Welcome to the life of one of Australia's most famous artists. Albert Namatjira, born Elea Namatjira, was a Western Arrernte-speaking Aboriginal artist from the MacDonnell Ranges in Central Australia. As a kid, I recall many of his works depicted on chocolate boxes.
In his boyhood Albert sketched 'scenes and incidents around him . . . the cattle yard, the stockmen with their horses, and the hunters after game'. He later made artefacts such as boomerangs and woomeras. Encouraged by the mission authorities, he began to produce mulga-wood plaques with poker-worked designs. Meanwhile, he worked as a blacksmith, carpenter, stockman and cameleer—at the mission for rations and on neighbouring stations for wages. The spectacular scenery of Central Australia, then entering the national consciousness as a symbol of Australian identity, attracted artists to Hermannsburg, among them Rex Battarbee and John Gardner. During their second visit in 1934 they held an exhibition for an Aboriginal audience. The Arrernte were familiar with illustrations of biblical scenes, but none had seen landscapes depicting their own surroundings.
Motivated by a deep attachment to his country and the possibility of a vocation that offered financial return, Namatjira expressed an interest in learning to paint. In 1936 he accompanied Battarbee as a cameleer on two month-long excursions in and around the Macdonnell Ranges. Battarbee was impressed by his evident talent. In the following year Pastor Friedrich Albrecht, the superintendent of Hermannsburg, displayed ten of Namatjira's watercolours at a Lutheran conference held at Nuriootpa, South Australia. Battarbee included another three of his water-colours in an exhibition with the Royal South Australian Society of Arts, Adelaide. In 1938 the two men went on an expedition, during which Battarbee taught him photography. Later that year Namatjira held his first solo exhibition at the Fine Art Society Gallery, Melbourne. With Battarbee's assistance as teacher, dealer and mentor, a school of artists developed around Namatjira.
Although Namatjira is best known for his water-colour landscapes of the Macdonnell Ranges and the nearby region, earlier in his career his imagery had included tjuringa designs, biblical themes and figurative subjects. He also produced carved and painted artefacts, and briefly painted on bean-wood panels. Superficially, his paintings give the appearance of conventional European landscapes, but Namatjira painted with 'country in mind' and continually returned to sites imbued with ancestral associations. The repetition, detailed patterning and high horizons—so characteristic of his work—blended Aboriginal and European modes of depiction.
Namatjira's initiatives won national and international acclaim. As the first prominent Aboriginal artist to work in a modern idiom, he was widely regarded as a representative of assimilation. In 1944 he was included in Who's Who in Australia. He was awarded Queen Elizabeth II's coronation medal (1953), presented to the Queen in Canberra (1954) and elected an honorary member of the Royal Art Society of New South Wales (1955). His quiet and dignified presence belied the underlying tensions in his life.
With fame came controversy. Namatjira's brilliant career highlighted the gap between the rhetoric and reality of assimilation policies. He encountered an ambiguous response from the art world. Some criticized his water-colour landscapes as derivative and conventional, others viewed them as evidence of acculturation and a loss of tribal traditions. Tensions arose between Namatjira and the Aranda Arts Council (chaired by Battarbee) when the council tried to maintain control over the quality and quantity of his work. Namatjira also encountered racial discrimination. He was refused a grazing licence in 1949-50 and prevented in 1951 from building a house on land he bought at Alice Springs. Seeking further means of support for his family, he discovered copper deposits at Areyonga Reserve, but they proved commercially unviable. By the early 1950s he lived independently of the mission in a fringe camp at Morris Soak on the outskirts of Alice Springs.
The citizenship granted to Namatjira in 1957 led to further anomalies. Exempted from the restrictions imposed on other 'full-blooded' Aborigines, he had access to alcohol which he shared with members of his family in accordance with Aboriginal custom. In 1958 he was charged with supplying alcohol to the artist Henoch Raberaba and sentenced to six months imprisonment with labour. Following a public outcry and two appeals, the sentence was reduced to three months. Namatjira finally served two months of 'open' detention at the Papunya settlement in March-May 1959. He died of hypertensive heart failure on 8 August that year at Alice Springs Hospital and was buried with Lutheran forms in the local cemetery. His wife, five sons and one of his daughters survived him.
For a time Namatjira's name drifted into obscurity, his achievements largely eclipsed by the 'dot painting' style developed at Papunya in the 1970s. Recent re-evaluations recognize his influence on Aboriginal artists in Central Australia and elsewhere. In 1994 members of the Hermannsburg Potters, led by his grand-daughter Elaine, acknowledged Namatjira's legacy by producing a terracotta mural for the headstone of his grave. The work is a landscape combining three sites in the Macdonnell Ranges which were the subjects of his paintings.
Clancy's comment: A clever man. However, as an Aboriginal born in those times, life wouldn't have been easy as an artist.