The Arts

Celebrating arts & culture

Albert Namatjira

Deadly Vibe Issue 55 September 2001

Through Albert’s Eyes

The father of modern Aboriginal art was an Arrernte man born not far from Alice Springs. But while his harmonious landscapes sold all around the world, he was never permitted to buy any land of his own. On the eve of Yeperenye Federation Festival, Deadly Vibe pays tribute to Albert Namatjira.

Legendary artist Albert Namatjira has arguably done more for the appreciation of Indigenous art, both in Australia and beyond, than any other practitioner before or since. A gentle watercolourist who mapped the psyche of the Australian landscape from a unique perspective, his legacy has been instrumental in forging a path for successive generations of Aboriginal artists.

Part of the Arrernte nation, Albert was brought up to respect the laws of the sacred dreamtime. Yet his reputation led to he and his wife Rubina being granted Australian citizenship status 10 years before the 1967 Referendum did the same for the rest of his people. Seemingly caught between two worlds, Albert gave this country much, much more than it ever gave him back.

Albert Namatjira was born in 1902 at Hermannsburg mission, near Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. Creative from an early age, Albert often painted small artworks for his parents. Yet it wasn’t until 1934, when Melbourne artists Rex Battarbee and John Gardner arrived in Hermannsburg to paint the countryside, that Albert realised his creative potential.

As Albert showed Rex the colours, textures and shades of his stomping ground, Rex imparted to his young friend the various techniques of western-style naturalism as applied to painting.

Unlike other Indigenous artists of his ilk, Albert captured the colour and vitality of the central Australian landscape in realistic watercolours that became highly sought after. At his first solo exhibition in Melbourne in 1938, he sold all 41 paintings within three days.

Hetty Perkins, curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at the Art Galley of New South Wales, believes the artist’s influence has been nothing less than groundbreaking.

“Everyone has heard of Albert Namatjira,” says Hetty. “He painted sites which were significant to him and his family, and that is what people came to understand. His paintings weren’t just assimilated renderings of landscape, but of Aboriginal land through Aboriginal eyes.”

In adopting a style of aesthetic representation quite removed from that of traditional Aboriginal art, Albert ensured his work was viewed and appreciated by a far wider audience than bark paintings could ever have enjoyed at that time.

“He was using a visual language that was understood by the wider community,” says Hetty. “As a result, his success made people sit up and take notice as to the possibility of Aboriginal people being artists and expressing their deep attachments to the country.”

While critics argued endlessly about his work, with many blaming his success on the ‘novelty’ of his Aboriginality, others saw his work as the real thing. As such, Albert became an Australian icon. In a biography of Albert, Kumantjayi Perkins wrote: “He was definitely the beginning of a recognition of Aboriginal people by white Australia.”

But the liberties with which he and his wife were accorded did not enable him access to all areas. In the end, Albert and his family were ‘not quite right, not quite white’. He wasn’t allowed to build a house or own land, and the Namatjira children were still regarded as wards of the State.

“He depicted this country that people really loved and yet when he applied to buy land, he was denied,” says Hetty.

While Albert was permitted to buy alcohol, when in 1958 he shared some with a relative who didn’t have citizenship, he was arrested and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. (Only Australian citizens were permitted to imbibe.)

The sentence was commuted to two months and Albert was allowed to spend the time in ‘open arrest’ at Papunya reserve. But the punitive treatment took its toll on the artist, now in his late fifties. He lost the will to paint, and eventually, to live.

Albert Namatjira died of a heart attack in Alice Springs in 1959, three months after being released from custody.

“He was a lone kind of voice at that time,” explains Hetty Perkins. “There were others around him, but he was certainly the most famous of them all that made a major impact on Australian art.

“Today Indigenous art is the most vibrant and dynamic art movement in Australia. There is most definitely a direct link between Albert and the kind of critical acclaim and exposure that Indigenous artists now enjoy.”

The history of Australia over the past 100 years since Federation has been a shared one. Watch the ‘Yeperenye Federation Festival’ broadcast at 8.30pm, Sunday 9 September on ABC TV.

(Story 1/9/2001 end)


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