JUSTICE: Albert Namatjira

NOTES: None of Albert’s paintings, all water colours, included here look anywhere near as good as they do in reality. In real the colours quiver and melt into each other in a way they just don’t when digitally rendered (a process which is always looking for and defining borders, in or out, yes or no, sharp not soft) or for that matter when they appear in the pages of an art book. The shadows are both more profound and more intelligible. The perception of depth is much more evident and dramatic. See them in the flesh if you can. Anyone could have taken the landscape photos below in this extraordinary country, but I did. They were taken while walking through the Western MacDonells on the Larapinta Trail, one of the world’s greatest walks, starting at Alice Springs’ Old Telegraph Station and finishing at one peak of Mt Sonder.

What a dreadfully difficult relationship Albert Namatjira had with the whitefellas that had taken over his country: adored at one moment and treated appallingly the next — at the same time even. It would have been torture. That might be a function of celebrity; it might be the afflictions that come with being in so many ways The First; and it might be being black in a whitefella’s world. Almost certainly all three. Adam Goodes would understand perfectly.

The extraordinary Mt Sonder, or Rwetyepme (‘roo-chip-ma‘)

His story has been better known than it is today. In the 1950s prints of his Mt Sonder with or without ghost gums belonged on the wall or mantlepiece with the family photos under the flight of pottery ducks and the mirror with the bunch of flowers semi-silvered into it.

Albert was a hero, an important figure in the post-war wave of national self-identification that Australians were undergoing at the time, an exploration full of both insecurity and bumptious assertiveness. He belonged with the wattle, the cricketers, Vegemite, Holdens, the Melbourne Olympics and a home of your own with a Hill’s Hoist, his dignified and handsome face beaming over the lot of them as though providing benediction. ‘We’ could put that face on a stamp knowing that it wouldn’t cause us any trouble. ‘We’ could almost … well, almost, claim him as One of Us.

Hermannsburg, 1938. Araluen Gallery, Alice Springs, NT

He was born in 1902 to Western Arrernte (‘urrunda’) parents who had chosen to ‘come in’ to Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission at the western end of the MacDonnells. (Hermannsburg was known as Ntaria beforehand and is again now.) In Arrernte, these ranges which extend for more than 600km are called Tjorita, and were formed by the wanderings, clearly visible here, of the giant caterpillar Yeperenye.

Under the influence of the firm but reasonably benign form of Christianity espoused at Hermannsburg, he was christened and his name changed from Elea to Albert. ‘Namatjira’, flying ant dreaming, was his father’s Arrernte name. He called himself just Albert until he felt he needed to do otherwise.

For 13 years he learnt what any kid would learn on a mission with a full program of education coupled with a fourth ‘R’, religion, joining the other three. He remained a dedicated Christian until his death. But at 13 he was initiated, meaning going to live in the bush for six months, enduring designed hardship including specific physical ordeals, being taught the Law and customary practice, learning the stories and songs of his country and of his own jukurrpa — establishing his place in the Aboriginal world in fact.

He became a cameleer, for some time working a route between Oodnadatta and Hermannsburg, about 800 kms one way, … and one way to immerse yourself in this remarkable country. He also worked as a ringer and stockhand to try to bring some money in to the impoverished mission.

In time he married Ilkalita (christened as ‘Rubina’), a member of a neighboring community and one of the mainstays of his life. The couple built a house near the mission, and Albert supported his growing family (eventually with ten children) by doing odd jobs. These included making and selling small pieces of artwork. In 1932, the year he turned 30, two Melbourne artists visited the mission. Rex Batterbee was one.

Albert, Axel Poignant, another artist and film maker, and Rex. 1946

Batterbee’s story deserves a detour. What on earth was he doing there? He was born and brought up in Warrnambool (about as far away from Hermannsburg as you could get on the continent) before enlisting for the First World War. During fighting at Bullecourt, he was shot through the chest, face and both arms. He was invalided to Australia and hospitalised for several years, his left arm remaining crippled. Unable to resume farm work, he studied commercial art in Melbourne, but decided instead to become a landscape painter.

In a further unlikely turn of events, Rex went on a series of outback tours in a T-model Ford rejigged as a mobile home with his friend John Gardner. It was during the third of these excursions that they arrived at Hermannsburg and were asked by the missions’s superintendent Pastor Friedrich Albrecht — a complex and interesting man, a Pole by birth who lived at Hermannsburg for almost 30 years and spoke fluent Arrernte — to exhibit what they had been painting.

This would have been a moment, the first time the mission folk had seen their country represented in this way. How to respond? Shock? Puzzlement? Anger? Withdrawal in horror at this appropriation of their dreamings? The crowd shouted for joy upon recognising each location and pulled each other hither and thither to see each new work. Word of the exhibition spread at unintelligible speed. During the two days of the show more than 300 Aboriginal people saw it.

Rex Battarbee Central Australian landscape 1936 34 x 55cm National Gallery of Australia
A photographic version. He must have been sitting just a little west of here. What a mountain this is. Simply majestic.

Albert’s response appears not to have been complicated. He was absolutely clear that he wanted to paint too. Batterbee describes him as ‘waiting’ for their return two years later. He had visioned up in his mind that he could look after the camels for me while I taught him to paint. As one indication of the nature of mission life Batterbee had to ask Pastor Albrecht for permission to employ Albert as a camel-boy. It was on this series of excursions that Albert did his first water colours.

He was a very clever man with great ambition to become an artist, a marvellous pair of hands and marvellous eyes, and he had no mistakes to unlearn. That is why he was so easy to teach, he was just like a sponge or a piece of blotting paper. He absorbed everything, and it was easy to eliminate mistakes because you only had to tell him once and he never did it again.

At the same time Battarbee recognised that Albert was teaching him about his, Albert’s, country, not just by the aesthetics of his choice of locales but by his explanations of their significance. It does seem to have been a meeting of minds. Albert’s warmth, good nature and charm is strongly evident in the 1947 film ‘Albert Namatjira: An artist’s life’ in which he acts out various components of his life and development. (See it now on Kanopy. It’s worth it.)

Pastor Albrecht took 10 of Albert’s paintings from this experience to a church conference at Nuriootpa.

Kangaroo in Landscape is one of those paintings. You can see how his colour fields are still filling in outlined drawing. This is one of the important changes in his work as it became more sophisticated and practiced: paint straight to the paper.

Despite rock bottom prices, only four sold. In a gesture of solidarity and encouragement Albrecht bought two himself. A year passed with sporadic sales of paintings, mulga plaques, boomerangs, carvings, and other artefacts. Then Albrecht decided to get back in contact with Battarbee.

He’s as keen as ever and working hard to improve himself. He’s been painting when he can even when the others go walkabout. … Perhaps you could contemplate taking some as part of your exhibition. Adding thoughtfully: This may spoil the unity of your show, which would be distinctly to your disadvantage. As time goes by we shall have more opportunities of bringing his work before the public. This, too, suggests something about the nature of mission life. It doesn’t do to make simple judgments.

Three of Albert’s water colours were included in Batterbee’s next exhibition with a collection tin nearby. Eight pounds were donated. In 1938 Batterbee arranged an exhibition of 41 of Albert’s paintings in Melbourne. They sold out in three days. From that point on he never had trouble selling paintings. That seems to be the moment everything changed.

It might be noted that W. H. Gill who directed the gallery where Albert’s exhibition occurred gave Batterbee a note: ‘I suggest you take some good photos of the man … I consider it would be best to show him purely as a Native and not wearing Any European Clothing so as to maintain and convey to the public that he is a pure Aboriginal and not Civilised.’

Batterbee later moved to live in Alice Springs where among other things he set up and provided art classes for local Aboriginal people. In the photo below one figure appears to have been pasted in. But it’s where he felt he belonged. And bless him and his curiosity and his confidence in the truth of common humanity.

* * * * * * *

When Princess Margaret turned 21 in 1951 Australia’s gift to her was a Namatjira. Her level of appreciation is not recorded. During her sister’s first visit to Australia in 1954, the Queen was invited to view a specially mounted exhibition of Albert’s work in his company. Always far more polite than Margaret, she said she liked it.

* * * * * * *

Colour. That’s one reason. Colour. Can you believe what he’s up to? There can’t be country that looks like this. It’s simply too … fierce, overdone.

Talipate, Western MacDonnells c. 1950. Benalla Art Gallery

Look at the purple! You can’t have purple in the foreground. It’s to indicate distance, to mellow things down … hang on … what’s this?

Simpson’s Gap, Runutjirba.

But a huge range of skills besides colouration is on show: structure, management of distance and depth and the turn of the plane.

See, for example, the way the light before the storm is managed both in the coloration of the sky and on the rocks in the left foreground. Albert once told William Dargie he knew ‘how to make a tree look the same colour whether it was in the light or shadow’, and that a famous painter, who Dargie doesn’t identify, didn’t. (It was Hans Heysen. Don’t tell anyone.) Albert does. And that’s what you’re looking at. Probably without noticing.

* * * * * * *

How big was Albert? Huge. This letter sent from India asking for an autograph had no trouble finding him.

His career took off almost immediately and just kept growing, over a decade becoming well outside the capacity of the Mission to manage. The Aranda Arts Council was established to supervise production, pricing, release and sales. Many of the artists — and Albert was not alone in selling paintings, he was just the chief figure in the Hermannsburg School — went elsewhere. (One reason was that the Council paid on sale rather than consignment.) Albert was among them. As his paintings proliferated, unlicensed, onto prints, post cards, tea towels, trays, beer coasters and anything else you can imagine, for 11 years Albert would bring four paintings a week to John Cummings who would sell them from a gallery next to his pharmacy in Alice Springs. Cummings was one of the better dealers. Albert was also doing business with people who would give him 20 quid for a painting to be sold a week later for 300.

By this stage a celebrity, he had become a photo opportunity, for art lovers, for tourists, for random passers by, for sticky-beaks peering into his property and house, for journalists and, because of all that, for governments.

Without him even knowing, in 1957 he became Australia’s first Aboriginal ‘citizen’, and what a strange and offensive idea that is.

‘Welfare’ Ordinances governing life in the Northern Territory (and in other states in varied form), passed as law first by South Australia and later as it took control of the Territory by the Commonwealth, meant that all Aboriginal people who lived in the NT were under the control of the administration. Couldn’t live where they wanted, couldn’t build a house, couldn’t claim a basic wage, couldn’t buy alcohol or drink in pubs and, of course, couldn’t vote.

The initial colonial wars were appalling, but we can pretend they were distant, sporadic, conducted by thugs, and possibly poorly attested. This business, however, is within living memory, and was universal, durable and institutionalised. You can’t argue about it or pretend that it might not have happened. A Government edict establishes a group of people as third rate, simply by being members of that group. It denies them rights so fundamental it is hard to think of them as rights at all. They are not ‘citizens’ of the country where their forebears have lived for many thousands of years. What does that make a ‘citizen’? I’m afraid it can only mean a member of a group of cruel insensitive exploiters.

Albert and Rubina became citizens simply by having their names removed from the register of ‘Full-blood Aboriginal Wards of the State’ (and not at their behest, but by the cunning plan of the publicity machine of the Australian Government). Their children’s names were still on the list as were those of all their relatives, and it hardly needs saying but the system of obligatory sharing is deeply embedded in Aboriginal culture. Bark paintings of animals, for example, may map the directions for distributing the kill.

Albert had been struggling with this. His ‘family’ had become more and more extensive and as a result his outgoings were eclipsing his income. He never became as wealthy as the whitefella press was inclined to suggest and at what should have been the peak of his fame and earnings his family was reduced to living in a series of makeshift shelters. One of his expenses was having water carted to them.

His life and financial situation were openly and intrusively discussed in public and by the press. Pastor Doug Nicholls and the Aboriginal Advancement League went chasing royalties and license fees on his behalf. John Brackenreg, director of Artarmon Galleries where most of his work was placed, thought that it would be ‘in Albert’s best interests that any additional royalties should accumulate [ie be retained at the gallery’s pleasure]. Unless of course he specifies otherwise in writing.’ (That’s where the copyright to ALL his paintings ended up until three years ago. After an intervention by Dick Smith of all people, copyright was returned to the family on October 14, 2017.)

And now to the part of the story that people are inclined to remember.

He had started drinking.

Albert never drink before. At Sydney, he had a friend, they share a little bit wine. Those people taught him to drink them artist friends. He come back to Alice he was number one artist and he started to drink because he had learned in those places. Then he gave drink to his relatives.

After Albert was citizen, he started to drink. Trouble is that government gave us wrong citizen, for drinking. Instead of different kind of citizen, living citizen. Once this drinking come in, this destroy all the people in Australia. And Albert. (Nhasson Ungkwanaka, Albert’s pastor)

The actual offence arose from the investigation of the death of a woman at a party at Morris Soak out of Alice where he had been living at the time.

After receiving the Queen’s Medal at Govt House (NSW)

Albert Namatjira: first Aboriginal Australian citizen, recipient of the Queen’s Coronation Medal, first Aboriginal subject of the winner of the Archibald Prize, most famous artist in Australia, charged with supplying alcohol to members of his extended family.

Charged, found guilty. Two appeals. The press is howling. Pro, anti, shame on the government, shame on Albert, shame on his family, shame on blackfellas. Shame job all round. Six months, reduced to three months to be served in a fairly liberal facility at Papunya, but still …

Following sentencing, Albert was heard to say in court:

I cannot go on like this. I cannot stand it any longer. I would rather put a rifle to my head and end it all than go on. Why don’t they kill us all? That is what they want.

He died ten weeks after his release. He hadn’t been well for some time and an accident with the bonnet of the truck donated to him by Ampol led to the amputation of the index finger of his left hand. He was admitted to hospital with angina, a failing liver and pneumonia. But you could readily be forgiven for thinking he had died of a broken heart.

Gordon Bennett, 1989 Valley of the Ghost Gum

* * * * * * *

Critics have often been vocal in their dislike of Albert’s art. Gum tree one side, or gum tree the other, kitsch, dated and, brutally, ‘too white’, ‘too assimilated’, ‘turned his back on his people and his country’. (‘The dull and studied watercolours one might expect from an old maid’: much-vaunted anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss wrote in 1966.)

I have thought some the more anodyne versions of that criticism myself in the past without knowing why. Osmotic consumption of ill-digested second-hand opinion I would say. Art is profoundly subject to fashion; things come and go and I might have thought Albert’s art like a lot of representational landscape painting was something that had come and gone. Something my mother would (and did) like perhaps.

Then some years ago I saw a dozen or so of the Araluen Centre’s collection in Alice Springs. Of his 2000 works it is believed that most of the very best are in the hands of private collectors and we may never see them, but these stood out as really exceptional paintings, charismatic paintings, the sort you look at and think how did he do that? How has he drawn me in so deeply? I saw the ‘Seeing the Centre’ retrospective of his work in Canberra in 2002 celebrating the centenary of his birth and I was sold. In this case his works were surrounded by other artists of the time including Rex Battarbee, and his many familial artist successors, and it was Albert’s works that leapt out of the crowd. As with a lot of great art, it is the absolute certainty of his control. He’s well past having to wrestle with his craft; he’s thinking how he can make a picture great.

I have little doubt that one of the main reasons why his work became so popular — Australia’s best known, and loved, painter for decades — is that he was generous enough to show us his country, a country that largely exists in our imaginations.

In the ’50s the proportion of Australians who had had a look at this part of the world would have been tiny. But its place in the lore of the country — still the British outpost, built more firmly on colonial foundations than it is now — would have loomed large. Four-wheel drive SUVs have made the country smaller but the Red Centre is nevertheless an iconic idea more than a reality for most of us. It is a strange phenomenon that something about which you know very little shapes your identity. It is an even stranger phenomenon that you can be gladly introduced to it by people whose very existence is problematic for you.

When we paint we are painting as we always have done to demonstrate our continuing link with our country and the rights and responsibilities we have to it. Furthermore we paint to show the rest of the world that we own this country, and that the land owns us. …

Many years ago an Aboriginal man from central Australia, Albert Namatjira became very famous as a painter. Using Western watercolour paint techniques he painted many landscapes. But what non-Aboriginal people don’t understand, or choose not to understand, was that he was painting his country, the land of the Arrernte people. He was demonstrating to the rest of the world the living title held by his people to the lands they had been on for thousands of years.

Not only did non-Aboriginal people refuse to recognise this, but many have said that he wasn’t any good as a painter anyway, that all he was doing was mimicking a European art style and making pretty pictures. No one asked him the name of the country he was painting, or the Dreamings that had made that country important. They thought that all the old man needed was money for his paintings, and nothing else. The buyers did not recognise the Aboriginal law that bound his paintings to the land.

All our painting is a political act.

— Galarrwuy Yunupingu ‘The Black/White Conflict’ in Wally Caruana (ed.) Windows on the Dreaming

William Dargie Albert Namatjira, winner of the Archibald Prize 1956

Robert Campbell Junior. Ever heard of him? No? Well let’s correct that … READ ON.

3 thoughts on “JUSTICE: Albert Namatjira

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  3. You’ve made me very eager to have a look at some Namatjira originals again – not that we’ll have much of a chance for a little while. The mention of Pastor Doug Nicholls reminds me of a chat I had with Pastor Doug’s daughter Pam a while back. They had an extraordinary collection of people stay in their household beside the old Northcote footy ground – champion boxers, actors, activists, single mothers – and Albert. He spent a time there late in life when things were tough. As a thank you he gave the Nicholls family a large and gorgeous painting. Pam reckons it was her father’s most treasured possession. He kept it in the back shed/office. Unfortunately, that was the outbuilding that burned down with all contents lost when Pam was mucking around with matches one day – and the saintly demeanour of the great Pastor Doug was never more sorely tested.

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