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Albert Namatjira, c. 1950
|Died||8 August 1959
Alice Springs, Northern Territory
|Awards||Queen's Coronation Medal|
Albert Namatjira (28 July 1902 – 8 August 1959), born Elea Namatjira, was a Western Arrernte-speaking Aboriginal artist from the MacDonnell Ranges in Central Australia. As a pioneer of contemporary Indigenous Australian art, he was the most famous Indigenous Australian of his generation.
Born and raised at the Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission outside Alice Springs, Namatjira showed interest in art from an early age, but it was not until 1934 (aged 32), under the tutelage of Rex Battarbee, that he began to paint seriously. Namatjira's richly detailed, Western art-influenced watercolours of the outback departed significantly from the abstract designs and symbols of traditional Aboriginal art, and inspired the Hermannsburg School of painting. He became a household name in Australia—indeed, reproductions of his works hung in many homes throughout the nation—and he was publicly regarded as a model Aborigine who had succeeded in mainstream society.
Namatjira was the first Northern Territory Aboriginal person to be freed from restrictions that made Aborigines wards of the State. In 1957, he became the first Aboriginal person to be granted Australian citizenship, which allowed him to vote, build a house and buy alcohol. In 1956 his portrait, by William Dargie, became the first of an Aboriginal person to win the Archibald Prize. Namatjira was also awarded the Queen's Coronation Medal in 1953, and was honoured with an Australian postage stamp in 1968.
Born at Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission, near Alice Springs in 1902, Namatjira was raised on the Hermannsburg Mission and baptised after his parents' adoption of Christianity. He was born as Elea, but once baptised, they changed his name to Albert. After a western-style upbringing on the mission, at the age of 13 Namatjira returned to 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). He developed the love and respect of his land that is seen in his works. After he returned, he married his wife Rubina at the age of 18. His wife, like his father's wife, was from the wrong "skin" group and he violated the law of his people by marrying outside the classificatory kinship system (see Australian Aboriginal kinship). In 1928 he was ostracised for several years in which he worked as a camel driver and saw much of Central Australia, which he was later to depict in his paintings.
Having done a small amount of rough artwork in his youth, Namatjira was introduced to western-style painting through an exhibition by two painters from Melbourne at his mission in 1934. One of these painters, Rex 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 Namatjira was shown how to paint with watercolours, a skill at which he quickly excelled.
The height of success
Namatjira started painting in a unique style. His landscapes normally highlighted both the rugged geological features of the land in the background, and the distinctive 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 colours were similar to the ochres that his ancestors had used to depict the same landscape, but his style was appreciated by Europeans because it met the aesthetics of western art.
In 1938 his first exhibition was held in Melbourne. Subsequent exhibitions in Sydney and Adelaide also sold out. For ten years Namatjira continued to paint, 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. He became popular, critically acclaimed and wealthy. However, he was always glad to return to the outback.
Namatjira's artworks were colourful and varied depictions of the Australian landscape. One of his first landscapes from 1936, Central Australian Landscape, shows a land of rolling green hills. Another early work, Ajantzi Waterhole (1937), shows a close up view of a small waterhole, with Namatjira capturing the reflection in the water. The landscape becomes one of contrasting colours, a device that is often used by Western painters, with red hills and green trees in Red Bluff (1938). Central Australian Gorge (1940) shows detailed rendering of rocks and reflections in the water. In Flowering Shrubs Namatjira contrasts the blossoming flowers in the foreground with the more barren desert and cliffs in the background. Namatjira's love of trees was often described so that his paintings of trees were more portraits than landscapes, which is shown in the portrait of the often depicted ghost gum in Ghost Gum Glen Helen (c.1945-49). Namatjira's skills at colouring trees can be clearly seen in this portrait.
Namatjira was fully aware of his own talent, as was shown when he was describing another landscape painter to William Dargie.
"He does not know how to make the side of a tree which is in the light look the same colour as the side of the tree in shadow...I know how to do better."
Namatjira's skills kept increasing with experience as is shown in the highly photographic quality of Mt Hermannsburg (1957), painted only two years before he died.
Due to his wealth, Namatjira soon found himself the subject of humbugging, a ritualised form of begging. Arrernte are expected to share everything they own, and as Namatjira's income grew, so did his extended family. At one time he was singlehandedly providing for over 600 people. To ease the burden on his strained resources, Namatjira sought to lease a cattle station to benefit his extended family. Originally granted, the lease was subsequently rejected because the land was part of a returned servicemen's ballot, and also because he had no ancestral claim on the property. He then tried to build a house in Alice Springs, but was cheated in his land dealings. The land he was sold was on a flood plain and was unsuitable for building. The Minister for Territories, Paul Hasluck, offered him free land in a reserve on the outskirts of Alice Springs, but this was rejected, and Namatjira and his family took up residence in a squalid shanty at Morris Soak—a dry creek bed some distance from Alice Springs. Despite the fact that he was held as one of Australia's greatest artists, Namatjira was living in poverty. His plight became a media cause célèbre, resulting in a wave of public outrage.
In 1957 the government exempted Namatjira and his wife from the restrictive legislation that applied to Aborigines in the Northern Territory. This entitled them to vote, own land, build a house and buy alcohol. Although Albert and Rubina were legally allowed to drink alcohol, his Aboriginal family and friends were not. The nomadic Arrernte culture expected him to share everything he owned, even after they ceased being nomads. It was this contradiction that was to bring Namatjira into conflict with the law.
When an Aboriginal woman, Fay Iowa, was killed at Morris Soak, Namatjira was held responsible by Jim Lemaire, the Stipendiary Magistrate, for bringing alcohol into the camp. He was reprimanded at the coronial inquest. It was then against the law to supply alcohol to an Aboriginal person. Namatjira was charged with leaving a bottle of rum in a place, i.e. on a car seat, where a clan brother and fellow Hermannsburg artist Henoch Raberaba, could get access to it. He was sentenced to six months in prison for supplying an Aboriginal with liquor. After a public uproar, Hasluck intervened and the sentence was served at Papunya Native Reserve. He was released after only serving two months due to medical and humanitarian reasons.
Despondent after his incarceration, Namatjira continued to live with Rubina in a cottage at Papunya, where he suffered a heart attack. There is evidence that Albert believed that he had the bone pointed at him by a member of Fay Iowa's family. The idea of being "sung" to death was also held by Frank Clune, a popular travel writer, aboriginal activist, and organiser of Albert's whirlwind 1956 trip.
After being transferred to Alice Springs hospital, Namatjira astonished his mentor Rex Battarbee by presenting him with three landscapes, with a promise of more to come; a promise unrealised. He died soon after of heart disease complicated by pneumonia on 8 August 1959 in Alice Springs.
At the time of his death Namatjira had painted a total of around two thousand paintings and had two short biographical films made about him. His unique style of painting however was denounced soon after his death by some critics as being a product of his assimilation into western culture, rather than his own connection to his subject matter or his natural style. This view has been largely abandoned and Albert Namatjira is hailed as one of the greatest Australian artists and a pioneer for Aboriginal rights.
Namatjira's work is on public display in some of Australia's major art galleries, with some noteworthy exceptions. The Art Gallery of New South Wales rejected Namatjira's work. In the words of Hal Missingham, then Director of the gallery: "We'll consider his work when it comes up to scratch".
Namatjira is the subject of a song of the same name by the Australian band Not Drowning, Waving, featured on their 1993 album, Circus. He is also referenced in Midnight Oil's 1993 song, "Truganini"; the famous patriotic song "I Am Australian"; John Williamson's "Raining on the Rock" from his 1986 album Mallee Boy and also The Camel Boy from Chandelier Of Stars (2005); and in Archie Roach's song, "Native Born". Country star Slim Dusty was the first artist to record a tribute song, "Namatjira", in the 1960s, and Rick and Thel Carey followed up with their tribute "The Stairs That Namatjira Climbed". In 2004, the artist was the subject of the reconciliation song, "Namatjira", written by Geoff Drummond and included on the politically activist album, The Chess Set released by Pat Drummond in that year. In 1968 Namatjira was honoured on a postage stamp issued by Australia Post and again in 1993 with examples of his work.
In January 2013, two gum trees that featured prominently in Namatjira's watercolours were destroyed in an arson attack. The trees were in the process of being heritage-listed. Art writer Susan McCulloch called the attack an "appalling and a tragic act of cultural vandalism".
Albert Namatjira's descendants paint at the Ngurratjuta Many Hands art centre in Alice Springs.
- Namatjira profile, artistsfootsteps.com; accessed 26 July 2015.
- Kleinert, Sylvia. "Namatjira, Albert (Elea) (1902–1959)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Retrieved 19 September 2013.
- Stamp of Albert Namatjira. 5c Stamp. www.australianstamp.com. Retrieved 6 January 2013
- Albert Namatjira "Ghost Gum". 45c, 1993 Stamp: www.australianstamp.com. Retrieved 6 January 2013
- Albert Namatjira "Across the plain to Mount Giles". 45c, 1993 Stamp: www.australianstamp.com. Retrieved 6 January 2013
- Mercer, Phil (4 January 2013). "Australia ghost gum trees in Alice Springs 'arson attack'", BBC News. Retrieved 21 January 2013.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Albert Namatjira.|
- Seeing the Centre: The art of Albert Namatjira 1902-1959, a National Gallery of Australia travelling and online exhibition
- Albert Namatjira photograph collection, National Library of Australia
- Namatjira's works in the National Gallery of Australia
- Australian Dictionary of Biography entry
- ABC schools TV
- Namatjira BIG hART history background and biography.