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
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.
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.
Gum Tree and Gorge,
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
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'.
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