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posted on 06.30.09

Wider Australian visual culture in post World War I, like most Western societies at that time, had a high appreciation for European 'salon' style art. With avant-garde leading the art world in Europe, including a particularly high interest in 'primitivism', Australia realized its unique position of having 'authentic primitive' art in its own 'backyard' intact in its rocks, barks, wood objects and most importantly, in the memories and traditions of Aboriginal peoples. The perception of 'primitivism' designated traditional Aboriginal art as visual relics of the country's primitive past, thereby giving it no significant place in the genre of 'fine arts' until the 1970s. What was considered 'fine art' was usually left to the discretion of art and gallery directors that their interpretation (which was often based on the established European conception of fine art) and approval of particular art trends. This was highly influential on how the Australian public related, understood, or accepted art. Additionally, only White Australia artists were recognized. On the other hand, while traditional Aboriginal art began to be appreciated, it was also rejected as 'fine art.' It was also an era when the lives of Aboriginal people were controlled by a political and social environment based on Australian assimilation policies and protectionism. This is the background on which a member of the Arrernte (Aranda) tribe, Albert Namatjira (1902-1959) made his indelible mark in Australian art.

In 1877, the Lutheran church established the Hermannsburg mission in Arrernte country in the Central Desert of Australia. When it was initially started, Hermannsburg, like most mission settlements in Australia, ran its operations with the intent of 'educating' Aboriginal people placed in its care, on Christian values and religion. Albert Namatjira was born in the mission in 1902. In 1926, the mission was placed under the administration of Pastor F.W. Albrecht (1895-1984). Under his supervision, Aboriginal members were allowed to learn about their traditional culture and language. In this more tolerant environment, Namatjira was educated in both Christian and Aboriginal ways and was exposed to both Aboriginal and European images and traditions. Pastor Albrecht was highly pivotal in encouraging and assisting Namatjira in his artistic efforts and is also credited for purchasing his first set of paints and materials. Namatjira received a craftsman and stockman's education, thus establishing a foundation of varied interests and reinforcing innately strong observational skills. Before his career as a painter, Namatjira was already known for his ability to produce quality local artifacts, such as boomerangs and pokers, as well as for his initiative, enterprise and keenness for an opportunity to earn money. When artists, Rex Battarbee (1893-1973) and John Gardner (1906-1987) held their art exhibitions at the Hermansburg Mission sometime before 1934, Namatjira was intrigued by their paintings and the idea of earning a living as a painter of landscapes. Gardner is noted as recalling that Namatjira once said to him, “You know, one of these days I am going to take up painting...just as a hobby, mind you.”

In 1936, Namatjira received his initial art training from Battarbee during a two month expedition to Palm Valley. The arrangement was that Namatjira would serve as a guide and in exchange, Battarbee would teach him the art of the watercolorist. Namatjira's desire to earn an income as an artist resulted in a concentrated effort that ensured his success in learning and becoming immensely capable of understanding the complex uses of watercolor medium. His quick learning curve so impressed Battarbee that he wrote, after they had been out for two weeks that, “Albert brought along a painting of the Amphitheatre to which I had not even seem him put to brush—I felt that he had done a job so well that he had no more to learn from me about color.” Batterbee and Pastor Albrecht recognized Namatjira's painting abilities and are greatly credited as being instrumental in organizing and controlling his exposure to Australian art and media. Namatjira's art career soon became successful after his first exhibition in 1937 at the Lutheran Synod at Nuriootpa, Adelaide. During his second exhibition in 1939, at the Royal South Australian Society for the Arts in Adelaide, one of his paintings, Haasts Bluff, 1956, was purchased by an art gallery, establishing a milestone that a work by an Aboriginal artist was regarded as 'fine art.' This event placed Namatjira into the curious eyes of the general public, art patrons and the international art world, including Queen Elizabeth II, who requested to meet him on her first state visit to Australia in 1954.

Part of the public curiosity inspired by Namatjira's realistic landscape paintings was due to the fact he was an Aboriginal artist, rendering landscapes using European techniques, during a time in Australian history when racist attitudes and marginalizing government policies included the opinion that Aboriginal people were not intelligent enough, nor capable of any great intellect and therefore, could never equal white Australian artists. For example, during his artistic career and after his death, the work of Namatjira was openly criticized as being repetitive and skillfully rendered copies of Batterbee's own interpretation of the Central Desert landscape. Some anthropologists theorized that Namatjira was a product of successful assimilation and was emulating the European values of art as such. Contrary to those opinions, Namatjira never lost sight of his indigenous culture, and applied his own visual and cultural interpretation of the landscapes and subjects in his body of work.

Upon closer examination of Namatjira's paintings, the eye is drawn to the aesthetic appeal of vibrant colors and strong compositions depicting central Australian landscapes. However, an even closer examination brings to focus an absence of Aboriginal people and any evidence of mission life and colonial settlements. As Namatjira's work matured, the single yet prominent ghost gum tree overlooking the landscape became a recognizable motif, as would the sharp horizon line separating sky from land. The interpretation of this single element in the landscape varies widely but perhaps one may consider the outlook of the artist as a singled out Aboriginal artist looking upon untouched landscape, symbolizing a time before white settlements and colonization. The landscape qualities in his later work also differ to these earlier paintings, with hills more deeply shadowed and furrowed and the land stretching up to the sky taking up more of the entire composition. On their aesthetic values alone, the paintings of Namatjira and future Arrernte artists clearly indicate enjoyment and appreciation of landscape: individual responses to the landscape that are certainly not a purely Western domain.

Namatjira's prolific and startlingly swift success as a watercolorist was a significant milestone, marking a time when other Aboriginal artists began to recognize possible self sustaining opportunities in paintings of the landscape. Namatjira's success was pivotal to the creation of the Hermannsburg School, as the mission would be referred to after his death. Aboriginal culture obligated Namatjira to pass on his art knowledge to tribal members and kin. Hence, Edwin Pareroultja (1918-1986), Reuben Pareroultja (1915-1984), Otto Pareroultj (1914-1973), Wenton Rubuntja (1926-2005) and his sons, Enos (1920-1966) and Oscar Namatjira (1922-1991) became precursors of the Arrernte watercolorists school.

It is important to understand that Namatjira success as an artist brought about changes not only in the acceptance of Aboriginal artists, but also influenced the rising awareness of injustices toward Indigenous Australians. At a time when indigenous Australians were denied the full rights of citizenship that otherwise was granted freely to white Australians and white immigrants, the Australian government granted Namatjira full citizenship based on his outstanding and 'unique' artistic accomplishments, thereby being the first Northern Territory Aborigine to be freed as a ward of the State. Unfortunately, Namatjira's personal life soon after his success was troubled, exacerbated further by journalistic commentaries in news and gossip columns that were meant to cause controversy. Namatjira's financial situation was also troubled at the time of his death. Additionally, as a citizen he was given privileges that were forbidden to Aborigines, such as the ability to purchase and drink alcohol and to buy land. In 1959, compelled to share, according to traditional custom, Namatjira was arrested and charge with supplying alcohol to his tribesmen and subsequently sent to serve a shortened 2 month jail term on a Papunya mission, a motion of leniency that was permitted due to his celebrity status. After release from his jail sentence, he never painted again and died soon after from a heart attack that some claim was aggravated by depression.

His death in 1959 turned the tide in Aboriginal affairs and brought further focus on the unfair treatment of Aboriginal people. By the late 1960s, Australian politics were rapidly changing to include the granting of full citizenship to Aboriginal people, sweeping reforms, abolishing colonial assimilation and white only immigration policies and the advent of powerful Aboriginal land rights movements. Despite the horrific treatment and restrictions forced upon them by colonials and colonial descendants, the Aboriginal people continue to endure, passing on their rich heritage of Dreamtime rituals, traditions and languages. 70 years after the first Melbourne exhibition in 1938, the story of Albert Namatjira and the Arrernte watercolorists hold a solid niche in Australian art history and the Fine Arts and is appreciated by people of all nations. Today, in a more open and tolerant society, both traditional and non-traditional art created by Aboriginal artists takes its place in the world as traditional and fine art genre.

Images source (National Gallery of Australia website)

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