Australian Aboriginal Art - Albert Namatjira

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Perhaps one of the best Australian artists and indeed the best recognized among the Aboriginal painters, Albert Namatjira cut himself apart from the life of his people thru his painting style that mirrored the influence of the West. It is thought that his repute sprung from the use of the western style landscape and as a result, he, collectively with his wife, became the first among the Aborigines to be granted citizenship with the aid of the Australian government. At this time, it was a rare feat given the few rights that have been accorded to the Aboriginal people. The influence of the West in his art wasn’t magical, indeed, he was once not born Albert. His original name was Elea until he moved to a missionary school in Hermannsburg, where the family adopted Christianity; he was baptized and renamed Albert.

Albert had to live away from his parents in the boy’s dormitory in the mission. And perhaps to suggest how much he loved the bush, it is recorded that he could escape from the mission confines to spend his time exploring the Australian landscape. He, for months, lived in the greenery of the bush and mountains where it is believed his artistic aesthetics was inspired and nurtured and during his leisure time, he could sketch the beauty of the bush.

Attending an exhibition held at the mission by some stalwart painters, Albert was acquainted with the western style art. He later volunteered to guide one of the painters, Rex Battarbee through the bush when he desired to paint the landscape. In exchange, Rex taught Albert how to paint especially using water colors. It is evident that Albert was a fast learner, combined with his vast knowledge of the bush having spent more than six months in the bush during his initiation ceremony, and his affinity for painting, he could soon become one of the greatest painters of the landscape. His paintings had the minutest of the details including the perfectionist representation of the tweaks of the trees. His mastery of the landscape seen in his meticulous contrast of the background showing colossal mountains and the beautiful grasslands, flowers, and trees in the foreground caused his art to be admired by viewers and critics in equal measure.

Childhood and Early life

Albert was born as Elea in July 1902 in the Lutheran mission in Hermannsburg, Australia only to be baptized and renamed Albert. His father was given the name Jonathan, and his mother Emilie. Most of his early years, starting from the age of 13, were spent in the mission where he was taught and trained various skills like carpentry, leatherwork, and blacksmithing. Upholding the rules of the mission, he lived away from his parents. During the early teenage years, he left the mission and was inducted into the Arrernte community customs in the Australian grasslands. The impact of the life in the bush could be seen in his painting much later. He got married to Ilkalita and they built a small house in the region and he could make a living by selling small artworks that he had created. Albert returned to the mission in 1934 during an exhibition where he came across the western style of painting. It is in 1936 that his dreams started to shine as one of the painters, Rex Babbarbee, who had exhibited in the mission came to explore the bush and capture the scenery on the canvas. He guided the artist through the bush and received vital lessons in return in the use of watercolors. As already mentioned he was a fast learner and he quickly captured the art of painting with watercolors and perfected it.

Career

Albert picked on the training he received from Rex and soon began painting the Australian bush with the depiction of very minute details. As a result, he gained immense popularity among the Western people that followed art. Even the queen acknowledged his works. The first exhibition of Albert’s works was organized in Melbourne in 1938 which sold out in a very short period of time. His subsequent exhibitions in Adelaide and Sydney earned reputation and recognition and returned successfully in monetary terms. Henceforth, he embarked on painting as his career and over the following years, he created marquee artifacts that sold rapidly. Among the most notable works created in the 1930’s include the ‘Central Australian Landscape’ and ‘Red Bluff’. Over the next decade, he dedicated his works to the delineation of the evergreen tree in the paintings that he called “Ghost Gum Glen Helen’. Albert grew better with each and every painting. Perhaps his greatest piece, Mt Hermannsburg, was created just two years before his death. Many regarded this painting as being graphic as if it were a camera photo.

Major Works, Awards, and Achievements

One of the main characteristics of the works of Namatjira was his attention to detail. He found a way of making the paintings to look as lively as they would in real life situations. Among the best-recognized paintings from Albert’s career include the Central Australian Landscape, Central Australian George, and the Red Bluff. All these paintings are about the greenery of the Australian grasslands with the trees and mountains standing in contrast. As mentioned above, he created a masterpiece called Mt. Hermannsburg just two years before his death. This artwork is fondly remembered because it seems like the culmination of his entire career. The sheer amount of detail that went into creating it only shows the prowess Namatjira had as an artist. One of the notable admirers of the works of Albert was Queen Elizabeth II that in 1953, she awarded him with the Queen’s Coronation Medal. Indeed, in 1954, he was honored to meet the Queen in Canberra.

Personal Life and Legacy

Among the outstanding life happenings include his frequent visits to the bush even when in the mission. It was during these visits that he got to meet his future wife, IIkalita and because she did not belong to his tribe, their marriage could not be given a go ahead by the tribes. However, Albert eloped and married her in 1920, when he was just 18 years old. He returned to the mission a few years later in the company of his wife and children where his wife was renamed Rubina and their marriage was approved. Albert managed to successfully amass huge amounts of wealth and shared some of it with his tribesmen that were poor. Namatjira suffered a cardiac arrest and was rushed to the Alice Springs hospitals where he passed on 8th August 1959. With his works, he secured a place among the greatest artists in Australia and perhaps the most known Aboriginal artist.

Albert’s Life and how it Reflect Relationships between Whites and Blacks

While Albert reached celebrity status, his life was not always a comfortable one given his heritage. He always found it necessary to return to the desert home and leave the big smoke behind. With success, came money and Albert’s intentions were to secure a better future for his family. For instance, he wanted to lease a cattle station, but because of his Aboriginal status, he could not be allowed. His attempts to build a house in Alice Springs were thwarted by the law that discriminated against the Aboriginal tribes. This was indeed a strange situation to be in. Here we see a man who was recognized the country over, given the celebrity status and yet denied the basic rights like owning a home. However, this was not to last as it is now commonly known that Albert marked the beginning of the government recognizing the rights of the Aboriginal tribes and people.

Indeed, it is a result of a public outrage that his predicament forced the government to allow them to have full citizenship in 1957. To put the benefits of citizenship in perspective, the couple was now allowed to enter a hotel, vote, build and own a house in any place that they chose. This clearly shows how the Blacks were treated as lesser humans and the Whites were the superior humans. It is disturbing that Black and Aboriginal people were not allowed to enter a hotel. It took 10 more years for the rest of the Aboriginal tribes and people to granted similar rights.

Another detail that demonstrated the sheer discriminatory treatment between the full citizens and the Aboriginal people was the right to buy alcohol that was only granted to the whites who had citizenship. Upon achieving citizenship status, Albert could buy alcohol. According to the culture and traditions of the Aboriginal people, he was required to share any alcohol that he bought with his tribesmen. Unsurprisingly, by doing this, he was breaking the laws of the white man. Indeed, in 1958, Namatjira was charged for breaking the law when he was alleged to have supplied alcohol to the Aboriginal people. Despite denying the charge, the court could not believe him, albeit unsurprisingly, and he was sentenced to 6 months in prison. The punishment could be reduced to three months after a public outcry and two appeals. He ended up spending two months of open detention between March and May 1959. Albert was released after 2 months but it was clear that he was a broken man. By this point, he had lost the will to paint and the will to live. He suffered cardiac arrest and and died in August the same year.

Over the next decades, Albert Namatijra’s name became almost vague as the painting styles of the 1970s in Papunya threatened to eclipse his achievements. However, recent re-evaluation has led to the discovery of how his influence on the Aboriginal people and artists in Australia and elsewhere still remains. Led by his granddaughter and members of the Hermannsburg Potters recognized his significance and produced a terracotta painting for the headstone grave. The work depicts a landscape that combines three sites in the Macdonnell Ranges which formed the subjects of his paintings.

Conclusion

Albert’s career highlights the gap that existed between reality and the rhetoric of assimilation policies. Right from the art world, he received mixed responses with some people criticizing him for his use of watercolor in landscaping. Some people argued that it was representative of acculturation and loss of the traditions of the Aboriginal people whiles others thought that his style was conventional and derivative. He also suffered racial discrimination when he was denied the permit to build a house and refused a license to graze.

The life and career of Alert Namatjira have inspired many young people in Australia and especially the Aboriginal people. His children and grandchildren are notable figures that have continued painting as art. While he had critics, he did capture the hearts of the Australians and indeed the world, for which he received recognition. Besides his painting career, studying his life reveals the injustice that was perpetrated by white Australians on the Aboriginal and minorities in the government through the passing of racist laws. However, his stature and works earned him recognition and immensely contributed to the liberation of his people. The changes were long overdue, but they did finally arrive.

Bibliography

Edmond, Martin. "Double lives: Rex Battarbee and Albert Namatjira." (2013).

Edmond, Martin. Battarbee and Namatjira. Giramondo Publishing, 2014.

Hansen, David. "Tom Roberts:‘End to a career–an old scrub-cutter’1: 4 December 2015–28 March 2016; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra." Australian Historical Studies (2017): 1-6.

Kleinert, Sylvia. "Dreaming Inside." (2001).

Leslie, Donna. Aboriginal art: creativity and assimilation. Macmillan Art Pub, 2008.

Mendelssohn, Joanna. "When the wind changed:'Albert Namatjira'at the Araluen arts centre, Alice springs, 1984." Art Monthly Australia 273 (2014): 54.

Raja, Chris. "Namatjira." Art Monthly Australia 230 (2010): 53.

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