The Artists

Albert Namatjira


Albert Namatjira was the first Australian Aborigine to be recognized both nationally and internationally as an artist.

As so wonderfully portrayed in the 1956 portrait by Sir William Dargie, Albert Namatjira was a man of great strength and dignity. He was a loving father and husband, and was proud, ambitious, resourceful and intelligent. As an artist, he was innately skillful, and this is evident in his ability to absorb after only two months tuition under Rex Battarbee, the basics of European watercolour painting.

When studying his works one needs to take into consideration two important factors. The first of these was that Albert Namatjira was the first of his tribe to paint watercolours in the European manner, and had no help with tuition or direction from others of his tribe. The second important factor was that he produced works in a wide range of colours and from a 'new' perspective that was a considerable break away from the traditional native art of his people, the Western Aranda.

T.G.H. Strehlow, who spent many years studying the lives and customs of the Western Aranda, noted that 'the Aranda artists used almost exclusively in their traditional art, four vivid colours, white, black, red and yellow. Strehlow also noted that the original pictorial art of the Aranda, 'consisted of painted decorations of shields and other weapons, of rock-drawings and rock-carvings, of ceremonial and totemic patterns executed on the persons of actors appearing in the sacred ceremonies or traditional dances associated with the various totems, and of incised designs on the sacred objects included in the Aranda term 'tjurunga'.

Aranda art was, therefore, intimately associated with utilitarian and sacred objects; and the ideas and scenes that it sought to set down were taken almost invariably from the sacred traditions of the tribe. The patterns themselves regularly employed such common geometric figures as circles, half-circles, spirals, and straight or curved lines; and to these were often added simple representations of the tracks of birds or animals. These figures were then combined into balanced patterns of greater or less elaborateness. It should be stressed here that the completed patterns were never regarded as pieces of pure or abstract art by the natives themselves.

' Strehlow further noted that 'Aranda native art, though representational in its purpose, depended for its appeal in considerable measure upon the accompanying spoken word and chanted verse that made clear the purpose of the artist. The representational skill must, of course, not be unduly minimized.'

'Aranda art showed a scene as viewed through the eyes of native people whose whole existence had depended largely on their tracking ability.' The Aranda people 'developed in their pictorial art the habit of looking down upon a landscape from above and not from the side, as we do.' Trees were depicted as circles, 'animals as dead creatures lying on their bellies with their legs stretched out on both sides, and human beings as recumbent figures, reclining on their backs.'

Given that this traditional artistic background of the Western Aranda, was the ancestral artistic background of Albert Namatjira, his ability to paint in the manner of a European watercolourist was exceptional and remarkable. Equally remarkable was his ability as a teacher, as he passed on his watercolour painting skills to others of his family and tribe.

Although spending time in his early formative years at the Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission, Albert Namatjira was initiated as a young man into the sacred tribal ways, and was taught the tribal customs and ancient laws of the Western Aranda. He greatly respected his tribal laws, and seldom travelled far from his ancestral home. The majority of his watercolour works were landscapes of areas that he had known throughout his life, for they fell within the tribal land of the Western Aranda.

His works captured the vibrant colours of the Western MacDonnell Ranges in the north, and the Krichauff Ranges to the south. They also captured the crater-like mountain mass of the circular Gosse's Range to the west, the tributaries of Ellery Creek and Hugh River to the east, and in many works the broad bed of the Finke River that ran through the heart of his tribal land. He also painted the mauve hues of Mount Sonder, the white ghost gums against Glen Helen's red escarpments, and the blue waterholes of the Ormiston.

Nearly all of his works were painted 'plein air', on site, rather than from memory, and they were mostly painted in the winter or dry season, for the sun is too severe during the summer months. The winter is also the time to witness the colours of the ranges; 'the winter blue, red, and yellow ochres, lime yellows, greens and rose-red of the quartzite slopes'.

Here in his watercolour works was his country, and that of his father and ancestors. Here was the tribal land into which he had been born, and many of his landscapes were of sites of strong Aboriginal legend. One of his favourite landscapes was that depicting Mount Sonder, and here the Aboriginal legend held that a woman had come over Dancing Girl Mountain to lie in the valley where she became Mount Sonder.

Most of his works were landscapes, some in which he included the native wildlife, and occasionally he painted a portrait of one of the Central Australian tribesmen.

His art brought him fame and a degree of wealth, but little freedom. Throughout his life he never neglected his tribal responsibilities, and he never neglected his family or his people, sharing the little that he made from the sales of his art, with his family and friends.

Today, as we make ready to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Albert Namatjira, many are re-assessing his artworks, and Albert Namatjira is at last receiving recognition for the outstanding contribution that he made to Australian Art.

Andrew Mackenzie

Left: Arthur Streeton - Above Us The Great Grave Sky, 1890
Collection: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

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