Albert Namatjira was a man who helped to spearhead contemporary Indigenous Australian Art and bring it to light in the Western world.
He is undoubtedly the best known Aboriginal painter and was a pioneer of rights for the Aboriginal people. He was a prolific artist with a distinctly different style to traditional indigenous works—something that truly set him apart from his contemporaries.
Born in 1902, Namatjira truly began his foray into painting at the age of 32, when Rex Battarbee, a notable Australian artist, tutored him in the art of watercolours. He learned quickly and soon began painting richly detailed landscapes that were heavily influenced by Western-style art. Though the colours he chose were similar to the earthy ochres his ancestors used for their totemic art, his style was vastly different. The designs and symbols more prominent in Aboriginal Art these days were absent from his paintings, with Namatjira favouring a more realistic, Western aesthetic.
Garnering favour with the European audience particularly, Namatjira’s skills in Western-style painting were considered evidence of successful assimilation policies. As he painted, his technique and craft improved, and he grew to excel at capturing stunning details such as reflections cast in water. His landscapes depicted the rugged geological features of Australia, detailing distinctive native flora and fauna, stately white gum trees and gnarly shrubs.
For a short time after his death, Namatjira’s work was criticized for being too heavily influenced by the West and distanced from indigenous roots. Since then, his paintings have been re-evaluated as ‘coded expressions on traditional sites and sacred knowledge’ (George Alexander, 2014) rather than an expression of European privilege over land rights. His paintings detail the knowledge learned by those who have contact with the land, through anecdotes, songs, and ceremony. Through initiation and becoming an elder, Namatjira was able to portray an idea of what the land ‘contains’ in an accessible way.
Namatjira’s art inspired the Hermannsburg School of painting and his fame led him and his wife to become the first Nothern Territory Aboriginal people to be granted restricted Australian citizenship. This allowed them to vote, to have limited land rights, and to buy alcohol. The citizenship was granted in part due to public outcry – a famous and influential artist was living in poverty. It took a further 10 years for the government to grant similar rights to other indigenous people.
His death in 1959 marked the end of his life, but not of his legacy. Namatjira’s reach extends outwards into the world beyond the native lands he loved so much. His style signalled a turning point for Aboriginal Art, pushing it into Western view, and his celebrity status gave momentum to the granting of rights that indigenous people deserved. With his works displayed in galleries around the world, Namatjira’s influence extends ever outwards, acknowledging his profoundly significant contribution to contemporary art.