Australian Legends - Albert Namatjira

Albert Namatjira was born on the 28 July 1902. He is arguably Australia's best known aboriginal painter and excelled at portraying the beauty of outback desert landscapes. He didn't paint in the highly symbolic 'dot style' of more traditional indigenous artists and his major works are water-colours depicting the natural beauty of the land he loved. His style would be taken up by the Hermannsburg School of aboriginal art. His works are highly detailed depictions of the outback.

Namatjira was born at the Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission near Alice Springs in the centre of Australia.

He was first named Elea Namatjira and was an indigenous member of the Western Arrernte group from the western MacDonnell Ranges area. On baptism he was given the name Albert. At 13, Albert was taken, with others of his age, into the bush to be initiated into the tribal culture and laws. While at the Mission, Namatjira made boomerang and woomera artefacts. He also produced poker-work designs on mulga wood. He worked as a blacksmith, stockman and carpenter both at the mission and on nearby stations.

Tribal aboriginals at that time were expected to choose their partners from within their own 'skin' group. However, like his father, he violated the law of his tribe by marrying Rubina who was from outside the kinship system. He was ostracised for several years in 1928 and worked as a camel driver throughout much of Central Australia. He would show much of this area later in his paintings.

In 1934, two painters from Melbourne, Rex Battarbee and John Gardner, held an exhibition at the Mission. The Arrernte were familir with biblical illustrations but none had been exposed to landscapes of their local lands. In 1936, Battarbee made several month long trips in and around the McDonnell Ranges.

Albert NamatjiraCredit: Wikimedia

Namatjira accompanied him as a cameleer and guide. Battarbee showed Namatjira how to paint with watercolours and was impressed by his natural talent.

His style was unique, depicting a background of rugged natural features and a foreground of typical Australian trees and scrub. He captured the gnarled majesty of the white gums and his work met the expectations of western art, although the colours used were more akin to the ochres of his ancestors.

Namatjira often returned to sites which had ancestral associations. Characteristic of his work was the repetition, high horizons and detailed patterning.

Seeing the Centre: The Art of Albert Namatjira 1902-1959
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Following successful exhibitions in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide from 1938, his popularity rose with his work selling quickly. His name appears in Who's Who in Australia in 1944. He was presented to Queen Elizabeth II in Canberra in 1954 after he won the Queen's Coronation Medal in 1953. William Dargie painted his portrait in 1956, winning the Archibald Prize with the work. Namatjira was by now critically acclaimed and wealthy although he never lost his love of the outback. In his later works, his paintings show a highly photographic quality.

Like most aboriginal 'tribes', the Arrernte are expected to share all their possessions and Namatjira's extended family and 'hangers-on' grew until he was, at one time, providing for over 600 of his people. This strained his resources and he tried various ways to ease the burden while still caring for his brethren. He met with racial discrimination and biased handling of his affairs.

At that time, aborigines had very few rights. In the Northern Territory, they could not own land, vote, build a house or buy alcohol. By now Namatjira was living in poverty in a dry creek bed out of Alice Springs. Public outrage followed and in 1957, Namatjira and his wife were granted exemption from the restrictive legislation that applied to full-blooded aborigines. The old laws of sharing still applied however and when Namatjira was implicated in the murder of an aboriginal woman, he was charged with bringing alcohol into the camp. He served two months of a six month jail sentence on the Papunya settlement.

Namatjira suffered a heart attack and was admitted to Alice Springs hospital. He died on 8 August 1959 from heart disease complicated by pneumonia. Namatjira was survived by Rubina, a daughter and five sons.

Namatjira was a quiet, dignified man. His career highlighted the gap between paying lip service to assimilation policies and the reality. Art critics varied from those who saw his work as conventional and derivative to others who saw in them a loss of traditional form.

After his death, his art was for a time overshadowed by the 'dot painting' style of more traditional indigenous artists. Namatjira left a legacy of some two thousand paintings. He is now hailed as one of the great Australian artists. He is also highly regarded as a pioneer for aboriginal rights. His image and those of several of his paintings appear on postage stamps. He has been recognised in song by such artists as Slim Dusty and John Williamson.