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A giant in Australian art and an Aboriginal icon: Remembering Albert Namatjira

August 8, On This Day 


Widely considered one of the greatest and most influential Australian artists, Albert Namatjira was an Arrernte painter from the MacDonnell Ranges in Central Australia.

Born on July 28, 1902, he passed away today, 63 years ago, on August 8, 1959.

Namatjira is not only hailed as a pioneer of and ‘monumental figure’ in contemporary Indigenous Australian art, but was also dubbed one of the most famous Indigenous Australians of his generation, and pretty much the first Aboriginal artist to receive popularity from a wide Australian audience. In fact, he became a household name in Australia — reproductions of his works hung in many homes throughout the nation.

Blazing a trail for his community, he was the first Indigenous person to be granted Australian citizenship in 1957, more than a decade before the same basic rights — to vote, to own property, to drink alcohol — were extended to the rest of the country’s Indigenous population following the landmark 1967 referendum.

Namatjira’s richly detailed, Western art-influenced watercolours of the outback departed significantly from the abstract designs and symbols of traditional Aboriginal art. 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 artworks capture the wild, vast, arid, untouched nature of the unique and distinctive Australian natural expanses.

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.

Wikipedia describes: “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.”


His unique style of painting was denounced soon after his death by some critics as being a product of his assimilation into western culture, rather than his own connection to his subject matter or his natural style. But the Art Gallery of New South Wales website quotes George Alexander, coordinator of Contemporary Art Programmes, as saying: “Initially thought of as having succumbed to European pictorial idioms – and for that reason, to ideas of European privilege over the land – Namatjira’s landscapes have since been re-evaluated as coded expressions on traditional sites and sacred knowledge. Ownership of country is hereditary, but detailed knowledge of what it ‘contains’ is learnt in successive stages through ceremony, song, anecdote and contact.”

Namatjira 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 then drunkenly went on to beat 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.

Here, he suffered a heart attack. After being transferred to Alice Springs hospital, Namatjira astonished his mentor Rex Battarbee by presenting him with three landscapes, with a promise of more to come — a promise unrealised. He died soon after of heart disease complicated by pneumonia.

At the time of his death, Namatjira had painted a total of around 2,000 artworks.

In July 2017, Google commemorated Namatjira\’s 115th birthday with a featured Doodle for Australian users, acknowledging his substantial contributions to the art and culture of Australia.


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