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Albert Namatjira - Aranda artist from HermannsburgAlbert Namatjira - Aranda Artist from Hermannsburg


Albert Namatjira showed his paintings for the first time when Pastor Albrecht exhibited ten of them in Nuriootpa in the Barossa Valley. In 1938 Namatjira led Battarbee to Ilypilli Waterhole - or llypilli Springs, as it was then known. Albrecht had established a mission outpost there to make contact with the remote Pintubi people, and Titus, a relative of Namatjira's, had remained there as the evangelist. At this time Ilypilli was the canter of the known world for Pintubi people. A large and permanent waterhole, it serviced an extensive region of the desert for the Pintubi and a large number of their Warlpiri neighbours.

Although the Pintubi ranged widely into Western Australia on their traditional country, as rain became less frequent they retreated to more permanent supplies, eventually collecting at Ilypilli in times of drought. It was therefore an important place to make contact, and it was here where the Pintubi gathered in the second wave of contact that resulted in the Pintubi settlement at Papunya in the 1960s. These Pintubi were to form the backbone of the present acrylic painting movement among desert peoples.

Commercial Success

Namatjira's first Adelaide exhibition was held at the Royal South Australian Society of Arts in November 1939. A painting from this exhibition was sold to the Art Gallery of South Australia, but the work did not find easy acceptance in fine-art circles. Although watercolour painting was popular in the 1950s, it was a time when Australian art in general had moved on. In 1954 the National Gallery of Victoria rejected a recommendation to purchase one of Albert Namatjira's pictures, and it was to be many years before he achieved his full standing as a major Australian artist.

As tourism to the Centre increased, Namatjira was able to earn a significant living for himself and his family. The taxis that took him to and from Hermannsburg sent signals to other families that art was a route to status and economic independence.

Many others took up watercolour painting. These were mostly relatives of Albert Namatjira and included his sons Enos, Oscar, Ewald, Maurice and Keith.

Otto Pareroultja and his brothers Ruben and Edwin were very significant artists, as was Walter Ebatarinja. This first wave of Aranda artists were all male, their principal teachers being Namatjira himself and Rex Battarbee, who took up permanent residence at Hermannsburg during the Second World War and later moved to Alice Springs.

Painting by Otto Pareroultja
Gum Tree and Gorge, James Range
by Otto Pareroultja

Politics intervened during the war. The Federal Government placed Battarbee in charge of the community in an attempt to control German influence. Gayle Battarbee points out that it was only after the war ended, and her father had married, that women began to paint. The first of these women artists were Cordula Ebatarinja and Gloria Moketarinja.

Namatjira continued to paint throughout his life. By 1955 he was nationally famous, and feted in Sydney. After a trip there he returned to the Centre exhausted and perhaps marginalised by the social set he had met. This is a situation many Aboriginal people experience today. In the highly charged atmosphere of the contemporary art movement, they are occasionally treated as oddities; their work is valued but to some art patrons the people themselves remain strange, alien and 'other'.

Development of the Aranda Watercolour Artists

Battarbee opened a gallery in Alice Springs in 1951. He continued to advise artists by commenting on the technical aspects of the work that they brought to sell him, and by showing them art books. He favoured the impressionists, especially Cezanne, Monet and Van Gogh (particularly his trees), and the work of Picasso. Battarbee advised on clean washes, mixing paints and how to organise a composition. He often commented on what he called the temperature of a colour in order to achieve perspective and aesthetics.

He was fond of placing a gum tree on the left of his own pictures, and possibly set a trend which continues to the present day. He encouraged the artists to put red in the foreground of the picture and blue at the back (until very recently the hills were always blue). It is interesting to compare this principle with the current practice of the Hermannsburg Potters. They often reverse this colour layering to unusual effect, creating unexpected visual sensations. The artist may have pink ranges, for example, but also continue to employ features or elements of composition that are derived from the painting movement - rolling hills, rows of acacias and dotted herbage.

Paintings by Otto Pareroultja were prolific and much admired by Battarbee, who saw in them design elements of linear patterns parallel lines and circles from traditional symbolic arc. In the 1950s and 1960s at Hermannsburg, artists would occasionally pay a debt by adjusting traditional customs of exchange to incorporate art practice. So, according to Gayle Griffiths, Albert Namatjira taught and encouraged other relatives such as Walter Ebatarinja. Albert might do the hills and the gum tree and, under supervision, Walter would finish the background. Albert would sign the painting, thereby giving a 'gift' to Walter of his teaching and the finished work his imprimatur. This was offered as the dutiful and generous response to kinship obligations towards Walter's father.

The custom of artists occasionally working on sections of each other's paintings - particularly as Albert taught so many people the skills - points to the fact that cooperation is central to the successful outcome of any craft venture. It is this cooperative approach to learning and art creation that continues among the potters of today, in some ways similar to the Renaissance artisan guilds of Europe.

Albert Namatjira was made a full Australian citizen in 1957. The Australian Government considered this a singular honour, not bestowed on any other Aboriginal person at that time. He was entitled to live in Alice Springs and occasionally to purchase a bottle of alcohol.

However, Namatjira's relations, including his children, were not permitted the same privileges. Aranda social custom was that personal property could not exist - everyone shared what they had. Thus, in 1958, in a brawl in which a woman was killed by her husband, some people felt that Namatjira was responsible because it was through his citizenship that alcohol had entered the community. He had left liquor in the camp, someone else had found it, and he was charged with supplying alcohol.

Sentenced to six months' labour, Albert Namatjira served two months in the government prison at Papunya but, on release, died in Alice Springs hospital in 1959.

Back to Page 1 of Albert Namatjira's life

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