Jul 282017

Today is the birthday (1902) of Albert Namatjira (born Elea Namatjira), a Western Arrernte-speaking Aboriginal artist from the MacDonnell Ranges in Central Australia, who was, without question, the most famous indigenous Australian of his generation, although then and now his name is probably little known outside Australia. His was a household name was I was a boy in South Australia in the 1950s and 1960s.

Namatjira was born and raised at the Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission outside Alice Springs and showed interest in art from an early age. It was not until he was 32, however, when he met Australian landscape artist Rex Battarbee, whose work was displayed at the Mission, that he began to paint seriously in Western style under Battarbee’s guidance. Namatjira’s watercolors of the outback gained popularity with Euro-Australians, perhaps because they were more easily assimilated into popular Western conceptions of art than traditional Aboriginal designs, and reproductions of his works hung in many homes throughout Australia. His success was a two-edged sword in so many ways. At the time, Northern Territory Aboriginal Australians were wards of State without the right to own property, vote, or buy alcohol. Namatjira was seen as a “success” story of assimilation into majority White culture, and towards the end of his life in 1957, he became the first Northern Territory Aboriginal Australian to be granted restricted Australian citizenship.

Namatjira’s family were traditional Aranda (Arunta), but they converted to Christianity, upon which they baptized their son and changed his name from Elea to Albert. After a Western-style schooling at the Mission, Namatjira, at the age of 13, went into the bush for initiation and was exposed to traditional culture as a member of the Arrernte community (in which he was to eventually become an elder). After he returned to the Mission, he married his wife Rubina at the age of 18. His wife, like his father’s wife, was outside the classificatory kinship system into which Namatjira should have married traditionally, and so he was ostracized by his clan for several years, during which he worked as a camel driver and saw much of Central Australia, which he was later to depict in his paintings.

Namatjira was introduced to Western-style painting of the outback via an exhibition at his Mission in 1934 by Battarbee and John Gardner, both landscape painters from Melbourne who were touring Central Australia in a Model-T Ford converted to a camper. Battarbee, returned to the area in the winter of 1936 to paint the landscape and Namatjira acted as a guide to show him local scenic areas. In return Battarbee taught Namatjira how to paint with watercolors.

Namatjira began painting in his own style which quickly became recognizable as distinctive. His landscapes normally highlighted both the rugged geological features of the land in the background, and the Australian flora in the foreground with very old, stately and majestic white gum trees surrounded by twisted scrub. His work had a high quality of illumination showing the gashes of the land and the twists in the trees. His colors were similar to the ochres that his ancestral kin had used to depict the same landscape, but his style was squarely within the norms of Western art aesthetics. Almost from the start his art was appreciated popularly in Australia, but always had a mixed reception from the art critics. These were the days when the Western modern art world was (ironically) more attracted to “primitive” or indigenous art styles and classic watercolor landscapes were out of vogue.

In 1938 Namatjira held his first exhibition in Melbourne, and subsequent exhibitions in Sydney and Adelaide quickly sold out. For the next ten years Namatjira painted ceaselessly, his works continuing to sell quickly, and his popularity continuing to rise. Queen Elizabeth II became one of his more notable fans and he was awarded the Queen’s Coronation Medal in 1953 and met her in Canberra in 1954. Not only did his own art become widely recognized, but a painting of him by William Dargie won the Archibald Prize in 1956. Apart from becoming popular and critically acclaimed, he also earned a lot of money