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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Albert Namatjira

Albert Namatjira was honored with a stamp forty-four years after his death.
Archaeologists, historians, anthropologists, sociologist and probably some other "ologists" tell us that when two cultures meet, both tend to benefit. The less-developed culture tends to benefit more, but its people do so at the expense of their of their own cultural heritage. Down through the annuls of history, this has happened again and again from the time the Israelites moved to Egypt to the present day as Central Americans move north to escape poverty and violence. The most notable example of this phenomena can be seen in the fading of the Native American culture into the immigrant amalgam of the ever-changing American culture. The same thing happened in Australia as the English culture overran that of the native Aborigines. As artists, when we think of a culture, we naturally think first of art; but a culture also encompasses language, literature, religion, music, food, science, government, family traditions, morality and many other elements. If both clashing cultures are equally strong, often the result is war, as in the middle east today, further complicated by oil--great wealth.
The Hermannsburg Mission, 1936-37, Albert Namatjira
--his first painting and the place of his birth.
Albert Namatjira, 1956, William Dargie
Albert Namatjira was caught up in this cultural clash. Namatjira was born in 1902, well after his Australian Aborigine culture had started to dissolve into that of a small island on the opposite side of the world. He was born at the Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission near Alice Springs in western Australia, a mountainous, semi-arid region for which the invading British culture had little use. As a child he was westernized, Christianized, and baptized before he was thirteen, then thrust back into his native Arrernte community to be initiated. There the cultural acclimation was reversed. Like his ancestors, Namatjira developed a deep love and respect for the land, married, and started a family. Because his wife was not of the same Aboriginal kinship, they were ostracized. Namatjira found work as a camel driver. As a result, he saw a lot more of Australia than did most other "outback" dwellers.
Albert Namatjira, Max Battarbee, ca. 1947
Namatjira became an artist almost by accident. Though he'd shown some talent as a child and had visited art museums in Melbourne, it was only while serving as a guide for the Australian landscape watercolorist, Rex Batterbee, that he began to display an interest in painting. Batterbee patiently showed him how, developing a long friendship, and shepherding his career for several years thereafter. In due time, Namatjira began to sell his work, his prices rising from worthless to five, ten, twenty, eventually as much as two hundred Australian dollars. That may not sound like much today, but keep in mind that this was back in the 1930s and 40s, and that, over his lifetime, Namatjira created over two-thousand paintings.
Namatjira meets Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip, 1954.
Success meant a truck with his name on it.
By the early 1950s, Namatjira was at the height of his popularity. When the Queen of England came calling in 1954, he presented her with a painting. William Dargie painted Namatjira's portrait (above, left) in 1956 and won the Archibald prize that year for his effort (awarded each year to the painter of the best portrait of an Australian). The same year, Namatjira acquired a truck. In fact he became quite wealthy. The only problem was, under Australian law, Aborigines could not own land, build a house, or drink alcohol. Not that he had any trouble spending his newfound riches. Under Aborigine tradition, if a man had the good fortune to acquire a good fortune, he was expected to share it with his family. Namatjira's "family" came crawling out of the outback woodwork like termites. At one point in time, he was supporting over six-hundred family members.

In 2013, almost sixty years after Namatjira met the Queen, his grandchildren
journeyed to Buckingham Palace to present another Namatjira painting to Her Majesty.
Namatjira became a symbol of the Australian Indigenous Rights Movement, which sought to bridge the gap between Australian culture that of the Aborigines. In 1957, Namatjira became the first Northern Territory Aborigine to gain freedom from the laws making his people wards of the State, and the first to be granted Australian citizenship, which entitled him to vote, build a house, and buy alcohol. In the end however, it was the vast cultural differences he sought to bridge which did him in.

West MacDonell Ranges, Albert Namatjira Jr. The son also paints.
Albert Namatjira's gravestone
displays one of his paintings
preserved on ceramic tiles.
Around 1958, an Aboriginal woman was killed at a party Namatjira attended. He was held responsible for bringing alcohol into the camp. As mentioned before, it was then against the law to supply alcohol to an Aboriginal person. Namatjira was charged with leaving a bottle of rum on a car seat, where a fellow Hermannsburg artist, Henoch Raberaba, could get access to it. Namatjira was sentenced to six months in prison for supplying an Aboriginal with liquor. After a public uproar, he was permitted to serve his sentence at the Papunya Native Reserve. He was released after serving only two months due to medical and humanitarian reasons. Albert Namatjira died shortly thereafter, in August, 1959, of heart disease complicated by pneumonia. He was fifty-seven.

Just recently, Namatjira's famous white gum trees (top), featured in so
many of his paintings, were burned by vandals shortly before they were
to be registered and protected as part of Australia's national heritage.


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