The life and work of Albert Namatjira have left a lasting legacy for artists throughout the country. Visit our new Collection display ‘Indigenous Australian Collection: Namatjira Story‘ which features both early works by Albert Namatjira alongside artworks by those he influenced.
As a boy in the 1950s, Ginger Riley Munduwalawala, a Mara painter from the Gulf of Carpentaria, met Albert Namatjira. For many artists, Namatjira’s use of non-traditional colours and techniques was a liberating influence and, when Riley took up painting later in life, his richly toned landscapes, which place his ancestors within their country, were lauded around the world.
Lin Onus, a Yorta Yorta artist from Victoria, achieved acclaim for paintings of his country around the Barmah Forest on the Murray River, which combined elements of landscape painting, realism and various Aboriginal painting styles. His references to the landscape painting style were influenced by Aboriginal artists such as Nyoongar artist Revel Cooper and Koori artist Ronald Bull.
Aboriginal artists from across the country were active in the post-Namatjira period, many of them adopting his style as an Aboriginal painting style before the rise in popularity of the dot painting style in the late 1970s.
Billy Benn Perrurle, an Anmatyerr man from Central Australia, also recalled meeting Albert Namatjira as a boy. Benn was taught by his elder sisters Ally and Gladdy Kemarre to paint on his body in the ‘Utopia’ style, but it was in an expressionistic landscape style that he made his mark. His influences ranged from the Hermannsburg School, whose artists were renowned in the Alice Springs town camps where Benn began making his works, to the Chinese calligraphic traditions taught to him by the Chinese wife of a mica miner.
The Hermannsburg School of watercolour painting is the longest continuing contemporary Aboriginal art movement, spanning the period from the mid 1930s to today. This important movement was established at Ntaria (Hermannsburg) before moving to Alice Springs, 125 kilometres to the east. Here, the families of the original painters have continued the tradition, living and working in squalid ‘town camps’. While the movement endures as a significant genre in contemporary Australian art, the Gallery had acquired only a small group of seven works by the current generation of watercolour painters. The acquisition of this comprehensive collection of works from the current and recent generations of artists, courtesy of Glenn Manser, greatly adds to our strong holdings of early works, making the Gallery’s historical to- contemporary Hermannsburg School collection the strongest nationally.
After a rise in popularity through the 1950s and 60s, most artists of the Hermannsburg School moved from the Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission to Alice Springs, effectively shifting the movement. These artists moved to town in search of a better life for their families after restrictions were lifted on the movements of Aboriginal people. However, prejudice prevailed and access to housing and basic services was limited, with many people forced to live in makeshift corrugated iron huts along the river and creek beds on the outskirts of town. Today, many descendants of these artists live in these same town camps around Alice Springs. Importantly, family and tradition have remained strong, allowing the Hermannsburg School to survive today. Family remains important in the group, with many artists from the original painting families — Namatjira, Pareroultja, Rubuntja — showing the influence of their antecedents while still developing their own distinct styles.
Lenie Namatjira was born in Raggats Well, Glen Helen Station — the subject of the work illustrated here — Glen Helen Station 2010. A granddaughter to Albert Namatjira and daughter to Oscar, whose works are also in the Collection, she paints in their tradition, creating watercolours of the landscape west of Hermannsburg. Many of Lenie’s works are drawn from childhood memories of her country. Oscar Namatjira returned to his family at the Hermannsburg Mission and took up painting, like his father, after attending the mission school and completing three years of service in the Army Labour gang. For a year, he acted as his father’s truck driver, driving the artist and his supplies to different painting locations. Oscar learnt from his father and became a skilled practitioner in his own right. He also raised a large family, Lenie being one of ten children. She and her siblings (Euphrene, Reginald, Saleen, Wallace, Albert Jr, Marcia, Donald, Rosabelle, Gwenda and Bessie) were all raised at Hermannsburg.1
Although the Western Desert acrylic ‘dot’ paintings, which originated at Papunya in the early 1970s, have overshadowed the watercolour tradition in recent times, appreciation is again increasing, mainly due to the dedication of the artists and the creation of the Ngurratjuta Iltja Ntjarra/Many Hands Art Centre in 2002 — the centenary year of the birth of Albert Namatjira, the most well-known artist of the Hermannsburg School. Many Hands provides long-term support for artists from the Western Arrernte region, including descendants of the School. Here, the artists continue painting their country in the Arrernte tradition of their kin, creating strong and dynamic pictorial representations of country.
Endnote 1 Drawn from ‘Lenie Namatjira: Biography’, Iltja Ntjarra Many Hands Art Centre, Alice Springs, 2017, manyhandsart.com.au/artist/lenie-namatjira, accessed 13 January 2017.
Glenn Manser’s support of the Collection’s Indigenous Australian art holdings — to which he has recently contributed 119 watercolours by Arrernte artists from the Northern Territory — reflects his longstanding relationship with the Gallery.
DELVE DEEPER INTO the Hermannsburg School and THE australian collection
Bruce McLean is Curator, Indigenous Australian Art
Feature image: Lenie Namatjira’s Glen Helen Station (detail) 2010
Albert Namatjira (28 July 1902 – 8 August 1959) was a Western Arrernte-speaking Aboriginal artist from the MacDonnell Ranges, west of Alice Springs in Central Australia. His Western-style landscapes, different from traditional Aboriginal art, made him a celebrated pioneer of contemporary Indigenous Australian art in the 1950s and the most famous Indigenous Australian of his generation.
In 1934, in a small room of the local Hermannsburg Mission where he lived, Namatjira viewed an exhibition of watercolour paintings by Melbourne artist Rex Battarbee. Struck by their depictions of his country, he began to teach himself to paint landscapes and in 1936 he accompanied Battarbee as a guide on a painting trip through the Western MacDonnell Ranges.
He quickly developed a unique style and his paintings became popular throughout Australia, though critics were divided. Superficially, his landscapes appeared conventionally rendered, but he painted ‘his country’ – places imbued with his ancestral connections.
Namatjira’s fame grew during the 1950s and he was feted on visits to the east coast. In 1953 he was awarded the Queen’s Coronation Medal, and the following year he met the Queen. In 1956, Sir William Dargie’s Portrait of Albert Namatjira won the Archibald Prize.
In 1957, Albert Namatjira and his wife Rubina were the first Aboriginal people granted Australian citizenship. Yet, despite fame and citizenship, his life remained heavily controlled, reflecting the tragic gap between the rhetoric and reality of Australia’s assimilation policies. By the end of the 1950s, his family was living in a creek bed on the outskirts of Alice Springs. In 1959, at the age of 57, Namatjira died of what his community considered a ‘broken heart’.
A skilled artist and a proud Arrernte (Aranda) elder, Albert Namatjira continues to inspire. A school of painting has formed around him, and many artists have been compelled to tell his story through their own works.
The story of Judy Watson’s tow row transcends its physical form and speaks of cultural retrieval and community activation. This stunning work, generously funded by the Queensland Government, the Neilson Foundation, Cathryn Mittelheuser, AM, and others, is a fitting acknowledgment of the ancestor spirit of Kurilpa.
Public art has the power to change the cultural landscape in which it stands. Recently, Judy Watson’s impressive cast bronze sculpture, tow row, was installed in the forecourt of GOMA. Watson’s work was the recipient of the Queensland Indigenous Artist Public Art Commission (QIAPAC), a competitive process that would ultimately see a major work by an established Queensland contemporary artist of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage take pride of place at the entrance to GOMA. The commission is part of a broader project in which the Gallery engages with Indigenous art, culture and community, as highlighted by the recent adoption of its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Engagement Strategy.
Watson’s sculpture is a reimagination of a traditional fishing net used by Aboriginal people, including on the Brisbane River, barely 100 metres away. The nets, locally known as ‘tow row’, were used to scoop up fish near the banks of the river, or to catch entire schools of fish in smaller creeks, where fishermen would stand midstream during the dropping tide, trapping the fish. Traditionally, this type of fishing was the work of men, and senior fishermen took pride in large bone callouses developed by binding the wooden armature of the nets to their wrists and forearms.1
The importance of the correlation between past, present and future is acknowledged by Watson who, in her initial proposal, noted that:
[The] use of fibre and water as the conduit for catching fish evokes ideas of sustenance, family, culture, survival. The fragility of the object cloaks its hidden strength, a metaphor for the resilience of Aboriginal people who have held onto the importance of land, culture and family through adversity and deprivation. It will be a lasting memory of the indelible Aboriginal presence that is a part of this shared space.
tow row, like so many of Watson’s public works, was the product of a robust, collaborative exchange. No tow row is known to have been made in the last half century, so Watson engaged local Quandamooka weaver Leecee Carmichael and together they examined the weaving techniques of local nets in the Queensland Museum. Carmichael recreated the knotting techniques to make an enormous net with the help of numerous members of local Indigenous and non- Indigenous communities, which was then cast in bronze by UAP (Urban Art Projects), an internationally recognised local foundry with whom Watson has worked for over 20 years.
Mogwaidja is the local language term for the story/place of the spirits of ancestors, equivalent to the dreaming. It explains that the Mogwai (ancestor) whose spirit imbues this area is Kuril, a young female weaver. And so this sculpture of a woven object, and its permanent home at the entrance of one of Kurilpa’s most significant institutions, seems a fitting acknowledgment to the story of this place.
The story of Watson’s work is one that transcends its physical form and speaks of cultural retrieval and community activation. By creating this contemporary public sculpture, Watson enables us to glance at the history of the site. She has also encouraged the renewal of a weaving and netting tradition dormant for decades, and allows us to see a present where local Indigenous art, culture and traditions can stand strong and proud alongside — and in front of — some of the world’s greatest contemporary art at GOMA.
Endnote 1 Constance Campbell Petrie, Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1992 (first published 1904), p.73.
QAGOMA is appreciative of funding from the Queensland Government and generous philanthropic support from the Neilson Foundation, Cathryn Mittelheuser, AM, Gina Fairfax, and Professor Susan Street, AO, who have made this Commission possible.
Bruce McLean is Curator, Indigenous Australian Art
Bruce McLean travelled north to Mornington Island to visit the family of Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori in preparation for the major exhibition ‘Dulka Warngiid – Land of All’. As part of his trip, Bruce was taken to Bentinck Island, Sally Gabori’s country, to view the places that were so important to her.
Our trip to Bentinck was arranged by the Mornington Island Art Centre, and a large group of artists and family were looking forward to returning to Bentinck for a few nights’ camp. The community’s largest boat was singled out, but at the eleventh hour, a shortage of medication scuppered the trip. Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori’s family were particularly disappointed, but there was much to do on Mornington and there was hope that other opportunities would arise. In these communities, an open and optimistic outlook is a necessity.
The next morning the sky was moody. Strange bursts of wind and short outbreaks of showers greeted an early morning Nescafé. The culprit soon revealed itself as the Morning Glory — the giant roll cloud the gulf is famous for — which quickly swept over, leaving calm in its wake. My first stop was the community lawyer, who worked with the Gabori family to administer Sally Gabori’s estate and who also worked closely with the wider Kaiadilt community. On hearing that the planned trip to Bentinck was no longer proceeding, we jumped in a Land Cruiser and soon arrived at a well-kept house with a beautifully tended garden fringed with fruit trees, and importantly, a boat parked out front. The house belonged to one of Mrs Gabori’s grandchildren, and the largish ‘tinny’ was reportedly a gift after Gabori won the Rockhampton Art Gallery’s Gold Award in 2012. After a short negotiation, plans were made to travel to the island in the family tinny in two days’ time.
Late on the Thursday morning, we set off from Gununa. The tinny accommodated seven passengers fairly comfortably. Our guides for the day were Sally Gabori’s youngest son, Maxwell, her nephew Gerald Loogatha, and Maxwell’s young son, Brian. We set out from Mornington Island and the Wellesley Islands, through an hour of open sea, out of sight of any land, then through the outer Kaiadilt islands of the South Wellesleys — first Horseshoe and Allen to our south, Douglas, Percy and Dorothy (Dorati) to our north, then a large land mass came into view in the distance: Dulka Warngiid, the home island of the Kaiadilt people.
We motored up beside another island, which was covered in mangrove and she-oak stands. The island, Dalwai (Albinia), was the birthplace of Sally Gabori’s mother. It heralds a long, shallow sand flat that stretches all the way to the main island, teeming with dugong and bonefish. We continued on to Minakuri, the westernmost part of Bentinck Island, where we are greeted by a basic camp — essentially an open pergola structure.
From Minakuri we headed south. As we travelled, we were pushed further south by rows of extraordinary rocky outcrops. We pass the Mackenzie River, the base of one of the few white men to settle on the island and who, like many European settlers, treated the local people harshly, culminating in the ‘Mackenzie Massacre’ of the Kaiadilt.
We soon passed Kombali, one of two large rivers that divides the island in two during the wet season and leaves a vast claypan through its centre in the dry season. The recession of the Kombali and Makarrki rivers gives rise to stark contrasts between the red clay, white salt, yellow, red and black rocks and ridges, and green mangrove stands, which have inspired many of Gabori’s paintings. Navigating the largest of the southern headlands, we entered a large bay, framed by Barthayi (Fowler Island) to the south. Extremely shallow, its sandy bottom is dotted with vibrant soft coral that we cruise just inches above. Dozens of turtles shoot away from the noise of the approaching boat. Ahead of us, at the mouth of a small creek, is Mirdidingki, the site of Sally Gabori’s birth. The place of her husband’s birth, Kabararrji (Kabaratji), is next to her country. Somewhat poetically, as with their birthplaces, the pair spent their lives by each other’s side.
Further east, we set off toward ‘Main Base’, the largest of the Kaiadilt homelands established at Nyinyilki, near the very southeastern point of Bentinck. Halfway along the bay we spotted a series of long, narrow underwater discolorations — sandbanks stretching from the coast at Thubalkarruwu to Thuwalt on Barthayi. Unfortunately, we were unable to visit Nyinyilki, the place of the rectangular freshwater lagoon celebrated by Mrs Gabori in some of her greatest paintings. Although there is a moment of disappointment, this moment in the daily tidal cycle of the island provides a great insight into Gabori’s paintings: the massive sandbar that has blocked our path traces its way elegantly through the crystal-clear waters of the bay in a giant ‘W’. As the water forces its way over its peaks, it turns from baby blue to perfectly transparent to white. This transition of colour and form abounds in Sally Gabori’s paintings. Nyinyilki 2012 is particularly evocative of this phenomenon and place, with its bold central ‘W’ form.
Retracing our steps out of the bay, we round Barthayi and Bardathurr, a large hill at the southern point of Sweers Island, comes into view. At its base is a freshwater spring, the resting place of the Rock Cod ancestor, Dibirdibi. Sally Gabori’s husband, Pat — whose totem was Dibirdibi — was the owner of this story and its storyplace, which were major themes in her work. To the south of Dibirdibi is a large exposed reef, Dingkari, which is the artist’s grandfather’s country and was also a key subject. The boat turned north into the channel between Bentinck and Sweers Islands, a pathway originally carved by Dibirdibi in the ancestral narrative. It was also in this area that Mathew Flinders anchored the Investigator for 15 days in 1802, and today it bears the name Investigator Road. We made a stop at the small fishing resort on Sweers Island, the place of a failed white settlement, Carnarvon. Here, at Milt (Inscription Point), a sheltered harbour is protected from the main channel by a long strand, which is covered in tiny shells. As we depart Milt, a school of tuna throw themselves out of the water in pursuit of baitfish, just feet from the boat. I am reminded of Gabori’s early ‘Plenty fish’ works, which show the ripples of their frenzied feeding, the shockwaves of their breaches crashing into those of the others just inches away. After a furious few minutes, the school moved on and we continued up the passage.
After a slow journey over miles of barely submerged reef, we hit deeper water as we rounded the northern point of a huge reef called Karuwai, which stands at least three metres out of the water, before heading towards Rukuthi (Oak Tree Point), the northern tip of the island. Sharp rocks and reefs fringe the coast, making it impossible to get closer than a few hundred metres from land, but from here, a different landscape emerges — rolling sandhills with scrubby vegetation rise behind stands of coastal casuarinas on long sandy beaches. This is where Sally Gabori’s family spent much of their time before being moved to Mornington Island in the late 1940s.
As we passed the northern tip of the island, we found ourselves surrounded to the north by ever more impressive reefs that towered above us like buildings, some crowned by small stands of casuarina or mangrove. As the peninsular drops away, a massive sand and mud flat emerges which stretches for hundreds of metres, buffering us from the north-western parts of the island. This area, and particularly the two river areas herein —Thundi and Makarrki, her father and brother’s countries, respectively — were particularly important in Sally Gabori’s life and her paintings. From our vantage point, the mouths of these rivers blended into the coastline behind a fence of stilted mangroves.
With the realisation that we would be unable to make land again today, and with the sun fading in the western Gulf, we started the long journey back to Gununa. To the east, the sky began to light up with stars, while the setting sunlight glowed through bushfire haze from Mornington. We powered across the now-millpond seas back to Gununa, where our night-time arrival was eagerly awaited by our colleagues from the art centre.
Depicting a specific tract of land and its waterways in the Cape York region, leading to a site of significance to Mavis Ngallametta, Wutan #2 is the seventh work by this artist in the Collection and is a sister work to Ngak-pungarichan (Clearwater) 2013, on permanent display in our Indigenous Australian Art gallery. The Gallery has acquired this extraordinary work through the generosity of Cathryn Mittelheuser, AM.
One of the key works in the recently installed permanent Indigenous Australian art gallery is a sprawling landscape, dominated by browns and bauxite red fields, cut by lines of stark white pigment. The work, Ngak-pungarichen (Clearwater) 2013, by western Cape York artist Mavis Ngallametta, depicts a special site in her Kugu country and has become an instant favourite of many visitors. And so it has been with Mavis’s painting career — her unorthodox and highly idiosyncratic paintings, bustling with energy and life have seen her achieve a distinguished place among the top contemporary Australian painters a mere seven years after first putting paintbrush to canvas. Previously, Ngallametta was renowned as one of the Cape’s great weavers; like other senior Aboriginal weavers who have turned to painting relatively late in life, her works have a rhythmic linear complexity, evocative of her longer established cultural practices.
Recently, the Gallery has acquired a second painting by Ngallametta to accompany Ngak-pungarichen, as we continue to develop our strong holdings of major works by senior Cape York artists. This new work, Wutan #2 2014, is a large portrait-format landscape that uses its height to chart a tract of land and water, from tiny inland streams through to wild rivers and rivulets, to the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria, where Wutan — an historically, culturally and personally significant site — sits at the mouth of the Archer River.
Wutan’s position at the mouth of one of the Cape’s great wild rivers ensured a rich hunting and story place for the local Wik and Kugu people. It was also the site of a radar station established by the Royal Australian Air Force in 1943, and locals have related stories of Japanese submarines entering the Archer River at this site. Many local men joined the Australian Armed Forces, working alongside their Torres Strait Islander neighbours in the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion to protect the maritime borders of far north Queensland.
But for Ngallametta, Wutan has significance as a site of personal interaction — during the mission time, the school children would camp there. It is also her adopted son Edgar’s country, and he has moved back to manage the area. Ngallametta has said:
[Wutan] is my adopted son Edgar’s traditional place. He built a little shed there, it is a nice fishing place. For me it takes me right back to the time when I used to go here on school holiday. And I still go there now often. Even my friends who I take there enjoy it. Still today we like to go to that place, camping, fishing. There used to be a big coconut plantation. There is a well with fresh water. It is still there. That’s what we used to water the coconuts with. There used to be a boys dormitory where the point is a little further. We used to go schooling there when they were building the dormitories in Aurukun. We use to go to Amban, and then cross the river in dugout canoes. On Saturdays they used to bring us the rations. There were also lots of mango trees. There is one left now, a new shoot from the old days by the well. There were lots of banana trees, too. Every Sunday we swapped: People from Aurukun came and the ones at Wutan went back to Aurukun.1