Movement/Style: Watercolour landscape associated with the Hermannsburg School
Years: 1902 – 1959
Well, who was he?
Albert Namatjira (1902 – 1959) was a monumental figure within Australian art. Working in “European”-style watercolours as an Indigenous Australian Arrernte man, he painted the Central Australian landscape in ways that revolutionized ideas of what Indigenous Australian artists were capable of. His story is very connected to the fraught relationship between white Australia and Indigenous Australia.
Namatjira was born as Elea Namatjira in Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission near Alice Springs, in the center of Australia. He learnt his famous watercolour techniques from travelling artist Rex Battarbee, who visited Hermannsburg and had Namatjira as a guide. Namatjira’s works immediately attracted public attention because of their Western style, and he became a household name all over Australia.
In 1953 he was awarded the Queen’s Coronation Medal, and in 1957 he became the first Indigenous Australian to receive Australian citizenship. (Indigenous Australians didn’t get full citizenship rights until 1967.)
Namatjira’s art has often been overshadowed by the very fact that he was Indigenous. Because of this, public opinion of his art has fluctuated wildly since his lifetime. Years after his death, for example, his art was seen as amateurish and formulaic. Several critics have also scorned him for giving up his cultural heritage for the sake of commercial success. These criticisms seem to imply either: a) That Namatjira – one of the most influential artists in Australia and the teacher of an entire movement of Indigenous artists – is a hack who only became famous because of the novelty of his indigeneity, or b) That Namatjira should have painted “traditional Aboriginal art” just because he is Indigenous.
Since then, it’s been more popular to “re-Aboriginalise” his work. These sorts of analyses have focused on Namatjira’s spiritual connection to the land. Art historian Daniel Thomas, for example, writes that Namatjira’s “fineness of touch” is reminiscent of Indigenous paintings on bark. He revalues Namatjira’s repetition of certain elements of the landscape, such as rocks or ghost gums, into symbols important to the artist and his tribe. But I don’t think that these interpretations are correct either – they ignore the fact that Namatjira used Western techniques, and the subversive potential of this.
Instead, I would say that Namatjira’s paintings respond to both Western and Indigenous modes of viewing the landscape. Their power lies in their ambiguity – in the way that they challenged assumptions of what sort of art Indigenous Australians can paint, while simultaneously subverting Western artistic practice. By using Western landscape painting, but refusing to manipulate the image composition for the benefit of the Western viewer, Namatjira disrupted the authority of the Western gaze. When I look closer at some of his paintings below I will show you what I mean by this.
Give me the gossip!
The “gossip” from Namatjira’s life is not fun.
After being granted citizenship in 1957, Namatjira was allowed to buy and drink alcohol. His vast extended family, however, was not. As the Arrernte culture required him to share his possessions, this contradiction brought him into trouble with the law.
In 1958, an Indigenous woman called Fay Iowa was killed at Namatjira’s camp, due to a drunken assault from her husband, Sandy Nitjenburra. As Namatjira was considered the main supplier of alcohol to the camp, he was subsequently charged with three matters of supplying alcohol to wards near Hermannsburg. Although he pleaded not guilty to all three charges, he was eventually found guilty of one charge of supplying alcohol – to his cousin Raberaba – and sentenced by the magistrate’s court to six months imprisonment.
The case was highly debated in the media. It brought out a lot of tensions that Australians were feeling in regards to welfare legislation and alcohol problems in Indigenous communities. Eventually, Namatjira was allowed to serve his sentence at Areyonga Reserve rather than in prison, and was released after two months for medical and humanitarian reasons.
Namatjira died soon after this, in 1959, from pneumonia and heart problems. He left behind an impressive number of artworks – around two thousand – and a legacy that has left its imprint on Hermannsburg, now associated with the art movement known as the Hermannsburg School.
Give me a quick selection of his art!
The Ancient Ghost Gum at Temple Bar Station (1943)
Namatjira’s paintings of ghost gums are famous. At first glance these images look just like Western landscapes, in which trees act as framing devices and the viewer is led into the landscape through a path or opening. Here, the landscape formula is subtly disturbed. The gum tree is positioned near the centre, obscuring the vast landscape in the background. It completely dominates the image. The tree is not a normal entry-point into the landscape. In this way Namatjira claims the landscape as his own.
Ghost Gum (c.1945 – 1953)
In Ghost Gum the tree looks almost human-like. The short blackened branches look like arms, the trunk like a torso, and the growth rings like wrinkles on skin. This evokes the role of ghost gums in Indigenous creation stories, where individual trees are often considered to represent ancestral beings. Again, the Western landscape formula is subverted, with the tree taking centre stage of the image rather than working as a framing device, cut off in an unexpected way.
Redbank Gorge, MacDonnell Ranges, Central Australia (c 1936-37)
The landscape here is also blocked from the viewer. This view is very unconventional, as the focus is squarely on the gorge and the cracks in the rock, rather than painting an open landscape.
Where can I look if I want more information? (+ References)
- Ian Burn’s and Ann Stephen’s essay “Namatjira’s White Mask: A Partial Interpretation” in the compilation Heritage of Namatjira: the Watercolourists of Central Australia, edited by J. Hardy, J. V. S. Megaw and M. Ruth Megaw.
- For more information on the particulars of Namatjira’s case and prison sentence, as well as some great analysis on the social impact of this, check out the University of Queensland’s summary: http://www.law.uq.edu.au/jmk-namatjira