Place yourself in 1950s Australia – how can it be that one of Australia’s most famous artists was an Indigenous man from central Australia? How can it be that he is accepted at this time despite notions of assimilation and extreme racial prejudices still being in place?
‘On one occasion at an exhibition opening, society ladies, unable to get near enough to Namatjira to have him sign their catalogues, crawled on all fours though the milling crowds’
Julie T. Wells & Michael F. Christie (2000)
To this day, great significance is placed upon the legacy of Albert Namatjira’s artworks and life, despite the fact that it has been over half a century since his death. His watercolour paintings of the central Australian landscape won him fame throughout the world in the 1940s and 1950s and it was as if overnight, he had become a celebrity. However, the man behind the paintings told a very different story. His celebrity was that of a man caught between two worlds, and his acceptance in 1950s Australia can seem even more perplexing.
‘In Australian public life he was both present and absent; in civic life he was both an insider and an outsider. He was celebrated and denigrated, affirmed and denied, loved and hated’
Cathryn McConaghy (2003)
In order to identify why Albert Namatjira was embraced as an Aboriginal artist in the 1950s against a backdrop of assimilation and, as the historian Russell McGregor (2011) argues, the basis of Aboriginal inclusion in the nation was indifference, I needed to start by looking at Albert Namatjira’s life, his story and his works to pull together a narrative of his successes as an Indigenous person in the 1950s.
In doing so, this allowed me to determine how Namatjira’s inclusion was constructed in the 1950s by non-indigenous Australians and how this was reflected in the public, private and political domain.
It is in my research, I found that the historian Russell McGregor (2011) has challenged his audience with the idea of ‘indifferent inclusion’ of Aboriginal people in Australia. His argument could conclude that the non-aboriginal audience did not fully realise the spiritual significance of Albert Namatjira’s works. However, I believe that in the face of the widespread sale and popularity of his artworks, it can be recognised that his embrace was certainly different to this and was not a function of political lobbying or that of policy making. Rather, it was the independent public profile of Namatjira that lead him to be accepted in the Australian nation.
IT WAS IN THE EARLY STAGES of the 1950s that I discovered Albert Namatjira’s keen interest in learning and studying was evident. It was through this and the style and colours of his artworks, that the public certainly began to respond positively to him. Namatjira was born and raised in Hermannsberg, a Lutheran Mission some 100km west of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory of Australia. Namatjira stepped outside from traditions and instead went for a more ‘European’ style of painting. Due to this link with European landscapes, Namatjira’s representations of the Australian Outback had become popular amongst his audience. Coastal audiences were intrigued by the Australian Outback, and Namatjira’s landscape paintings were one way that the public could learn and experience such land. This caused Albert Namatjira’s works to follow the 1950s pattern of widespread mass production.
I have also discovered that it was through his visibly close bond with the ‘white’ Melbourne artist Rex Battarbee, the public recognised that they could trust Namatjira despite his Aboriginal heritage. His paintings were growing in popularity not only for the appreciation of their aesthetic quality but also because he was an Aboriginal man showing the ability to master a Western artistic medium and style of painting.
Many have argued about the popularity of his work. At the time, some said it was the novelty of his black skin and some condemned the fact that he was an Aboriginal painting in western artistic media. It was also debated that Namatjira was becoming the first product of a successful Aboriginal assimilation into ‘White Society’. Nevertheless, this ‘successful assimilation’ of Albert Namatjira was used to his advantage in the media. Gathering greater support, Namatjira was becoming a household name. The public was beginning to love him.
MOVING INTO THE MID-FIFTIES I noticed a slight shift in the general acceptance of Albert Namatjira. The ‘fame’ factor had kicked in and the public embraced him even more so. His meeting with Queen Elizabeth II only aided the public’s ever-growing positive response toward him. Having the very public support of a national figurehead such as the Queen was awe-inspiring for many.
However life was not all fame and fortune for Namatjira. The portrayal of his ‘glamorous’ lifestyle was turned on its head when he, Australia’s most successful Aboriginal artist, was found to be living in a state of poverty. The public began to express outrage at the situation – empathy was now involved.
Namatjira ‘has probably done more, through his work, than any other individual to bring a change of heart and attitude towards his people’
Mary Durack Miller (1952)
IT IS IN THE LATE 1950s around the time that Albert Namatjira was granted citizenship, that a new wave of recognition surrounded the artist. Empathetic to his situation, being found in poverty and then being arrested, his audience began fighting for Albert Namatjira. Newspaper articles that I found from 1958, all alluded to the public’s keen attention and empathy toward the Aboriginal artist.
During the later years of Albert Namatjira’s life, Australia was conceptualising and realising the ever-growing need in relation to the necessary reformulation of the rights of Indigenous people. Nevertheless, Albert Namatjira’s contribution to both Aboriginal Art and the rights of Indigenous people across Australia will never be forgotten. He is now a celebrated and renowned figure in the history of the Australian nation and its struggle with finding the balance between the ‘white’ and ‘indigenous’ cultures living harmoniously together as one.
‘He was definitely the beginning of a recognition of Aboriginal people by white Australia’
Further Reading and Viewing
Haebich, Anna, 2008, Imagining assimilation, Australian Historical Studies, Volume 33, Issue 118, pp. 61-70
McConaghy, Cathryn, 2003, On Pedagogy, Trauma and Difficult Memory: Remembering Namatjira, Our Beloved, Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, Vol. 32, pp. 11-20
Wells, Julie & Michael Christie, 2000, Namatjira and the burden of Citizenship , Australian Historical Studies, Volume 31, Issue 114, pp. 110-130
McGregor, Russell, 2011, Indifferent inclusion, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra
Film and Websites
Forster, Ralph (Producer), Namatjira the painter (1947), Australian National Film Board Production, http://http://www.abc.net.au/aplacetothink/#watch/mh_1940/namatjira/watchVideo
Artists Footsteps – http://www.artistsfootsteps.com/html/Artists_Namatjira.htm