ART INDIGENOUS - NAMATJIRA
Namatjira lives on as the mythic ancestor of the Aboriginal Art market,
especially for the painters around Papunya, where he lived out his open
gaol sentence just before his death on 8 August 1959. The trade in
images made by Aborigines tracked his success with the most demanding
and English of media - watercolour painting. That achievement disturbed
assumptions about the native mind’s being locked in the Stone Age.
More shockingly, his colour sense showed that the aborigine could teach
whitey a thing or two about being Australian.
embarrasses celebrants of Aboriginal art because his subjects, despite
their rawness, never looked quite barbaric or spiritual enough to
satiate the appetite for cannibalising the primitive. Hence, unburdened
by evidence, curators have re-interpreted his ghost gums and purple
ranges as land claims, as mystical as any abstraction by the Petyarres.
His mass production of the same scenes is now redeemed as ritualized
that the Aranda draw in the sand are incomplete without their
“songs”, or stories. Hence, while the Aranda could see that Albert
had represented a sacred place, that depiction would lack spiritual
power unless he also sang it. Film of Namatjira painting reveals him
singing softly. It would help to decide on the connection of his
subjects to his Dreaming if we knew whether he was singing Bach chorales
or tribal stories.
emotional and material benefits from both the Lutheran Mission at
Hermannsburg, west of Alice Springs, and from the Arrernte. Although
baptized in 1905, he was taken bush for six months initiation in 1915.
Growing up discontented, he broke one mission rule by marrying a
non-Christian, simultaneously infringing tribal law when he ran off with
a Loritja woman in 1919.
return to the mission in 1922, Albert joined the push for a rudimentary
wage system. In the 1920s, the mission needed cash to pay the locals for
their labours and so promoted the sale of decorated mulga plaques. The
Aranda had rarely painted their tools or weapons until tourists began to
pay more for coloured ones. Items that had been primarily for the use of
their makers acquired exchange values beyond those of reciprocity.
professor of Anthropology at the University of Sydney, A. P. Elkin,
queried the future of primitive art-making he saw it as a means by which
Aborigines might escape from the pauperization imposed by the loss of
their lands. He applied his notion of Aborigines as “intelligent
parasites” who had survived in a hostile environment by gaining the
maximum of food for a minimum outlay of energy - hence, parasitism. The
begging by fringe-dwellers continued this response, but in a debased
form. Elkin wondered whether the production of artifacts could reclaim
bonds with the Dreaming for a less dependent future, a hope which has
driven the art industry of the last 30 years.
A trickle of
tourists increased the demand but also introduced the Aranda to a range
of whitefella goods, from motor vehicles to clothing. Woodcraft would
never pay for those items. Albert’s poker-worked boomerangs had
brought him five shillings a throw.
were not the only people who failed to see why their needs became
effective only when matched by spending power. Like many a Wall Street
financier in the Great Crash of 1929, Albert was mystified by credit
which appeared to be money for which he did not need to work.
sighting watercolours in 1934, Albert asked a key question about
European Art: “How much does he get for one of them?” After he heard
that they brought as much as twenty guineas, he declared: “I think I
can do that”.
did not know how to apply the wash of watercolour, he offered his
services in 1936 as a cameleer in exchange for tuition from the
recurrent visitor, Rex Battarbee. His earliest efforts were crude but
his facility meant that he learnt all that Battarbee had to teach within
is a more testing medium than oil. You cannot rub it out, or easily
paint over it. The Centre’s dry heat compounded these difficulties.
The paint dried on the brush. That was why Namatjira put his paints
aside till Battarbee returned to share his technique with his camel boy.
1938, an exhibition of native craft in Melbourne included some of
Albert’s watercolours, which sold for 25/-. This publicity helped his
first solo showing in December where the 41 offerings went over three
days. He now signed with his father’s tribal name as his own surname.
Although the demand was high, buyers were discriminating. Not everything
sold at once. At Adelaide in 1939, the stiffest competition was for two
portrait studies, not for landscapes. He sold thirty-eight paintings in
Melbourne in April 1944, at between ten and thirty-five guineas. By
1955, prices reached 75 guineas. In 1946, he bought the first of the
vehicles that would drive him to bankruptcy for their repairs.
Namatjira became a popular favourite, the cognoscenti had to distance
themselves. Yet he needed endorsement from the art establishment to get
sales started. Despite its popularity, his work was not included in
major public surveys of Australian art which had begun to include
indigenous art. The National Gallery of Victoria spurned his later
pieces as “frightful … pot-boilers”.
circulated against Namatjira: the poor quality of his work; that he had
lost whatever talent he had had; and his drinking. His defenders
replied: professional disdain could not be separated from envy at
inflated reports of a blackfella earning more than the prime minister;
commercial success had run many an artist to seed, for instance, Sir
Arthur Streeton; and drunkenness was rife in artists’ clubs
Namatjiras are astounding. “The Fish Hole, Jay Creek” (1941) is
monumental in its construction of rocks and detail in the shadows and
gradations of tone. Equally arresting can be the abrupt placement of a
feature, “The Ghost Gum of Palm Valley” (1942) or in the
overwhelming of a viewer by the subject, as in “Sand Drift” (1938).
work still appeals to a majority of Australians who look on dot painting
as vacuous. The X-ray art of Arnhem Land retains an attraction that the
expanses of a Rover Thomas cannot rival in a world where the average
time that a gallery-goer spends in front of each work is about nine
In the first
book on Namatjira in 1944, the anthropologist C. P. Mountford identified
colour as the element that Namatjira had introduced to Australian
self-awareness: “the rich reds, the deep violet – blues, the
golden-yellows – colours that Southerners find difficult to believe
until they have seen them with their own eyes”.
colours provided relief from the drab of the depression when even
cream-and-green Australia was allowed to fade, followed by the war years
of camouflage tones. In 1953, British Atomic tests, code-named Totem,
gave a new significance to Red of Dead Heart, just as Woomera did to the
exchange of artifacts.
not always high-keyed. The National Gallery of South Australian bought
“Haast Bluff” (1939) which looked like a Heysen of the Flinders
Ranges in its insipid blue-green. Namatjira’s power to shock was
limited by the size of his paper, closer to greeting cards than to the
blow-ups for framed reproductions.
Commonwealth Film Unit’s Namatjira,
the painter (1947) helped acquaint audiences with the harsher tones.
The first colour feature film of Australia, Kangaroo
(1952), was shot in the Flinders Ranges three years before Jedda let Australians see more of the colours of Central Australia.
The Bulletin described its
scenery as “typical Namatjira country”, confident that its readers
would know what to expect.
adjustments, Namatjira’s vivid palette confirmed the prejudice that
the blacks liked strong colours because they lacked taste.
assessment of Namatjira’s contribution to Aboriginal advancement needs
to recall how primitive were the visual representations of Aborigines,
long acceptable to Europeans. The standard was set between
“mine-tinkit-they-fit” advertisements for Pelaco shirts and the
soft-porn of a Jolliffe lubra on a Holden bumper sticker reading
“Genuine Australian Body”. Against such demeaning assumptions, any
attempt to treat Aborigines seriously could be considered a plus.
retrospective that begins its Australian tour from the Araluen Art
Centre at Alice Springs late in July will include only one sample of his
woodcraft, and none of the table-mats or grocers’ calendars that were
essential to the European assimilation of Aboriginalities.
is derived from “Aboriginalities”, the heading of a page of
paragraphs that the Bulletin
ran from 1887 to 1960. The first and most extensive application of
Aboriginal imagery by settlers was to ceramics, from around 1920. The
tussle between folksy native subject matter and indigenous abstract
designs divided the mass manufacturer from the artist potter. The best
of the past prejudices re-appeared in vases shaped after the noble
savage, while the worst of the prevailing policies was found in the
cuddly black babies of the stolen generations. Brownie Downing served
the market for wall-plaques and ash-trays with her cutesy piccanninies,
those “darlings of dimpled depravity”.
for Aboriginalities firmed during the 1954 Royal Tour when arched
boomerangs, decorated with indigenous patterns, greeted the Queen in
Sydney where banners with Aboriginal motifs fluttered. In Melbourne,
Bill Onus entertained Her Majesty by throwing the boomerangs that were a
staple in his craft business.
In 1925, the
painter Margaret Preston had complained that not a café or theatre in
Sydney was decorated with indigenous motifs. By the 1950s, murals based
on bark paintings were adorning railway carriages, ocean liners, cafés,
banks and factory facades. In 1956, Laminex pictured kangaroos,
boomerangs and Aborigines in nine colours for its Corroboree range.
Venetian blinds were patterned with tiny animals, Aboriginal-style.
Fabric designers, such as Frances Burke, began to include Aboriginal
motifs from the 1930s. The 1956 Olympic Games splashed Aboriginalities
in every media, from travel posters to teaspoons.
Flower Day had always included floral carpets in Aixminster patterns
along North Terrace. The year after Namatjira’s death, the prime
display reproduced one of his watercolours.
constituted the “interior” in a double sense of the outback and the
suburbs. At worst, their adoption was an indication that you while would
not have one of them home to dinner, you were happy to eat surrounded by
reminders of their culture. In such ways, Aboriginality percolated into
the white Australian consciousness as part of the acceptance that this
continent - and not Britain or Ireland – would have to be “home”
to its settlers.
could not afford a Namatjira original bought table-mats or other
reproductions as a mark of support for Aboriginal advancement, uncertain
though they were about its substance.
ambivalence of Namatjira’s standing is apparent in his entry into the
1944 Who’s Who, which
followed the protocols to the point of parody by listing his recreations
as going “walkabout” and “playing marbles”. In 1945, Albert
Namatjira found himself paying income tax although he could not buy a
block of land in Alice Springs, travel outside the Territory, vote,
drink alcohol or look forward to a pension.
The more that
commentators represented Namatjira’s mastery of watercolour as
evidence of the ability of even full-blood Aborigines to assimilate, the
more the anomalies in Namatjira’s legal personality discomfited the
authorities. The campaign to grant him citizenship was part of the
resurgence of activism for Aboriginal rights.
1957 removal from the category of “ward of the state” exposed the
fallacy of equating citizenship with the rights of an individual rather
than with his circumstances as a social being.
not die of “a broken heart”. Nor did he die because the bone been
pointed at him over the murder of a young woman at his camp a year to
the day before his death. White men of his bulk (up to 120kgs) were
keeling over in their fifties in the days before cardiac surgery. He
lived for longer than did all but one of his sons.
catalogue in 1919 described the Australian aborigines as “people
without art”. Whether or not they were depends what one means by art.
Art with a capital-A requires that creativity be saleable and expressive
of immanent “genius”. Pre-contact image-making had neither of those
characteristics and it does no service to its creators to impose the
colonizing definition of Art on their inventiveness.
to Namatjira’s watercolours were conditioned by conflicting impulses
towards Aboriginal imagery: was it fine art or ethnography? Critics
could not make up their minds whether water colours were a step towards
the former or a move away from the fertility of the latter.
authority on primitive art, refugee Dr Leonhard Adam, in 1944, hoped
that Aborigines would develop art by adapting their symbolic designs.
What Namatjira’s critics recommended in the 1940s happened to
Aboriginal painting after 1970, for good or ill.