Arrarnta people

Australia 1902 – 1959

Gum tree and sandhill c.1938 Place made: Hermannsburg, Northern Territory, Australia
Materials & Technique: drawings, watercolours, paper; watercolour painting in watercolour Support: paper

Dimensions: image 38.0 h x 29.0 w cm sheet 38.0 h x 29.0 w cm framed (overall) 745 h x 550 w x 55 d mm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 2009
Accession No: NGA 2009.132
  • Mount Hermannsburg, Finke Riverc 1948 is a majestic portrayal of the artist’s traditional homeland, the country of the Western Arrarnta[1] in central Australia. With its sweeping mountain range rendered in purple hues and rising out of the deep red of the desert earth, Mount Hermannsburg can appear as a fitting metaphor for Namatjira: his imposing physical presence and larger-than-life personality. At the height of his career, Namatjira was the most renowned Aboriginal artist in his lifetime and for decades after his death, although he was often dismissed by the modernist art establishment. He was arguably the first Indigenous person to be considered an artist by non-Indigenous Australians.

    Albert Namatjira was born with the traditional Western Arrarnta name ‘Elea’ at the Lutheran Mission at Ntaria (Hermannsburg) in the Northern Territory.[2] His first artistic forays were the decoration of boomerangs, spear-throwers and mulga wood plaques with images of everyday scenes, flora and fauna, and Christian themes, either in paint or in pokerwork. Meanwhile, he worked as a blacksmith, carpenter, stockman and cameleer at the mission. It is well documented that Namatjira learned the technical skills of painting watercolours on paper in 1936 while working as a ‘camel boy’ for non-Indigenous watercolourist Rex Battarbee on one of his painting expeditions to Palm Valley in central Australia. Namatjira had painted his first work in 1935, but had no tutoring until he went on this eight-week trip. These were the only lessons Namatjira ever had, though he did go on further painting trips. Battarbee was impressed by Namatjira’s painting skill. The following year an exhibition featuring their paintings was an outstanding success and Namatjira’s first solo show took place in 1938. When in 1939 the Art Gallery of South Australia acquired Namatjira’s Illum-Baura(Haasts Bluff) 1939, the watercolour became the first Indigenous work of art to be acquired by a public Australian art gallery as opposed to an ethnographic museum.

    Albert Namatjira became renowned for his panoramic images. He often framed his landscapes with an iconic gum tree placed on either side of the composition to produce the shallow space leading the eye to the scene beyond.[3] However he also positioned himself for close encounters. This can be seen in Love’s Creek, MacDonnell Rangesc 1948 (also known as Loves Creek, South), which is a rare instance of a work painted in Eastern Arrernte country. It is also the case for Gum tree and sandhill c 1938, which is an example of another lesser-known aspect of Namatjira’s work: paintings where the trees themselves are the main subjects. The artist appears to invest these images with symbols of the human condition:

    Trunks become torsos, branches arms. Bark functions for a tree in much the same way as skin does for a human being … [4]

    The rise of Namatjira’s popularity and collectability was rapid but not without consequence. He was seen as a prime example of the success of the assimilation policy and was granted ‘Australian citizenship’ in 1957. Tragically, this was the beginning of the end for Namatjira. As a ‘citizen’, he was able to buy and consume alcohol under Australian law, but when he shared this with kin in the traditional obligation and exchange system of Arrarnta law, Namatjira was imprisoned in ‘open detention’ for three months at the Papunya settlement. An ongoing lack of understanding of Aboriginal culture by the authorities led to this demise until his death in 1959.

    Without doubt the most famous Aboriginal person in his lifetime, Namatjira was a prolific artist. Through his paintings he brought central Australia, and particularly the country of the Western Arrarnta, to a largely eastern seaboard-based Australian population that had had little contact with or knowledge of Indigenous art practice outside ethnographic representation in natural history museums. The extent of Namatjira’s watercolours—whether resplendent or evanescent—challenged non-Indigenous peoples’ misconceptions of a lifeless inland desert by depicting the flora and ancient geography in an ever-changing palette of tone and light.

    In 2002, the centenary of the artist’s birth, the Australian Senate paid tribute to Albert Namatjira as ‘a national treasure’ and the National Gallery of Australia toured a major exhibition which reassessed his work.[5] Today a fourth generation of central Australian Indigenous artists continues Namatjira’s tradition, painting not only in watercolour on paper, but also on ceramic pots and tiles and in acrylic on canvas.[6]

    Tina Baum

    [1] ‘Arrarnta’ (or ‘Aranda’) is the preferred spelling for the language spoken by the majority of people whose country is located to the west of Alice Springs. ‘Arrernte’ is an alternative spelling for the language of the people whose country is located in and around Alice Springs and in the regions to the south and east. See J Henderson and V Dobson, Eastern and Central Arrernte to English dictionary, IAD Press, Alice Springs, 1994 and D Roennfeldt et al, Western Arrarnta picture dictionary, IAD Press, Alice Springs, 2006.

    [2] Hermannsburg—the first Aboriginal mission in the Northern Territory—was established in 1887. It was maintained by the church until 1982, when freehold title was returned to the traditional owners.

    [3] These paintings were widely reproduced in the 1950s through Legend Press by John Brackenreg OBE, who befriended Albert Namatjira in the later period of his life and provided support to his family after Namatjira’s death.

    [4] A French, Seeing the centre: the art of Albert Namatjira 1902–1959, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002, pp 116–129.

    [5] Seeing the centre: the art of Albert Namatjira 1902–1959, opened at the National Gallery of Australia in 2002 and toured nationally. The Gordon Darling Foundation and the Australian National University generously funded the research for this exhibition and the accompanying catalogue.

    [6] These artists are affiliated with a wide range of community-based arts centres, including Ngurratjuta Ntjarra Pmara ‘Many Hands’ Art Centre, Hermannnsburg Potters, Bindi Inc. Mwerre Anthurre Artists and Keringke Artists.

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
    From: Franchesca Cubillo and Wally Caruana (eds) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art: collection highlights National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010