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

Gwion


Albert Namatjira is the best known of all the Aboriginal artists of Australia. In his lifetime, Albert Namatjira had great popular and commercial success as an artist and is still regarded by many Aboriginal people as a role model for achievement. After his death in 1959, the reputation of his paintings went through a period of neglect, and his work has at times been viewed as owning more to cultural assimilation than to his own artistic vision.

More recently his reputation has recovered from this criticism and he, and associated artists such as his own older sons and the Pareroultja brothers, are recognised as making a distinctive and important contribution to Australian art.


The paragraphs below (starting with 'Watercolour Painting') are from the book "Hermannsburg Potters" by Jennifer Isaacs and are copyright to the author. The extracts are reproduced under licence from the Hermannsburg Potters.

There is an Albert Namatjira Web site that has a detailed time line of events in his life and bibliography, and information about Albert is also available on Wikipedia.

 

Valley Ghost Gums
Valley Ghost Gums,
Macdonnell Ranges

We offer the superb book "Seeing the Centre: The Art of Albert Namatjira" through our online shop.

Albert Namatjira - Early Life

Albert was born in 1902 at the Ntaria (Hermannsburg) mission and was called Elea by his parents - he was baptised with the name Albert in 1905. Albert attended the mission school and was taught drawing as part of the education offered by the mission. Drawings by Namatjira and other students at the time reflect the content of what they were taught, and also their daily lives: hunting scenes, people and animals, and ceremonies. From the late 1920s there were increasing visits by European artists to "the Centre", drawn by accounts of the beauty of the country and of Hermannsburg in particular. These accounts told of ghost gums with gleaming white trunks, red mountain ranges that turned purple at dusk and deep palm-filled gorges under skies of startling clarity.

Watercolour Painting

Pastor Albrecht [the pastor of Hermannsburg mission] actively encouraged the development of industrial and manual skills among boys and girls, particularly to make objects that could be used or sold. In the early 1930s an increasing number of tourist coaches docked at the mission and Albrecht encouraged people to make plaques, coathangers and carvings for sale. Albert Namatjira was quick to take up this work, producing a number of artefacts that show images of people, trees and animals rather than traditional designs.

Namatjira has become famous as the first Aboriginal artist of the desert to lead the move into contemporary media, and to paint landscapes in a European fashion. He is undoubtedly the most famous Aboriginal person - well known throughout Aboriginal communities across the country, and a hero to the local families. The Hermannsburg Potters trace their connection and lineage in artistic terms either directly from Albert Namatjira, or from watching his work in the camp, or from other artists who painted with him or were associated with him in some way. Although Namatjira was to be the first and paramount Aranda watercolour artist, a significant number of other men and women became highly skilled.

Rex Battarbee [a Melbourne artist who encouraged Namatjira and worked with him] first visited Hermannsburg in 1932 on a painting trip with another artist, John Gardner, at which time Namatjira was already showing entrepreneurial flair. Battarbee returned in 1934 and, after painting for some time in the area, was invited by Pastor Albrecht to exhibit his works in the school at Hermannsburg. Namatjira asked Albrecht what price the paintings were fetching, and when he heard what they were sold for, said he could do the same. With Battarbee's advice, Albrecht arranged for Namatjira to obtain painting materials. In the period before Battarbee's next visit, Albert Namatjira had started his extraordinary life and career as a painter....

When Namatjira began to paint watercolours he somehow retained a quality of light from within the landscape, and this persisted throughout his work. He was painting the country of his father and his mother, and ranged widely in his travels, as far away as Ayers Rock (Uluru) and north to Glen Helen, as well as to the gorges and ridges towards Alice Springs, and to the east.

Ownership of country is hereditary, but detailed knowledge of what it 'contains' is learned in successive stages through ceremony, song, anecdote and contact. His father's country lay towards Mount Sonder and Glen Helen, and his mother's country was in the region of Palm Valley. Some maintain that due to his early absorption by the mission, Namatjira was not a fully initiated man. However, it is clear that he had a detailed knowledge of his country and its stories and totemic associations.

It is usual for traditional Aboriginal families to arrange marriages with appropriate kin, but both Albert Namatjira and his father chose wives themselves, outside the 'proper' kinship classification.

Albert left the mission for several years after his marriage, but on his return a new world was waiting - that of an artist.

Albert Namtajira and his wife Rubina 1940s
Albert Namatjira and his wife Rubina
in the 1940s

Go to Page 2 of Albert Namatjira's life

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