today is dedicated to one of the first Aboriginal artists who became recognised by Australia’s white majority. In the early colonial period in Australia the Aborigines were regarded as “primitives” with no shred of culture and little better than animals. The new settlers often pursued and killed natives for trifles and the European weapons were no match for the Aboriginal traditional ones made of wood and stone.
In the 19th century, the native population was encouraged to adopt European ways and try to assimilate into the white culture. This was extremely difficult for a people that lived a nomadic lifestyle and who prized the wide-open spaces and tribal life. However, some individuals succeeded to more or less fit in and adopt European manners, have an education and produce works of art acceptable to European eyes.
albert namatjira biography
One of these artists was Albert Namatjira, (born 28/7/1902, Hermannsburg, near Alice Springs, died Aug. 8/8/1959, Alice Springs), whose conventional Western-type watercolour landscapes of central Australia were deemed “good enough” by the Europeans. He was a member of the Aranda tribe and went to a Lutheran mission school. He was taught European watercolour technique by a white artist, Rex Battarbee, from 1934 to 1936, and became a teacher at the Finke River Aboriginal Mission School.
In 1936 he sold his first painting, and, in 1938, 41 of his watercolours were exhibited in Melbourne and were sold out, starting a great demand for his work. He exhibited frequently in the next two decades and became well known in Australia and even overseas (one of his paintings was presented to Queen Elizabeth II in 1954).
Although he was granted Australian citizenship in 1957, his racial origin hindered his freedom. He was barred from moving into what he aspiringly called “a white man’s house” in a residential area of Alice Springs because he was an Aborigine. In the last year of his life he was jailed for two months for supplying alcoholic liquor to a non-citizen Aborigine. After release, he spent most of his final months at Hermannsburg, Australia’s largest mission station, continuing to paint, though in poor health.
albert namatjira Aboriginal artist
At Namatjira’s time most of the Aboriginal traditional art was dismissed by the majority of the Australian population as “primitive scrawls” and the tribal designs were characterised as splotches of paint that aided in “mumbo-jumbo ceremonies”. Hence Namatjira’s success with his highly skilled and talented paintings in what was for him a foreign artistic tradition. Nevertheless, Namatjira made known world-wide the wild beauty of central Australia.
Well into the 1960s, the attitude of dismissing traditional Aboriginal culture persisted, although many visionary modernists in Australia had discovered the wealth of Aboriginal art and started to showcase it. Most of the open-minded people who were interested in an all-inclusive cultural heritage for Australia, took up this cause and over the next few decades, traditional Aboriginal art boomed into prominence world-wide.
The painting above, “Alice Springs Country” is a watercolour in paper and typical of Namatjira’s style. Sweeping landscape with the bright sunlight of central Australia giving the colours a jewel-like intensity. The composition and execution is quite traditional, even though the subject matter is uniquely Australian. This is perhaps the reason for Namatjira’s success as a painter in white Australian society.