Albert Namatjira (1902-1959) was the first Australian Aboriginal artist to receive national acclaim from the white community.
Albert Namatjira was born in 1902 in the Central Australian desert, which is one of the harshest environments in the world. His parents were Namatjira and Ljukuta of the Aranda people, and in accordance with their customs the child would normally remain unnamed until old enough to appreciate the significance of his given names and to be initiated into the group's complex social structure.
Australia had been invaded by Europeans little more than a century before Namatjira's birth, and the story of that occupation was similar throughout the country. The indigenous peoples, whose history spanned at least 40,000 years, were seen as a nuisance and were slaughtered in great numbers or else gathered and moved from their hunting grounds, where sheep and cattle soon replaced the native game. The bases of Aboriginal economic, social, and cultural life were almost destroyed, and, like many others, Namatjira and Ljukuta became part of a settled community—in their case at the Lutheran mission at Hermannsburg near Alice Springs. The young couple received religious instruction and were baptized on Christmas Eve 1905. Accepting Christian customs, they forsook their tribal names for "Christian" ones. Namatjira became Jonathan, Ljukuta became Emelia, and their son was baptized Albert. At the mission Aboriginal children were given only one name and "Namatjira," his father's totemic name, meaning "Flying White Ant," was dropped for many years.
Though superficially Aboriginal people complied with the demands of the Europeans, traditional practices were continued more-or-less covertly, and at the age of 13 Albert disappeared, not be seen at the mission again for months. He was taken by the elders of his tribal group to distant ceremonial grounds, where he received instruction and was initiated into manhood. When he was 18 he disappeared again, but this time to elope with Ilkalita, an attractive, intelligent young woman forbidden to him on the grounds of their traditional kinship incompatability. They stayed away for three years until word reached them that they had been forgiven, and, with their three children, they were able to return to the mission, where Ilkalita was baptized and renamed Rubina and their children were named Enos, Oscar, and Maisie. Namatjira found work with an Afghan camel team as a shearer, stockman, carpenter, and handyman and as a carver of Aboriginal souvenirs.
In 1934 Namatjira saw an exhibition of water colors by visiting artists Rex Battarbee and John Gardner at the mission. The impact on him was immediate and lasting. He revealed later than it gave him a perception of his own country, for the first time, in terms of its visual beauty, color, light, and atmosphere. Previously he had understood the land in terms of its mythology and as a source of economic survival. He watched Battarbee at work and determined that he, too, would paint in that manner. The people of the Central Australian desert had been artists from time immemorial, and art had always been an integral part of their ceremonial life. Their songs and dances of the corroboree, storytelling, body ornamentation, rock carvings, and abstract ground patterns were as significant to the desert people as were the great religious works of medieval times to Europeans. Traditional desert art was symbolic, and much of it sacred and secret, its meaning revealed on a graduated scale only to initiated men. It could not be reproduced without causing anger or possibly even death.
Having a reverence for the art forms of his people's mythology, Namatjira had no intention of reproducing them for commercial purposes. Battarbee's method and subject matter promised an alternative artistic outlet, and, as the artist had offered to give him lessons, Namatjira planned an itinerary for Battarbee's next visit which would take them by camel to the most beautiful places in the region. In 1936 the two had an eight-week painting tour.
With his power of concentration, his keen perception, and his fine craftsmanship, Namatjira was an adept pupil, and, at an exhibition of his own work in the following year, Battarbee showed three of Namatjira's paintings, which were well-received. This led, in 1938, to Namatjira's first one-man-show at Melbourne's Fine Art Gallery. These paintings were the first to bear the signature "Albert Namatjira," and within three days all were sold. Most critics were loud in their praise, but this was not unanimous. Some suggested that Namatjira was only of curiosity value and that his paintings were mere imitations of his teacher. This mixed reception became the pattern for later shows. His second exhibition, however, was another sell-out, and this time the Adelaide Art Gallery bought one, making it the first state gallery to buy a watercolor by an Aboriginal artist. A great future was forecast for Namatjira.
World War II brought security investigations for all German people and organizations in Australia, including the Hermannsburg Mission. Because of his World War I service and his long association with Hermannsburg, Rex Battarbee was appointed as its security officer. Namatjira's paintings were selling as quickly as he could produce them to Australian and American servicemen stationed in Central Australia. Battarbee formed the Aranda Art Group to promote other Aranda artists, and he was chairman of an advisory group formed to help manage Namatjira's affairs. It was decided that in order to keep his standards (and prices) high, Namatjira should restrict his production to about 50 paintings a year.
His exposition of 1944 made Namatjira a national figure; he became the first Aboriginal person ever included in "Who's Who in Australia," and the first book about him appeared. The 1945 exhibition was his first in Sydney. It was rushed, and within minutes of the opening the entire collection was purchased. Buyers included American servicemen and representatives from American, British, and New Zealand galleries.
Reproductions of his work became popular and appeared on Christmas cards and calendars. He toured the capital cities; his portrait was hung in the Art Gallery of New South Wales; he met the Queen of England and other royalty—he was feted. In 1957 he was granted citizenship. Until then, like other Aboriginal people at that time, Namatjira had, in law, been a "ward of the state" denied the normal rights of a citizen.
The change in status gave him the legal right to drink alcohol but not to share it with other Aborigines. To an Aboriginal person this was unthinkable, as everything must be shared with kin. His camp became the scene of regular drunkenness and brawling, which climaxed in the death of a young woman. Namatjira was not involved in the brawl that resulted in the girl's death, but he was charged with supplying liquor to fellow Aborigines, which at that time was a criminal offense.
Namatjira was convicted and sentenced to six month's hard labor. An appeal, fought to the high court, reduced the sentence to three months, which Namatjira served, a bewildered and broken man. He gave up painting and died in 1959, within four months of his release.
A shocked nation fell into mourning, and an examination of the national conscience on its treatment of Aboriginal Australians followed. Institutionalized racism had kept most Aborigines from claiming a prominent place in the dominant society and had successfully cut down the first who had achieved it. Albert Namatjira is remembered as an artist of significance and as a person whose treatment highlighted the inequalities of Australian society, thus helping to pave the way towards citizenship rights for Aboriginal people.
C. P. Mountford's book The Art of Albert Namatjira (Melbourne, 1949) was one of the early books about this artist. It was based on a visit made by the author to Namatjira in his own country. After the artist's death a flood of articles and a number of books appeared. Notable among these were Joyce Batty's Namatjira … Wanderer Between Two Worlds (1963) and "Albert Namatjira, Feted and Forgotten," Origin (September 1969). Rex Battarbee kept a public silence on his former pupil for 12 years after Namatjira's death, but in an article in Walkabout in October 1971 entitled "Namatjira … The Man Behind the Myth" by Virginia Freeman, Battarbee revealed his perceptions. In the same year a book co-authored by Rex Battarbee and his wife Bernice, entitled Modern Aboriginal Painters (Sydney, Australia, 1971), was published. It dealt with the work of Albert Namatjira and the other artists of the Aranda Group. A more recent assessment of Namatjira's work was provided by P. McCaughey in an article entitled "Namatjira in His Own Landscape" which was published in The Age, a Melbourne newspaper, on July 11, 1984, after a retrospective exhibition of Namatjira's work opened the Araluen Arts Centre in Alice Springs.
Albert Namatjira: the life and work of an Australian painter, South Melbourne: Macmillan, 1986.