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Albert Namatjira: The Most Celebrated Aboriginal Artist

Albert Namatjira: The Most Celebrated Aboriginal Artist

Picture of Monique La Terra
Updated: 1 December 2016
Albert Namatjira is one of Australia’s most celebrated artists and the most significant Aboriginal artist of the twentieth century. Influenced by Western art, his watercolour depictions of the Australian bush made him a household name and helped pave the way for Aboriginal rights.


On the 28th of July 1902 Elea Namatjira was born into the Arrernte community at the Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission, near Alice Springs, Northern Territory. Elea was baptised after his parents converted to Christianity and he was renamed Albert. Raised within the realm of western-culture Albert knew little of his traditional background until the age of thirteen when he travelled into the bush and was initiated into the Arrernte community where he lived for six months and was taught the culture, customs and traditions by tribal elders. In his late teens he married Ilkalita (Rubina) of the neighboring Luritja community. With the birth of his children came responsibility, leading Albert to take odd jobs including working as a camel driver. It was around this time that he began painting and selling pieces of artwork inspired by the landscapes he saw while working in the desert.

In 1934 Namatjira met Rex Battarbee, an artist from Melbourne, who was visiting Hermannsburg. Battarbee tutored Namatjira and exposed him to western-style art and watercolors. In 1936 Battarbee returned to Hermannsburg looking to capture the Central Australian landscape in his own paintings and Namatjira acted as his guide.

With the encouragement and help of Battarbee Namatjira held his first exhibition two years later in Melbourne. Namatjira’s paintings were colourful depictions of Australian landscapes, which differed in style to traditional Indigenous artwork. Instead of being abstract, as many Aboriginal paintings are, his paintings took on a contemporary aesthetic with the use of contrasts. Namatjira was also fascinated with capturing trees in his artwork, which is especially evident in his piece Ghost Gum Glen Helen 1945-49.

Following his successful Melbourne exhibition Namatjira exhibited his work in Adelaide and Sydney. As he continued to paint his popularity and wealth began to rise, which in turn subjected him to humbugging, an act of begging. As a member of the Arrernte community Namatjira was expected to share his wealth and at one stage he was supporting over 600 people. To help ease the financial burden brought upon by his community Namatjira planned to lease a cattle station. In 1949 these plans were granted but a year later the lease was rejected.

In 1953, at the height of his career, Namatjira was awarded the Queen’s Coronation Medal. He went on to meet on to meet Queen Elizabeth II, one of his biggest fans, on Canberra in 1954. Two years later his portrait painted by William Dargie won the Archibald Prize. Dargie became the first Aboriginal painter to win the prestigious award.

Soon after, Namatjira sought to build a home for his family in Alice Springs, but as Aboriginal peoples this proved difficult due to the terms of the Aboriginals Ordinance (NT) 1918–1947. Despite being heralded as a great Australian artist Namatjira had no choice but to move into a neglected shanty in Morris Soak with his family.

When the public learnt about the conditions of poverty in which Namatjira lived, they took action and by 1957 the government granted full citizenship rights to both he and his wife which entitled them to vote, buy alcohol, and buy land on which he could build a house. These simple rights were a momentous achievement, because until then Aboriginal peoples had been given very few rights.

Albert Namatjira with Jack Kramer and Frank Sedgman | © M0tty/WikiCommons

Albert Namatjira with Jack Kramer and Frank Sedgman | © M0tty/WikiCommons

Just like with his money, many in the community exploited his new-found entitlements. Namatjira and his wife were legally permitted to buy and consume alcohol but fellow Aboriginal peoples were not; however, as a member of the Arrernte he was required to share his possessions. In 1958 Namatjira was charged with providing alcohol to Aboriginal peoples which had led to the death of a woman, Fay Iowa, in Morris Soak. He was charged by Jim Lemaire, the Stipendiary Magistrate, for allowing Henoch Raberaba access to alcohol and was sentenced to six months in prison by the Supreme Court. After public outcry Namatjira was moved to Papunya Native Reserve to serve his sentence, but was released after two months due to medical issues.

Soon after his release Namatjira suffered a heart attack and was transferred to a hospital in Alice Springs where he died of heart disease and pneumonia on the 8th of August 1959 at the age of fifty seven. Before his death Namatjira presented his long-time mentor and friend Rex Battarbee with three paintings. One of his most notable paintings Mt Hermannsburg was painted only two years before his death and highlights how his talents never ceased to develop.

Albert Namatjira became one of Australia’s most iconic painters and his depictions of Central Australia’s rugged terrain are on display at art galleries across the country. During his life he created approximately two thousand works of art and has continued to inspire his descendants and others to paint. Namatjira was also a pioneer of Aboriginal rights and brought attention to the lack of rights Aboriginal peoples had during his lifetime. In 1968 Australia Post honoured him with a postage stamp and in 1993 stamps featuring his work were issued. Namatjira has also inspired Australian songwriters and is mentioned in songs by Midnight Oil, Slim Dusty, and in Bruce Woodley of The Seekers masterpiece ‘I Am Australian’ in the lyrics ‘I am Albert Namatjira, and I paint the ghostly gums.’ Sadly, the two gum trees that Namatjira often painted were destroyed in an arson attack; however, his artworks live on.