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Arrarnta people

Australia 1902 – 1959

Redbank Gorge, MacDonnell Ranges, Central Australia c.1936 Place made: Hermannsburg, Northern Territory, Australia
Materials & Technique: drawings, watercolours, paper; watercolour painting in watercolour over pencil Support: paper

Primary Insc: Signed. inscribed verso, 'Between Alice Springs & Hermannsburg Mission, Finke River.'
Dimensions: sheet 27.5 h x 25.0 w cm
Acknowledgement: Gift of Gordon and Marilyn Darling, celebrating the National Gallery of Australia’s 25th Anniversary, 2008. Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program.
Accession No: NGA 2008.237
  • Reference: Seeing the Centre, The Art of Albert Namatjira 1902-1959, Alison French, NGA, 2002-2003, illus. p85

The Finke River begins its 600-kilometre journey amid a stand of tea trees and river gums at Ormiston Gorge in Central Australia and continues as a string of waterholes that stretch towards the edge of the Simpson Desert. The riverbed carves its way through the MacDonnell Ranges at Glen Helen, curves around the whitewashed buildings of the Lutheran mission clustered at the base of Mount Hermannsburg, before heading southwards through the sandstone gullies of Palm Valley. This is the traditional territory of Western Arrernte artist Albert Namatjira, who translated the ancient beauty of his country through his tin box of watercolour paints. As an artist, he saw the desert landscape as filled with light and colour – from sap-stained trees to the translucent mauve of the distant ranges – as an Indigenous artist, he was aware of the physical presence of ancestral beings embodied in the giant ghost gums and in the forms of surrounding mountains and gorges.

It is this numinous quality that entranced Gordon and Marilyn Darling who, over the last twenty years, have formed an extraordinary collection of watercolours by Namatjira, from his early paintings of fleeing kangaroos to the mature landscapes of the 1950s. They are generously gifting the first fifteen of twenty-five paintings to the National Gallery of Australia to be displayed in The Gordon and Marilyn Darling Gallery of Hermannsburg Painting, which promises to be one of the highlights of the new Indigenous galleries that form part of the Stage One building expansion. These works were previously lent to the National Gallery of Australia for the 2002 retrospective, Seeing the centre: the art of Albert Namatjira 1902–1959, curated by Alison French whose research was supported by the Gordon Darling Foundation. This landmark travelling exhibition brought together works from state galleries and private collections to provide a long overdue opportunity for the critical reappraisal of Namatjira’s works on paper.

Early interest in the art of the Central Desert area was centred on a group of artists based at the Lutheran Mission Station at Hermannsburg, or Ntaria, who came to be called The Hermannsburg School. At the forefront of this attention was Albert Namatjira, who was the first to become interested in the medium of watercolour after seeing several exhibitions by Rex Battarbee and John A Gardner, who regularly visited the mission during painting trips through South Australia and Central Australia.

In 1936, Albert arranged to work as Battarbee’s cameleer on two month-long excursions to Palm Valley and the MacDonnell Ranges in exchange for painting lessons. During these trips he quickly picked up the rudiments of perspective and technique, having shown himself to be a natural draftsman in his early pokerwork drawings of local plants and animals on mulga wood plaques, boomerangs and woomeras for the mission’s small craft industry. Battarbee was so impressed with his instinct for composition and colour that he chose three watercolours to display alongside his own at the Royal South Australian Society of Arts Gallery in 1937. The following year he organised a solo exhibition at the Fine Arts Society Gallery in Melbourne, for which Albert added his father’s tribal name, Namatjira, to his signature. His paintings sold out within three days, establishing a pattern of commercial patronage that continued throughout his exhibiting career.

This success and further painting expeditions by Namatjira and Battarbee inspired others at the mission to follow in his footsteps including the Pareroultja and Raberaba brothers, Walter Ebatarinja and Adolf Inkamala. These camps could last for weeks, which allowed Namatjira to paint the ever-changing light over the course of a day or across the seasons. He journeyed by foot, camel and car to sites all around the MacDonnell Ranges and outside Western Arrernte country as far as Haast’s Bluff, Uluru and Mount Connor. When he had found a suitable vantage point, he would sit cross-legged with a sheet of paper tacked to a wooden board and a billy can of water and begin with a wash of sky. This combination of Namatjira’s direct experience of the land and his unerring eye for colour gives the viewer the full fierce blaze of ochre rock, the thirsty expanse of scrub-mottled plains and the purple shadows that spread like bruises in the folds of the ranges.

For many Indigenous artists, their sense of self is bound to the ancestral country that holds their Dreaming story.

For Albert Namatjira and his kinsfolk, this connection to the land was manifested through representational watercolours. After Namatjira’s death in 1959, the Hermannsburg School was largely overlooked, particularly following the emergence of the symbolic acrylic paintings of the Papunya Tula collective during the 1970s. It was not until the first retrospective of Namatjira’s painting was held in 1984 at the Araluen Arts Centre in Alice Springs that his vision of country was accepted and both realistic and symbolic approaches have now been recognised as different ways of depicting the creation stories embodied in the landscape. This has encouraged other Indigenous artists to tell their story through watercolour painting, and Namatjira’s artistic heritage continues through his descendents and those that he inspired.

Sarina Noordhuis-Fairfax
Curator, Australian Prints and Drawings
in artonview, issue 55, spring 2008

in artonview, issue 55, spring 2008