Australia 1902 – 1959
Hermannsburg, Northern Territory, Australia
Materials & Technique: drawings, watercolours, paper; watercolour painting in watercolour Support: paper
One of Australia’s best known artists, Albert Namatjira’s landscape paintings are iconic images synonymous with the Australian outback. His vivid watercolours express his deep familiarity with the desert country around Hermannsburg (Ntaria), particularly the Arrernte lands around the Western MacDonnell Ranges, for which he was a traditional custodian. Through his intense scrutiny of specific places and his sensitive response to their individual qualities, Namatjira enables the viewer to see the Centre as a multi-faceted region of Australia.
He portrays a land in which light and distance are the key factors that shape perception, fragment forms and transform colour. He also developed a rich repertoire of compositional devices to express his experience of being in this world, often framing his views with the strong vertical forms of gum trees. These also represent the presence and absence of water, which is the source of much of the diversity of visual forms and motifs that engaged Namatjira throughout his painting career. Many of the giant ghost gums that appear in his compositions tap into the ground water that lies beneath the dry riverbed of the Finke River, which connects a string of waterholes between Ormiston Gorge and the edge of the Simpson Desert to the south-east.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
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