A Leading Figure
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: