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7 February 2023

Albert Namatjira: outsider of the outback

Only in his paintings could the Aboriginal artist overcome the prejudice of white Australia.

By Michael Prodger

From the late 1940s until his death in 1959, Albert Namatjira was one of Australia’s most famous sons. Except that technically he wasn’t an Australian at all. Namatjira was a member of the Arrernte community of the Northern Territory and, like all of Australia’s Aboriginal people at the time, he was not a citizen but a “ward of the state”, which brought restrictions on voting, land ownership, drinking alcohol and freedom of movement, among other things. In 1957, however, his celebrity was such that he and his wife Rubina were granted full citizenship. Namatjira was then 55 years old and the couple were the first indigenous people to be given the rights enjoyed by every white Australian.

The more generous commentators saw Namatjira’s new status as a sign of greater societal tolerance and equality. Sceptics wondered if the fact that his paintings and their reproduction rights brought him up to £7,500 a year (perhaps £250,000 today) wasn’t the real reason for the grant of citizenship: his earnings could now be taxed.

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Namatjira occupied a unique place in Australian culture: he was the first indigenous painter of note to work in the Western tradition and he showed his countrymen some of the most inaccessible parts of the land in a manner that was familiar if fresh, accomplished and accessible. There were most likely other aspects at play in his popularity, many with racial overtones. Namatjira was proof of the success of cross-cultural initiatives and, at the back of some viewers’ minds, of the efficacy of the civilising mission of white society too.

In 1947 a documentary film was made about him, Namatjira the Painter, and while it did a great deal to establish his fame there was also a backlash. John Reed, Australia’s most notable patron of modern art, wrote: “The use and publicising of the talents of this particular aboriginal… has been a serious disservice to the cause of the development of culture in this country.” However slighting his tone, Reed, like many others, saw the lauding of Namatjira as detrimental to true Aboriginal culture, a field of “considerable richness and value”. Namatjira’s work, he thought, was “entirely false to his own culture and is merely a clever aping of a completely different one”. This was artistic miscegenation.

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Namatjira himself was uncomfortable with the position he was manoeuvred into. At exhibition openings people queued to meet him; a report of one such event claimed that society ladies had crawled on all fours through the crowd to get him to sign their copies of the catalogue. Queen Elizabeth II was an avowed admirer and the painter was presented to her in Canberra during a royal tour in 1954.

It was all too much: “I wish people would leave me alone for a while,” he said, “and let me work as I want to work – like any other painter – when I see something lovely enough to make me want to paint my best.” And what made him paint his best were the landscapes of his own part of Australia, the countryside around the MacDonnell Ranges, rich in associations and in the history and traditions of the Arrernte people.

Namatjira was born at the Hermannsburg Lutheran mission, some 130 kilometres west of Alice Springs. In the tradition then prevalent, he lived apart from his parents at the mission and on baptism changed his given name Elea for Albert. At 13 he disappeared into the bush for six months to be initiated into the Arrernte community and instructed in its cultural mores. At 17, however, he violated those customs when he married Ilkalita, later Rubina, a proscribed woman from a different community, and was ostracised. He had been warned off wooing her but proved determined: “I went out to Haasts Bluff and made a little trouble,” he recalled, “there was a big fight and I had a spear thrown through my leg and then afterwards when I was well enough to travel we ran away.”

He was eventually reconciled with the Arrernte and earned a living as a cameleer, blacksmith, stockman and carpenter. He also made wooden plaques, boomerangs and carvings decorated with pokerwork designs. He had enough self-confidence that when a white man criticised one of his drawings of a kangaroo, Namatjira snapped back: “I’ve eaten more kangaroos than you’ve seen.” Namatjira’s first exposure to Western art came in 1934 when two white painters, Rex Battarbee and John Gardner, visited the mission. Battarbee returned two years later and Namatjira acted as his camel driver in exchange for painting lessons. Injuries from the First World War had left Battarbee with a skin condition and unable to tolerate turpentine, so he painted in watercolours and that is what he taught Namatjira.

His protégé was a quick learner: “Here was a man,” Battarbee said, “a full-blooded member of a race considered the lowest type in the world, who had in two weeks absorbed my colour sense.” Although this painting, Other Side of Rungutjirpa (Simpson’s Gap), Northern Territory, now in the Art Gallery of South Australia, is from the 1950s it shows the style Namatjira developed with Battarbee’s instruction and is typical of the landscapes that brought him such success.

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Traditional indigenous art is based on dots, lines and patterns and while a hint of these can perhaps be discerned they are subsumed by the strong, conventional composition. This may be a scene from the very heart of Australia, but with its framing trees, recessional view and distant blue hills it is very much a work with its roots in 17th-century Europe. There is no hesitancy in Namatjira’s brushwork nor, it must be said, over much finesse – but the view is a powerful representation of the colours and geology of the landscape.

And, in fact, Namatjira stayed closer to his cultural roots than the likes of John Reed would admit. The tree here, that appears in many of his watercolours, is a ghost gum, a species that plays an important part in the Aboriginal concept of Dreamtime – a religious-cultural idea linking the present to a deep past of heroic spirit beings. Many of the hills, rock formations and waterholes he painted had meaning for the Arrernte people too. He was not distancing himself from his culture but rather portraying it in a different way, even if the many buyers of prints after his pictures and visitors to his sell-out exhibitions didn’t see them in this light.

Success nevertheless brought its own burdens: in accordance with custom, Namatjira was expected to share his wealth, and at one point he was providing financial support to more than 600 people. And nor did the racial restrictions melt away. Permission to lease a cattle station was granted and then rescinded, and he was conned when he bought land at Alice Springs for a house. Having completed the deal he discovered that the plot was on a flood plain. He and his family ended up living in poverty in a shanty outside town.

Worse was to follow. The grant of citizenship allowed Namatjira to buy and consume alcohol but not to share it with other Arrernte. When, without his knowledge, a fellow indigenous artist, Henoch Raberaba, took a bottle of rum from the back seat of Namatjira’s car, drank it and then beat a local woman to death at a party, Namatjira was charged with supplying an Aboriginal with alcohol and sentenced to six months in jail. There was a public outcry and he served just two months but the experience broke him. He died, wracked by depression, of a heart attack shortly afterwards. He passed away believing, it seems, that he had been cursed by the murdered woman.

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This article appears in the 08 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Silent Sunak