Albert Namatjira (pronounced [namacɪra]; born Elea Namatjira; 28 July 1902 – 8 August 1959) was an Arrernte painter from the MacDonnell Ranges in Central Australia, widely considered one of the most notable Australian artists. As a pioneer of contemporary Indigenous Australian art, he was arguably one of the most famous Indigenous Australians of his generation. He was the first Aboriginal artist to receive popularity from a wide Australian audience.
A member of the Western Arrernte people, Namatjira was born and raised at the remote Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission, 126 km west-southwest from Alice Springs. He showed interest in art from an early age but it was not until 1934 (aged 32) and under the guidance of Rex Battarbee that he began to paint seriously. Namatjira’s richly detailed, Western art-influenced watercolours of the outback departed significantly from the abstract designs and symbols of traditional Aboriginal art, and inspired the Hermannsburg School of painting. He became a household name in Australia and reproductions of his works hung in many homes throughout the nation.
In 1956, a portrait of Namatjira by William Dargie became the first of an Aboriginal person to win the Archibald Prize. Namatjira was awarded the Queen’s Coronation Medal in 1953, and was honoured with an Australian postage stamp in 1968.
Namatjira was the first recorded Northern Territory Aboriginal person to be freed from restrictions that made Aboriginal people wards of the state when he was granted full rights of citizenship in 1957. This gave him the right to vote in national, state and territory elections, gave him freedom of movement and freed him from restrictions on buying alcohol; but, in the Northern Territory, he still had limited land rights. However, Namatjira remained poorly treated by the government[which?]; he was sentenced to prison after leaving a bottle of rum on the back seat of his car, which was likely taken and consumed by a man who had then drunkenly beaten and killed his own wife. Public and international outcry intervened in the liability ruling and Namatjira instead served less than two months in a native reserve in Papunya. He continued to live in Papunya with his wife, until he died of heart disease in an Alice Springs hospital in 1959.
Described as a “monumental figure” within Australian art, Namatjira is considered one of the most talented Arrernte artists to have lived. As one of the foremost painters of the Hermannsburg movement, he blended indigenous landscapes and Western-style painting techniques to “bring central Australia to life, for thousands who had never seen it for themselves.” His legacy lives on through international critical acclaim, the naming of his homeland’s electorate after him, and his artistically inclined descendants. They form the artistic and memorial collective the Namatjira project, which includes his Ramsay Prize-winning great-grandson Vincent Namatjira.
He was born at Hermannsburg Mission, Ntaria, in Alice Springs in 1902, the son of Namatjira and Ljukuta. They were Western Arrernte people.
Namatjira was raised on the Hermannsburg Mission and baptised after his parents’ adoption of Christianity. He was born as Elea, but once baptised, they changed his name to Albert. As a child, he sketched what he saw around him. After a western-style upbringing on the mission, including attending the school and living in a dormitory, separated from his parents, at the age of 13 Namatjira returned to the bush for initiation and was exposed to traditional culture and initiated as a member of the Arrernte community (in which he was to eventually become an elder).
When he was 18 years old, he left the mission and married his wife Ilkalita, a Kukatja woman, who was christened Rubina upon their return to Hermannsburg. They had five sons and three daughters.
His wife, like his father’s wife, was from the wrong skin group and he violated the law of his people by marrying outside the classificatory kinship system. In 1928 he was ostracised for several years in which he worked as a camel driver and saw much of Central Australia, which he was later to depict in his paintings. He also worked as a blacksmith, carpenter and stockman, at the mission and at the surrounding cattle stations.
He was a cousin of Aboriginal country music star Gus Williams, and is credited with bringing music into Williams’ life.
Namatjira signing autographs, c. 1950
Namatjira was introduced to western-style painting through an exhibition by two painters from Melbourne, Rex Battarbee and John Gardner, at his mission in 1934. Battarbee returned to the area in the winter of 1936 to paint the landscape, and Namatjira, expressing an interest in learning to paint, acted as his cameleer and guide to show him local scenic areas.
Namatjira started painting in a unique style. His landscapes normally highlighted both the rugged geological features of the land in the background, and the distinctive Australian flora in the foreground with very old, stately and majestic white gum trees surrounded by twisted scrub. His work had a high quality of illumination showing the gashes of the land and the twists in the trees. His colours were similar to the ochres that his ancestors had used to depict the same landscape, but his style was appreciated by Europeans because it met the aesthetics of western art.
In his early career, Namatjira’s work included tjuringa (sacred object) designs, biblical themes and figurative subjects, and he also carved and painted various artefacts.
In 1937 Friedrich Albrecht, superintendent of Hermannsburg, took ten of Namatjira’s watercolours with him to a Lutheran conference at Nuriootpa, South Australia, and Battarbee put three of his paintings in an exhibition with the Royal South Australian Society of Arts in Adelaide. In 1938, Namatjira held his first solo exhibition in Melbourne.
He became the first prominent Aboriginal artist to work in a contemporary western style, and thus regarded as an example of assimilation. In 1944 he was included in Who’s Who in Australia.
Subsequent exhibitions in Sydney and Adelaide also sold out. His work garnered wide acclaim, both in Australia and in other countries. Queen Elizabeth II became one of his more notable fans and he was awarded the Queen’s Coronation Medal in 1953 and met her in Canberra in 1954. He was elected an honorary member of the Royal Art Society of New South Wales in 1955.
Not only did his own art become widely recognised, but a painting of him by William Dargie won the Archibald Prize in 1956, the first painting of an Aboriginal person to win the prize.
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