Albert Namatjira

Albert Namatjira (28 July 1902 – 1959), born Elea Namatjira is an Australian Aborigine artist of the Arrernte (Aranda) tribe. Though in his early career he painted a wide variety of subjects, he is best known for his watercolour Australian outback desert landscapes. Whilst his work is obviously the product of his life and experiences, his paintings are not in the highly symbolic style of traditional Aboriginal art; they are richly detailed depictions. He is also notable for being the first Australian Aborigine to be granted Australian citizenship.

Early years

Born near Alice Springs, he was raised on Hermannsburg Mission, Northern Territory and was baptised Albert after his parents' adoption of Christianity. After a western style upbringing on the mission, Albert undertook the Aboriginal ritual of initiation at the age of thirteen and was exposed to traditional culture, as a member of the Arrernte community (which he was to eventually became an elder within), and obtained the love and respect of his land that was show in his works. After he returned, he married his wife Rubina at the age of 18. His wife, like his fathers wife, was from a neighboring tribe and he broke the law of his people by marrying her. He was ostracised for several years in which he worked as a camel driver and saw much of inland Australia where he was to later paint.

Although doing a small amount of rough but non-traditional artwork in his youth, he was introduced to western style painting through an exhibition by two painters from Melbourne at his mission in 1934. One of these painters, Rex Batterbee, returned to the area in the winter of 1936 to paint the landscape and Albert acted as a guide to show him local scenic areas. In return Albert was shown how to paint with watercolours, a skill that he quickly excelled at. While he first started with crayons, he quickly progressed into watercolours and soon Battarbee began to realise Albert's true potential.

The height of success

Albert Namatjira started painting in a distinctly unique style. His landscapes normally highlighted both the rugged geological features of the land in the background, and the distinctive Australian flora in the foreground with very old stately and majestic trees surrounded by twisted scrub. His work had a high quality of illumination showing the gashes of the land and the twists in the trees in a breathtaking manner. His colours were similar to the ochres that his ancestors had used to show the same landscape, but his style was able to be appreciated by Europeans.

In 1938 his first exhibition was held in Melbourne and sold out. As did his subsequent exhibitions in Sydney and Adelaide. For ten years Namatjira continued to paint and his works continued to sell quickly and his popularity continued to rise. Queen Elizabeth II became one of his more notable fans and he was awarded the Queen's Coronation medal in 1953 and met her in Canberra in 1954. Not only did his own art become wildly recognised, but even a painting of him by William Dargie won the Archibald Prize in 1956. He became popular, critically acclaimed and wealthy. He however was always glad to return to the outback.

Works

Namatjira's works were colourful and varied depictions of the Australian landscape. One of his first landscapes done in 1936, Central Australian Landscape shows a land of rolling green hills. Another early work, Ajantzi Waterhole (1937) shows a close up view of a small waterhole, with Albert capturing the reflection in the water beautifully well. The landscape becomes one of contrasting colours, with red hills and green trees in Red Bluff(1938), with this device of complimentary colours that is often used by Western painters. Central Australian Gorge (1940) shows detailed rendering of rocks and reflections in the water. In Flowering Shrubs he contrasts the blossoming flowers in the foreground with the more barren desert and cliffs in the background. Namatjira's love of trees was often described so that his paintings of trees were more portraits than landscapes, which is shown in the portrait of the often depicted ghost gum tree in Ghost Gum Glen Helen (c.1945-49) His skills at colouring trees can be seen clearly in this portrait and Namatjira was fully aware of his own talent, as when describing another landscape painter Namatjira said to William Dargie

Citizenship and demise

Namatjira decided to use his wealth to lease a cattle station. This was however not legally possible because of the fact that he was Aboriginal. He then tried to build a house in Alice Springs which he was also prevented from doing so because of his status. Despite the fact that he was held as one of Australia's greatest artists he could not own land, because of his immense popularity this caused public outrage. The government granted Albert and his wife Australian citizenship in 1957, ten years before citizenship was granted to all Aborigines. This entitled them to vote, own land, build a house and buy alcohol.

Unfortunately Albert was not legally allowed to supply his Aboriginal friends with alcohol, which was expected of him by the culture of his tribe who did not have the concept of personal property. After an Aboriginal woman killed her husband in an alcohol related brawl Namatjira was held responsible by the community for bringing alcohol into the camp. When Albert left as a result, he left his alcohol with the people of the community. This however was a crime and he was sentenced to six months in prison for supplying Aboriginals with liquor. When he was released after two months he became despondent and did not paint again until he died soon after in 1959 in Alice Springs, only two years after he was granted citizenship.

Since his death

At the time of his death Namatjira had painted a total of around two thousand paintings and had three biographical films made about him. His unique style of painting however was denounced soon after his death by many indigenous art puritans as being a product of his assimilation into western culture, rather than his own connection to his subject matter or his natural style. This view, although still present in some critics thoughts, has been largely abandoned and Albert Namatjira is hailed as one of the greatest Australian artists of all time and a pioneer for Aboriginal rights.

Namitjira's work is on public display in most of Australia's major art galleries.