Biographical Non-Fiction posted August 31, 2009

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A biography of Namatjira, Albert (Elea (1902-1959)

The Australian Aboriginal Artist

by Aussie

As a young adult, I was entranced with the watercolour paintings of Albert Namatjira. He inspired my own career in art. Just about every home in white Australia had a print of Albert's work hanging in the living room; this was a first in the art world because he was an Aboriginal artist. This is his story.

Namatjira, Albert (Elea) (1902 - 1959), artist, was born on 28th July 1902 at Hermannsburg (Ntaria), Northern Territory, son of Namatjira and his wife Ljukuta.

Elea belonged to the western group of the Arrernte people. In 1905 the family was received into the Lutheran Church; Elea (who was given the name Albert) and his father (who took the name Jonathan) were baptized and his mother was blessed (as Emile). Albert attended the Hermannsburg mission school. In accordance with the practice of the missions, he lived separately from his parents in a boy's dormitory. At age thirteen he spent six months in the bush and underwent tribal initiation. The young men have to spend time by themselves and undergo trials like hunting and also physical trials like circumcision and their chest is scarred with a cutting tool and filled with antiseptic from the bush plants. He left the mission at age eighteen and married llkalita, a woman from the Kukaja tribe. The couple had eight children that survived infancy (the mortality rate of tribal births was high) in those days there was only bush medicine and mothers-to-be were attended by the female elders of the tribe as they dug a hole under a tree and squatted to give birth.

Albert watched as his five sons - Enos, Oscar, Ewald, Keith and Maurice - and three daughters - Maise, Hazel, and Martha grew and flourished in the tribal ways. The 'hand-outs' from the white man were so attractive that he decided to take his family and return to Hermannsburg mission in 1923. Albert's wife llkalita was received into the church and christened Rubina. If you chose mission life, you were expected to conform to the white man's traditions and become a Christian (whether you understood it or not.)Man will do anything when he is hungry and Albert's family couldn't exist on 'bush tucker.'

In his boyhood Albert 'sketched scenes and incidents around him...the cattle yard, the stockman and their horses, and the hunters after game.' He later made artefacts such as boomerangs and woomeras ( throwing sticks). Encouraged by the mission authorities, he began to produce mulga-wood plaques with poker-worked designs. Meanwhile he worked as a blacksmith, carpenter, stockman and cameleer - his payment for this work was given to him as rations (mission money.) Whilst working as a stockman on neighboring cattle stations he was paid real wages. The spectacular scenery of Central Australia, then entering the national consciousness as a symbol of Australian identity, attracted white artists to Hermannsburg, among the artists to visit the mission were Rex Battarbee and John Gardener. During their second visit in 1934 they held an exhibition for an Aboriginal audience. The Arrernte tribe were familiar with illustrations of biblical scenes, but none had seen landscapes depicting their own surroundings.

Motivated by a deep attachment to his country and the possibility of a vocation that offered financial return, Namatjira expressed an interest in learning how to paint. In 1936 he accompanied Battarbee as a cameleer on two month-long excursions in and around the Macdonnell Ranges. Battarbee was impressed by Albert's evident talent. In the following year Pastor Friedrich Albrecht, the superintendent of Hermannsburg, displayed ten of Namatjira's watercolours at a Lutheran conference held at Nuriootpa, South Australia. Battarbee included another three of his watercolours in an exhibition, during which Battarbee taught him photography. Later that year Namatjira held his first solo exhibition at the Fine Art Society Gallery, Melbourne. With Battarbee's assistance as teacher, dealer and mentor, a school of artists developed around Namatjira.

This was ground breaking stuff. At last an aboriginal was being recognised as an artist in his own right and this was a first for the Aboriginal people to have one of their own leading them on and giving them hope in the future of their art. At last the unique art of the Northern Territory would be shown to white Australia and eventually the world. Their stories and landscapes would carry the message of Aboriginal Australians.

Although Namatjira is best known for his water-colour landscapes of the Macdonnell Ranges and the nearby region, earlier in his career his imagery had included tjuringa designs, biblical themes and figurative subjects. He also produced carved and painted artefacts, and briefly painted on bean-wood panels. Superficially, his paintings gave the appearance of conventional European landscapes, but Namatjira painted with 'country in mind' and continually returned to sites imbued with ancestral associations. The repetition, detailed patterning and high horizons - so characteristic of his work - blended Aboriginal and European modes of depiction.

Namatjira's initiatives won national and international acclaim. As the first promised Aboriginal artist to work in a modern idiom, he was widely regarded as representative of assimilation. In 1944 he was included in 'Who's Who in Australia'. He was awarded Queen Elizabeth's 11's coronation medal (1953) and elected an honorary member of the Royal Art Society of New South Wales (1955). His quiet and dignified presence belied the underlying tensions in his life.

With fame came controversy. Namatjira's brilliant career highlighted the gap between the rhetoric and reality of assimilation policies. He encountered an ambiguous response from the art world. Some criticized his water - colour landscapes as derivative and conventional, others viewed them as evidence of acculturation and a loss of tribal traditions. Tensions arose between Namatjira and the Aranda Arts Council (chaired by Battarbee) when the council tried to maintain control over the quality and quantity of his work. Namatjira also encountered racial discrimination. He was refused a grazing license in 1949-50 and prevented in 1951 from building a house on land he bought at Alice Springs. Seeking further means of support for his family, he discovered copper deposits at Areyonga Reserve, but they proved commercially worthless. He chose to live on the outskirts of the mission in a fringe camp at Morris Soak near Alice Springs. It seemed even though his talent was recognised and he had reaped the benefits from the sale of his works, white society still classed him as the underdog.

The citizenship granted to Namatjira in 1957 led to further anomalies. Exempted from the restricions imposed on other "full-blooded" Aborigines, he had access to alcohol which he innocently shared with members of his family in accordance with Aboriginal custom. Aboriginal tribes are 'big families' and they share everything that they have - even the dreaded fire-water or alcohol as it is known today.

In 1958 he was charged with supplying alcohol to the artist Henoch Raberaba and sentenced to six months imprisonment with hard labour. Following a public outcry and two appeals, the sentence was reduced to three months.
Namatjira finally served two months of 'open' detention at the Papunya settlement in March-May of 1959. He died of hypertensive heart failure on 8th August that year at Alice Springs Hospital and was buried with Lutheran forms in the local cemetery. His wife, and five sons and one of his daughters survived him.

For a time Namatjira's name drifted into obscurity, his achievements largely eclipsed by the 'dot painting' style developed at Papunya in the 1970's. Recent re-evaluations recognise his influence on Aboriginal artists in Central Australia and elsewhere. In 1994 members of the Hermannsburg Potters, led by his grand-daughter Elaine, acknowledged Namatjira's legacy by producing a terracotta mural for the headstone of his grave. The work is a landscape combining three sites in the Macdonnell Ranges which were the subjects of his paintings.

Australian English and grammar is used. The photograph with this story is Albert's famous painting of the Macdonnell Ranges. He painted 'his country' and produced over 2,000 paintings during his short life time. The tribal Aboriginals originally painted on bark, stripped from gum trees. They used pigments collected from the earth, such as ochre. They painted dots with twigs from the tree branches. Can you close your eyes and imagine a family sitting in the red dust of the Northern Territory, bent over a bark painting? Today they have progressed to using commercially bought acrylic paints, cheap brushes and canvas the size of a floor rug - 4ft x 6ft long. The families still work together for a pittance from the white dealers that sell the work in Australian cities to tourists. Some of these beautiful works sell for thousands of dollars. I once asked a dealer "how much is that painting?" The reply was "three thousand dollars." "How much does the artist receive?" The dealer walked away from me. The artists receive a portion, enough for food and 'baccy' tobacco. Alcohol (grog) is also on sale for these people, eventually it sends them MAD! What have the white people done? My heart breaks when I think of the damage that white Australia has inflicted on the First Australians! Some time ago I wrote a poem for Albert which is called Albert Namatjira (1902-1959) it is in my portfolio if you would like to read it. Thanks for reading Albert's story.
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