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.
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Bruce McLean is Curator, Indigenous Australian Art