Albert Namatjira was arguably the first Aboriginal person to be considered an artist by non-Indigenous Australians—although his work, executed in the Western tradition of landscape painting, was often dismissed by the modernist art establishment.
He began sketching as a boy at the Lutheran Mission at Ntaria (Hermannsburg) in the Northern Territory, where he was born. Later he worked in various trades at the mission and produced wooden artefacts with pokerwork designs.
In 1936, as a cameleer with the painting expedition of non-Indigenous artist Rex Battarbee, he learned the technical skills of painting in watercolours. With Battarbee’s support, Namatjira’s first solo exhibition was held in 1938. The following year the Art Gallery of South Australia bought his Illum-Baura [Haasts Bluff]—the first work by an Aboriginal artist acquired by an Australian public art gallery. Renowned for his panoramic landscapes, Namatjira frequently placed an iconic tree in the foreground to lead the eye to the scene beyond—as in Ghost gum. He also positioned himself for close encounters with geological forms—viewing Love’s Creek, MacDonnell Ranges, from the base of a rocky escarpment.
A prolific artist, Namatjira introduced Central Australia—particularly the country of the Western Arrarnta—to a population largely based in the south and on the eastern seaboard, whose previous knowledge of Indigenous art was mainly limited to ethnographic representation. His watercolours— whether resplendent or evanescent—challenged misconceptions of a lifeless inland by presenting the flora and ancient geography in an ever-changing palette of tone and light.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014