Today, we remember Albert Namatjira as the greatest Aboriginal painter Australia has ever seen, but to simply call him an artist is to do injustice to what might be considered his greatest accomplishment: a bridging of the gap between the nation’s indigenous people and the whites who had taken control of the land.
Alas, it would be this position as a hero to both cultures that would lead to his downfall and untimely death.
Albert Namatjira was born Elea Namatjira on July 28, 1902. His family, having adopted Christianity, lived at the Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission, but were ‘full-blooded’ members of the Arrernte people of the Northern Territory.
Life was good at the mission, although at the time, Aboriginals were still considered wards of the State. Reverend Carl Strehlow, superintendent of the facility, encouraged the inhabitants to continue embracing their own language and culture while learning about Western lifestyle.
From an early age, Namatjira was regarded as quiet, but self-assured, thoughtful, and intelligent. He swiftly learnt the skills required for many trades, including carpentry, leatherwork, and blacksmithing. Around this time, he began to show an interest in art, but it would be some time before painting became his profession.
At the age of 13, Namatjira went on walkabout with his family to prepare for his initiation into the tribe. A six month journey, the experience gifted the young man with a newfound respect for the land. He also began understand and appreciate the principles of sharing upon which Aboriginal law was built; he would carry this appreciation for the rest of his life.
Little is known of Namatjira’s teenage years until he turned 18, when he married a member of a neighbouring community, Ikalita, who was baptised under the name Rubina as Namatjira had been under the name Albert as a baby. Rubina was of a different ‘skin’ group to Namatjira, and so their betrothal created a scandal in the mission. He was ostracised for some years in his late 20s, at which time he worked as a camel driver across Central Australia while starting a family. In all, Namatjira and Rubina produced 10 children.
Namatjira also began experimenting with art during this period. It started small; wood plaques, coat hangers, boomerangs etc. He received his first commission in 1932, producing a dozen plaques for five shillings each.
On his return to the mission in 1934, Namatjira was introduced to western-style painting by two painters from Melbourne. One of them, Rex Battarbee, would return two years later to paint the local landscape. Namatjira offered to work as his guide, provided he was shown how to create work using Battarbee’s watercolours.
He excelled at a remarkable rate. By 1938, he was running sold out exhibitions across southern and eastern Australia. The appeal of Namatjira’s work derived from its combination of distinctly Australian landscapes with a European aesthetic. They were colourful, vivid, and contained an ancestral pride, the result of Namatjira’s motto to keep “country in mind” whilst creating a piece.
Over the next decade, Namatjira fostered national and international recognition. Meanwhile, on a local level, his work led to several of his kin and fellow mission members also trying their hand at painting. These included such celebrated individuals as artist/activist Wenten Rubuntja, and Walter Ebatarinja, whose father was a prominent leader in the surrounding land. The style they created would be come to known as the Hermannsburg School of painting.
Such quick success allowed Namatjira to build a house for his family near to the mission in 1945, but not all was well. In 1947, Namatjira received his first income tax assessment and, as can be imagined, found it incomprehensible. Here he was, a ward of the state, still expected to pay his tax.
There were also the pressures of Aboriginal custom to contend with. As a tribesman, he was expected to share everything that he owned, so people often went to him for support. At one time, Namatjira was the sole-provider for over 600 individuals.
To ease this financial pressure, he decided to lease a cattle station, but was denied. He was denied again when he thought to build a house in Alice Springs, only to be told that, as an Aboriginal, he would not be allowed to reside in town past sunset. That was only made clear after he’d bought a plot of land…situated on a flood plain, and unsuitable for development.
In 1953, he was awarded the Queen’s Coronation Medal, and met her the following year in Canberra. Meanwhile, he and his family were forced to reside in squalor, taking up residence in a shanty set upon a dry creek bed.
When news of this was broken by the media, a cry of public outrage broke out. This resulted in Namatjira and Rubina receiving full Australian citizenship in 1957, making them the first Aboriginals to be freed from the restrictions set upon their people many decades earlier.
As a citizen, Namatjira could vote, own land, build a house, and buy alcohol. The latter would become his downfall, when the following year an Aboriginal woman was killed, and Namatjira was charged with allowing another of his tribe, artist Henoch Raberaba, access to the rum that was claimed to trigger the event that led to the woman’s death. He was sentenced to six months prison time, cut down to three due to public outcry. He would only serve two, with the sentence carried out at Papunya Native Reserve, but it would be enough to leave him a broken man.
Namatjira remained gravely ill and with little desire to create art in what little time he had left alive. He suffered a heart attack, and was sent to the Alice Springs hospital, where he would be visited by Battarbee. Remarkably, Namatjira greeted his mentor with three newly-finished landscape pieces, and a promise to create more.
The promise was to remain unfulfilled.
Albert Namatjira died of heart disease on August 8th, 1959. He was just 57 years old.
Astoundingly, Namatjira left behind a collection of nearly 2000 paintings, many of which appeared in some of Australia’s major art galleries. Unfortunately, however, it wasn’t long after his death that critics began to denounce the work, claiming Namatjira’s style was the result of pressure to assimilate into white culture rather than his honest intention.
In the 70s, dot-painting would become the prominent Aboriginal style of painting, but eventually Namatjira’s work resurfaced, and he was once again celebrated as one of the greatest artists in Australian history.
The strength of Namatjira’s work is in its ability to unite. It reminds us that cultures can contrast and still find harmony. May it be a lesson this country never forgets.