As the first indigenous artist to paint and exhibit professionally, Albert Namatjira became known for his watercolour Australian desert landscapes that did not follow traditional styles of Aboriginal art but instead, reflected heavy influences of the styles of the European movements. Notable not only for his contribution to the cause of Australian art, Namatjira came to symbolise the sheer injustices and prejudices held towards Aboriginal people at the time.
Elea Namatjira was born near Alice Springs in 1902 as a member of the Aboriginal Arrernte tribe. After moving to the Hermannsburg Mission and adopting Christianity, his parents had their son baptised and renamed as Albert Namatjira, subjecting him to a western style upbringing that provided him with a lifestyle that was a world away from the life lived by the people of his traditional native tribe.
Compelled to learn of the culture he knew very little about, Namatjira undertook the Aboriginal ritual of initiation at the age of thirteen. Living in the bush for six months he was introduced to the traditional laws and customs by tribal leaders and obtained a deep love and respect for his land, as a member of the Arrernte community. It was this loving relationship with the land that ultimately became the key theme to many of his painted works.
Upon returning from his initiation, Namatjira married wife, Ilkalita when he was eighteen. As she was from a neighbouring tribe, he broke the law of his people by marrying her and consequently, Namatjira was ostracised from the Arrernte community, leaving him to work as a camel driver. This was an experience that allowed him to witness the true extent of inland Australia. These sparse, arid and isolated expanses of land were to become the places where Namatjira would come to paint.
Building a house near the mission, Namatjira supported his growing family by doing odd jobs such as making and selling small pieces of non-traditional artwork. It wasn’t until 1934 when two Melbourne artists visited the mission to exhibit their paintings that Namatjira was inspired to take up the art of painting seriously. When one of these painters, Rex Batterbee returned in 1936 to paint the landscape, Namatjira volunteered to take the artist to the most scenic areas and in exchange for his help, Batterbee taught Namatjira the fundamentals of painting with watercolours. During their eight-week painting tour, it soon became obvious to his mentor that Namatjira had a natural gift.
With his paintings expressing his strong emotional attachment to the Arrernte country, Namatjira’s landscapes highlighted the unique qualities of outback Australia’s geological features and flora. As many of his landscapes demonstrated a concern for the gashes of the land and the twisting of the trees, this became an element that made his works appear breathtaking to his viewers as they came to encapsulate the ‘dead heart’, haunting isolation and extremities of the Australian wilderness. Although in creating his works, he used colours that were similar to the ochres used by his Aboriginal ancestors, Namatjira’s art was not symbolic of the ways of traditional Aboriginal art but instead reflected a faithful adoption of western painting styles, an obvious result of his christian upbringing. Ultimately it was this that made his art able to be appreciated by European audiences.
In 1938, Namatjira’s first solo exhibition of 41 images was held in Melbourne. With all his works selling quickly and the exhibition sold out, the artist became famous for using his art to capture Australia’s heart. He went on to spend his next ten years as a celebrity, whose exhibitions were held in many of Australia’s capital cities. His images Ajantzi Waterhole (1937), Red Bluff (1938). Ghost Gum Glen Helen (c.1945-49) and Mt Hermannsburg (1957) are some of his most famous works, to name a few.
With his popularity continuing to rise, Queen Elizabeth II was added to his list of fans and as a result of this, he was awarded the Queen’s Coronation Medal in 1953. Now a celebrated Australian artist, William Dargie’s portrait of Namatjira won the prestigious Archibald Prize in 1956.
As fame brought the artist critical acclaim and significant wealth, Namatjira planned to use it to secure a future for his family. He found, however that due to his Aboriginal status he was prevented from using his wealth to lease out a cattle station or build a house in Alice Springs. Despite the fact that he was regarded as a celebrity and one of the greatest Australian artists of the time, the law made it legally impossible for Namatjira to own land. With this generating public outrage, the government were prompted to grant Albert Namatjira and his wife Australian citizenship in 1957, making them the first Aboriginal people to be granted citizenship in the history of Australia. This was a great feat, as Aborigines at this time had very few rights. As Australian citizens, they were freed from the restrictive laws that applied to Aboriginal people and were given the entitlements of voting, owning land, building a house and buying alcohol. Following this landmark event, the government granted similar rights to the rest of the Aboriginal population ten years later, a reflection of how Namatjira had played a significant role in furthering the status of Aboriginal people.
Devoid of citizenship, members of Namatjira’s tribe did not share the same rights as the artist and he was expected to share any alcohol he bought. This broke with white man’s laws and after an Aboriginal man was killed in an alcohol-related incident, Namatjira was blamed for bringing alcohol into the Aboriginal community. Consequently, Namatjira was sent to serve six months in prison in 1958. When he was released after two months, he emerged a dejected and downhearted man, and had lost his passion for painting and life itself.
Albert Namatjira died at the age of 57 in 1959, only two years after being granted citizenship. Among his lifetime achievements, he created two thousand artworks, founded a school of painting and had three biographical films made about him. Considered a pioneer of Aboriginal rights, he inspired Aboriginal people to follow career paths in the arts and made the Australian public more aware of the injustices impinged on Aboriginal people. The painted landscapes of Namatjira became iconic for the way they mirrored the true nature of the Australian outback and many can be found hanging in Australia’s most prominent galleries.
Although his art continues to be admired by contemporary audiences and critics, responses to the work of Namatjira have also remained partly negative with the artist’s unique and western-influenced style of painting criticised by some members of the indigenous art community for being the product of white Christian assimilation. While opinions such as these are still held, many have been neglected, leaving Albert Namatjira to be named as one of Australia’s greatest artistic talents.