Iconic and Influential Arrernte Artist

BY JOHNNY MILNER

WARNING: this article contains names, images or voices of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 

The work of influential Arrernte artist, Albert Namatjira features in our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Artists curated collection. Johnny Milner takes a closer look at Namatjira, who used his art as a vehicle to help bring about political reform. In life and through his art, Namatjira tried to navigate the divide between Aboriginal and Western cultures. 

A Leading Figure

Image of a poster with an Aboriginal child on it which reads 'Right wrongs write YES for Aborigines'

Vote YES for Aborigines poster, 1967

The Australian art scene of the 1940s and 50s was dominated by landscapes typically painted from Anglo perspectives – and often from people who had very little connection with Indigenous culture. 

This was a period of government assimilation policy and laws that did not afford Indigenous people the same fundamental rights as other Australians. The rights to vote, own land, drink alcohol, and even the right to be an Australian citizen, were not granted until the 1967 referendum. 

One high point during this period, however, was the sudden appearance of the Arrernte artist Albert Namatjira  (1902–59). Namatjira was, and still is, an extraordinary presence in Australian art and a leading figure in the development of Aboriginal rights.

To some extent, he stepped away from the content, colour and tone of traditional Indigenous art. Partly, this was the result of his desire to work in a Western-influenced style, using watercolour paints, and also concentrating on the vegetation and rock formation detail of the landscapes he portrayed.

But his works can also be seen as expressions of traditional sites and sacred knowledge. Namatjira's paintings convey what might be interpreted as an Indigenous understanding of ecology and geology – and we see him responding uniquely not only to the panoramic but also to the intimacies and intricacies of light, time of day and seasonal change. Over the years, his iconic depictions of gorges, mountains and ghosts gums have become etched into the Australian ethos and consciousness.

In this clip from Talkback Classroom (2007), Northern Territory Art Gallery Curator Franchesca Cubillo talks with Year 12 students from Casuarina Senior College, Darwin about Namatjira and the role of Aboriginal art in progressing Indigenous rights: 

Learning His Technique

Albert Namatjira was born and raised at a Lutheran Mission outside Alice Springs. He showed a keen interest in art from an early age but spent his formative years working as a camel driver, stockperson and blacksmith. He also raised a family, but was ostracised for marrying outside the classificatory kinship system. His emergence from this rural life was assisted by the war-damaged ex-soldier and painter Rex Battarbee.

Namatjira was first introduced to Battarbee's art at an exhibition held at a mission in 1934. Later, Battarbee returned to Alice Springs to paint the landscapes of the central desert. Namatjira wanted to learn the medium and joined him, acting as a cameleer and honing his technique under Battarbee's tuition.

First Citizens

Looking over the shoulder of Albert Namatjira while painting

Albert Namatjira painting

Namatjira then proceeded to develop a style featuring distinctive Australian flora set against rugged geological features and landscapes. The arts establishment immediately embraced the work – and a large part of his initial success was the perception that his paintings met the norms of Western art.  

As Cubillo explains in the clip above, Namatjira developed solo (and profitable) exhibitions. In his lifestyle, like his art, he was driven in part by the desire to 'assimilate into white society', showing that 'he could engage on that level'. He had ambitions to buy a cattle station, but this proved impossible because – in the eyes of the Commonwealth – he was not an Australian citizen.  

As Namatjira's fame gained traction, so too did the call from the public that he should be granted full citizenship. Finally, in 1957, Namatjira and his wife Ilkalita (Rubina) became the first Aboriginal Australian citizens.

Conflicting worlds

Although in his art he was brilliant in accommodating to – and then transcending – the dominant norms of Anglo-Australia, in his life he was tragically caught between the conflicting worlds of his Aboriginal heritage and white lifestyle. The laws that governed his new life as an Australian citizen restricted his relationship with his traditional culture, and made it difficult for him to fulfil his cultural and social obligations to his family. 

Namatjira was imprisoned in 1958 – he was accused of supplying alcohol to family members who were not citizens and therefore unable to drink legally. Following a public uproar, he was soon released, but the incident had a devastating impact on his sense of being – as a man and as an Aboriginal Australian. Tragically, in 1959, Namatjira suffered a fatal heart attack.

Namatjira's legacy

Unlike many of the seemingly passive landscapes of Western artists of the time, Namatjira's landscapes communicate a sense of being alive. They are not only infused with knowledge of country but possess a striking intensity.

Namatjira faced unfathomable discrimination in his life – and sadly, elements of this discrimination still linger in our society today. This said, Namatjira deployed his art to assert his political rights – and in doing so paved the way for future generations. 

Learn about the life and work of other significant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Artists in our curated collection.