated Newcastle pathologist Dr Peter Hendry AO.
The love that led to their marriage in 1969 grew during 44 years to become one of the great love affairs of the 21st century.
Senta adored Peter: “He is a beautiful man, he is a magnificent character. I love him so much”.
Dr Hendry, now 99, was her rock and her greatest love, and it was on this foundation that Senta built her life and legacies.
Senta will be remembered by her humour, her humanity and her generosity. She has returned to the cosmos and her ‘‘spiritual’’ life and undoubtedly will be guarding her Peter.