BRUCE JOHNSON MCLEAN reflects on the life and legacy of acclaimed Western Aranda artist ALBERT NAMATJIRA.
The story of Albert Namatjira is possibly the most widely known of any Australian artist. In One short lifetime his story encapsulated the experience of Aboriginal ambition, Aboriginal excellence and Aboriginal adaptation to a new world while met equally with the experiences of Aboriginal disempowerment and Aboriginal disadvantage. It is within Namatjira's
In 1934 the great Aranda man named Albert walked into a small, white-washed stone building at the Hermannsburg Mission to view the work of two white artists, Rex Battarbee and John Gardner, who had visited from the cities in the south. Through the early- to mid-1900s, many artists based in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney would travel to Central Australia to capture the 'real' Australia in images. A little over 100 kilometres to the west of Alice Springs at a site along a southern branch of Tjoritja (the Western MacDonnell Ranges) - became a favourite destination for many city-based artists seeking spectacular arid landscapes. Following their painting trip, some artists left behind their works to be viewed as miniature exhibitions in the Mission buildings and it is here that Albert had his first personal encounter with Western art.
Albert was well known to be the best craftsman in the region, excellent at every craft - traditional or contemporary - that he had so far had the opportunity to engage in.
Albert was also a hardworking entrepreneur by necessity, trying his hand at many roles to generate income for his young family through a period of great drought and famine to which he lost at least one child. Upon understanding that these artists earned good money for their paintings, both the artist and the entrepreneur in Albert were committed to the pursuit of becoming an artist and he offered his services as a guide and porter in return for a few weeks' painting tuition should the artists return. Battarbee agreed to return and spent some six weeks with Albert on Aranda Country, and the rest, as they say, is history.
While it is well known that most works in the 1934 exhibition that inspired Albert to paint were watercolour landscapes of randa Country, it is lesser known that there were also portraits of local Aranda people whom Battarbee had painted during his travels through Tjoritja. In these works, Albert saw both his Country and his people.
Indeed, Albert even painted a few portraits in the early years of his career, but these did not persist as he matured into an artist of acclaim. Throughout his career and his travels meeting many portrait painters and sitting for numerous portraits, after these few very early works he was never tempted to paint in the portrait style. Albert was known as a perfectionist and it is speculated that while his proficiency to paint landscapes developed quickly, his ability to paint portraits did not and he quickly grew frustrated and abandoned them. One of a handful of portraits painted by Namatjira, Neey-too-gulpa [Ngalia tribesman] c. 1937, featured in the National Gallery of Australia's collection, shows a solid portrait in profile format; however, even in this portrait, the landscape behind the subject - rich, bold, vibrant and detailed - is still the star of the work.
Nearly eighty years after Albert began painting, a new descendant and a great-grandson began painting; first in a Western Desert landscape 'map' style then in a portraiture style.
In a sense, Vincent's paintings help to take the Namatjira story full-circle - those parts of his early career that Albert was unable to realise are now being fulfilled by his descendant eight decades later. It's interesting to imagine both Albert and Vincent walking into the small stone building in 1934, one man being enthralled by paintings of Country, the other engrossed by paintings of kin.
This is an excerpt from Vincent Namatjira by Vincent Namatjira, published by Thames & Hudson Australia, to coincide with the exhibition Vincent Namatjira: Australia in colour, part of the 2023 Tarnanthi Festival at the Art Gallery of South Australia and touring to the National Gallery March 2024.
Vincent Namatjira: Australia in colour is on display from 2 March to the 21 July 2024.