Remembering Albert Namatjira

It's National Sorry Day in Australia today.

What an interesting concept. It is the day that Australia remembers the injustices the white governments of the 19th and 20th centuries did to the Indigenous Australians, especially the Stolen Generations. The Australia government finally did issue an apology on 13 February, 2008:

"To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry." (Kevin Rudd, excerpted from the full speech)

Wish this day was observed in other countries too, especially India, where governments and leaders say sorry for all the injustices of the past.

It's also a good day to write about Albert Namatjira (1902-59), the Indigenous Australian painter (of the Arrernte community) who was recognized in his day, and yet suffered the fate of many who live in a white man's world.

Ostracised from his own community because he married the wrong girl, he worked as a camel driver in Alice Springs, a white settlement. That was where, in 1934, he had a chance to see the works of two painters for Melbourne who were exhibiting their works. When one of them - Rex Battarbee - returned later to paint the landscape of central Australia, he hired Namatjira as a guide, and taught him to paint watercolours in return. An artist was born.

Namatjira painted the landscape around him - harsh and barren - with his favourite ghost gum trees in the foreground. See the example painting (which hangs in the National Gallery of Australia), and the use of colour, which highlights the cultural sensibilities he inherited from his Arrernte ancestors, even though he was using an essentially Western medium. White the landscape is harsh, his use of soft hues gave his paintings a spiritual touch.

He met with both critical and commercial success, Queen Elizabeth II being a big fan of his. He even gained citizenship of Australia (in his time Indigenous Australians were 'wards of the state', a euphemism for virtual prisoners). But that was to be his undoing, because Arrernte custom allows no one individual property rights, and so his wealth soon petered out to 'humbugging'* relatives.

After his death, his work was criticised for being neither here nor there - it wasn't traditional, nor was it 'good enough' for Westerners. A non-white being as talented as a white was not tolerable. Hal Missingham, director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales commented, "We'll consider his work when it comes up to scratch".

Since then he has been redeemed (a good Namatjira will fetch about $38,000) in the eyes of the art world. His sense of contrast, and illumination is now seen as unique.

He is now a beacon to Indigenous Australians, and his style is now considered as the founder of the Hermannsburg School in landscape art - known for its soft watercolour hues and a spirituality in the connection with the land. A famous product of this school is Wenten Rubuntja, the painter and land rights activist.

To end, a poem on him by Kath Walker:-


Aboriginal man, you walked with pride,
And painted with joy the countryside.
Original man, your fame grew fast,
Men pointed you out as you went past.
But vain the honour and tributes paid,
For you strangled in rules the white men made;
You broke no law of your own wild clan
Which says "Share all with your fellow-man".
What did their loud acclaim avail
Who gave you honour, then gave you jail?
Namatjira, they boomed your art,
They called you genius, then broke your heart.

*humbugging: Indigenous Australian slang for begging from your relatives, a concept not unknown in India.

Photograph and landscapes from Wikimedia Commons.
Painting of solitary gum tree from National Gallery of Australia


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