Albert 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.

Yet Namatjira 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 repetition.

The symbols 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.

Albert sought 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.

After his 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.

When the 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.

The Arrernte 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.

On first 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”.

Since Albert 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 two months.

Watercolour 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.

In August 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.

The moment 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”.

Three charges 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 everywhere.

Some 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).

Namatjira’s 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 seconds.

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”.

Centralian 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.

Namatjira was 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.

The 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.

Despite these adjustments, Namatjira’s vivid palette confirmed the prejudice that the blacks liked strong colours because they lacked taste.

Any 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.

The Namatjira 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. 

 “Abo” 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”.

The market 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.

Adelaide’s 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.

Aboriginalities 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.

People who 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.

The 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.

Namatjira’s 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.

Namatjira did 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.

A Paris 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.

The responses 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.

The world 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.