ALBERT NAMATJIRA (1902 – 1959)
Language Group: Western Arrarnta
Albert (Elea) Namatjira was born on the 28th July 1902 at Hermannsburg (Ntaria) to Namatjira (later baptised as Jonathan) and his wife Ljukuta (Emilie). He attended the mission school and lived with other boys in the dormitory which is located at the western end of the historic precinct as it is today. At 13 he spent six months in the bush and underwent initiation. He left the mission again at the age of 18 and married Ilkalita, a Kukatja woman. Eight of their children were to survive infancy: five sons-Enos, Oscar, Ewald, Keith and Maurice-and three daughters-Maisie, Hazel and Martha. The family returned to Hermannsburg in 1923 where Ilkalita was baptised as Rubina.
In his boyhood Albert sketched ‘scenes and incidents around him …the cattle yard, the stockmen with their horses and the hunters after game’. He later made artefacts such as boomerangs and woomeras. Encouraged by the mission authorities, he began to produce mulga-wood plaques with poker-worked designs. In 1932 he was commissioned by Constable W. MacKinnon to make a dozen oval mulga plaques featuring his camel patrol. Meanwhile he worked as a blacksmith, carpenter, stockman and cameleer -at the mission for rations and on neighbouring stations for wages.
In 1932 and again in 1934 the artists Rex Battarbee and John Gardner visited Hermannsburg on painting trips. Diary entries of both men speak of “a young aboriginal man visiting their camp on a number of occasions, showing great interest in what they were doing”. (Albert Namatjira?) During the 1934 visit the two men held an exhibition of their art work in the school house. Their paintings of the country that the local aboriginals knew so well, attracted great interest and it was noted that Albert returned several times to gaze at the water colour landscapes on display. Albert asked missionary Albrecht for some paper, paints and brushes but his request was not initially taken seriously. After persistent requests Albrecht and Battarbee agreed that on Battarbee’s next visit Albert would receive his equipment and lessons.
Battarbee returned in 1936 and Albert accompanied him on a two month painting trip through the West McDonnell Ranges employed as a cameleer, cook and guide. Albert guided Battarbee through some of the most spectacular country in central Australia, including Palm Valley, the James Ranges and Gosses Gorge and in return received his long awaited lessons. It was on this trip that he learnt the basic techniques of water colour and impressed Battarbee with his evident talent. These earliest works were signed simply “Albert”.
In the following few years Albrecht and Battarbee arranged several exhibitions of Alberts work and it was at this time that Albert chose his father’s traditional name and began signing his work “Albert Namatjira”.
His first major public exhibition was opened in Melbourne on the 5th of December 1938. All 41 of his works sold within days.
During World War II Albert sold some of his paintings to Australian and American servicemen based in Alice Springs although a shortage of paper around this time forced him to concentrate mainly on beautifully decorated wooden plaques.
Some early critics of his work claimed he was simply “copying the white man”, but in reality he was painting with ‘country in mind’ and continually returned to sites imbued with his ancestral associations. The detailed patterning and high horizons –so characteristic of his work- blended Aboriginal and European modes of depiction.
Namatjira’s initiatives won national and international acclaim. As the first prominent Aboriginal artist to work in a modern idiom, he was widely regarded as a representative of assimilation. In 1944 he was included in Who’s Who in Australia. He was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal (1953). In 1954 he was flown to Canberra to meet the Queen herself and in 1955 he was elected as an honorary member of the Royal Art Society of New South Wales. Then in 1957 he was granted Australian Citizenship.
Despite all these accolades Albert Namatjira endured racism and discrimination. The last years of his life were difficult ones as he himself came to understand the gulf that existed between his traditional Aboriginal world and the European world he had set foot in through his art. Throughout all this he remained a quiet and dignified man.
Albert Namatjira died on the 8th August 1959 from a heart condition complicated by pneumonia. He is buried in Alice Springs at the Memorial Cemetery. His wife Rubina died in 1974 and is buried at Hermannsburg.
Albert’s response to what some critics had written about his work:- “If I want to boil a pot, I light a fire- and use some of the paper those blokes write on……can’t waste good painting paper”.