The narratives of Albert Namatjira.
In 2014 Parliament House in Canberra hosted an exhibition of works from the Hermannsburg School, celebrating the legacy of Albert Namatjira for five generations of watercolourists from Central Australia. This was, one hopes, a positive instance in a long line of dealings between various Australian governments and the Namatjira family. But it has never been an easy relationship. A substantial body of work has been devoted to Australia's first 'famous' Aboriginal artist, Albert Namatjira. Despite some inevitable contradiction, the theme of the ongoing struggle of a member of a marginalised 'race' against the restrictions imposed by successive Western governments is consistently repeated. In many ways, the changing attitudes towards Albert Namatjira and his work reflect broader shifts within Australian society (Kleinert 2000:217). But Namatjira was more than a litmus test for Australia's relationship with its First Nations peoples. As McLean (1998:103) argues, Namatjira was instrumental in changing those attitudes. Yet persistent discourses maintain a subservient place for Namatjira in the public perception, discourses founded upon contemporary attitudes that endure, even in light of recent scholarship to the contrary. Our paper attempts to disclose those attitudes and identify the way in which they still remain within current discourses. Our study pertains to the public narrative evident in the written record and in no way pertains to the private, personal story of Albert Namatjira or of his family. We cite Namatjira's biography only to balance the persistent narratives raised to uphold certain power over, and ownership of, his work where none would be applied to white artists of comparable fame or ability.
The story of Namatjira's life provides a context by which we can judge the real influences that shaped his art. These influences include the broad policy directions governing Aboriginal people, his upbringing on a Lutheran mission and the 'white' artist who introduced him to the water-colour medium. We argue that the most significant influence on Namatjira's artistic expression was his deep connection to country that typifies Aboriginal spirituality. His choice of a Western art form does not contradict this thesis.
'Traditional' Aboriginal creative expression was not accepted as 'art' during Namatjira's lifetime. Thus his use of watercolours enabled his work to be accepted as art, but it also provoked a contemporary denial of Aboriginal influence in his paintings, arguing it to be 'mimicking' the work of his 'white' teacher. His paintings were classified as 'Western art' according to its pictorial medium, not Aboriginal, which was often determined at the time as 'primitive' and unchanging or 'static', an attitude that was essentialised onto Aboriginal people themselves. Such a dichotomy between 'civilised' white culture and 'primitive' Aboriginal culture has its roots in the writings of Hobbes (1968:186), whose stated sense of 'natural life' is a state of war--'solitary, poore [sic], nasty, brutish and short'--and even in Rousseau (1984), who reversed Hobbes' status of civilisation/primitive but maintained its strict dichotomy. Hobbes' view was given further impetus by social Darwinism (McLean 1998:66) in characterising 'traditional' or 'primitive' cultures as static and, therefore, incapable of positive evolution. Several profoundly complex factors contributed to Namatjira's artistic vision, and the 'caught between two cultures' view--and its attendant dichotomies--are revealed to be simplistic and unhelpful.
The story of Albert Namatjira
Elea (Albert Namatjira) was born in 1902 at the Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission on the Finke River, 130 kilometres from Alice Springs in Central Australia (Megaw and Megaw 1992:3). His parents, Namatjira and Ljukuta, of the Western Arremte clan, had arrived at the mission earlier the same year (French 2002:2). Like many Aboriginal people, they moved in from the bush to escape the danger and economic hardship created by pastoral expansion into their area. Elea was baptised 'Albert' in 1905, in the same ceremony that gave his parents the names of 'Jonathon' and 'Emily' (French 2002:2).
As was usual on Aboriginal missions of that period, Albert spent his school years living in the boys' dormitory, separated from his family (Megaw and Megaw 1992:3). The Lutherans proved more benign than many other missionary regimes: they taught and preached in the local language. At 13 Albert left the mission for six months to undergo traditional initiation. As he grew up, he worked as a camel driver, stockman and blacksmith, and he left the mission at the age of 18 to elope with Ilkalita (later baptised Rubina). Namatjira returned to the safety of the mission in 1922, seeking shelter for his wife and family (Megaw and Megaw 1992:4).
While the mission afforded protection from many of the vicissitudes of the world beyond, its ability to care for its charges was diminished by inadequate funding. A third of the Aboriginal inhabitants of the mission on the Finke River died of scurvy during the 1920s drought (ABC 2003b). This degree of poverty motivated the head of the mission, Pastor Albright, to develop industries that would supplement its income. The establishment of air services to Alice Springs in 1928 and the arrival of the railhead in 1929 had opened Central Australia to tourism for the first time (Megaw and Megaw 1992:4). One of the mission's initiatives was the production of 'poker work plaques', using heat to engrave decorative designs on wood (Megaw and Megaw 1992:4). This endeavour quickly revealed Namatjira's artistic flair. He was 'one of the most skilful and persistent workers' and proved himself 'responsive to the market' by replacing traditional designs with naturalistic scenes (Megaw and Megaw 1992:4). His exposure to Western modes of depiction had begun with the faded monochrome illustrations in the mission bibles (Carter 1996:43), some woodcuts by Durer, some engravings of Tintoretto. The biblical reference within Namatjira's paintings is no mere casual remark by Strehlow (in Carter 1996), in which Blind Moses appeared 'just like one of the early pictures of the Disciples', which discloses the strong Christian imagery derived from the formative influence of the Hermannsburg Mission bibles.
The incursion of the railway, a product of European indifference to the 'lie of the land' (Carter 1996), also brought many artists to Central Australia. It was a visit to the mission by the painters Rex Battarbee and John Gardner in 1934 that sparked Namatjira's interest in water-colour painting (Megaw and Megaw 1992:4). Upon seeing some of Battarbee's works displayed at the mission, Namatjira asked what price the paintings could command. On learning that they received the princely sum of five guineas, he insisted that he could paint that way (ABC 2003b). The mission pastor expressed misgivings but Namatjira was convinced that he could master the style. According to the official record, it was another two years before Namatjira's ambition could be realised, when Battarbee returned in 1936. He offered his services as a camel driver for the painting expedition in return for artistic materials and tuition. Within two months, the student had surpassed his teacher (Mordue 2015).
The primary claim for teaching Namatjira to paint is made by Rex Battarbee (Megaw and Megaw 1992:4). However, in an interview on ABC Radio in 1952, Namatjira modestly downplayed his influence (ABC 2003b). He had been drawing before seeing Battarbee's work in 1934 and was impressed by his use of colour (ABC 2003b). Battarbee did not gain the same fame for his own art as did his pupil but remained a strong influence on Namatjira's life, organising exhibitions and managing the sale of his paintings, always acting as his primary agent (Megaw and Megaw 1992:4). Nevertheless, Battarbee maintained a superior (white) attitude towards Namatjira's artistic abilities (James 1998:172). The legitimacy of his control over Namatjira's work rested on his pivotal role in 'creating' the artist. He described how his own paintings had revealed the 'beauty and colour' of the landscape to Namatjira 'for the first time' (James 1998:172). But Namatjira remembered the moment quite differently. In his radio interview, he described Battarbee as the 'first man to see my country' (ABC 2003b). It was not the intrinsic beauty of the land that had been revealed to him, but a new method of grasping the essence of the country.
Namatjira's first paintings were simply signed 'Albert'. Anecdotal evidence suggests, however, that some of the early works simply signed 'Albert' predate the return of Battarbee to the mission in 1936. The Holyman family of Launceston proudly display an early Namatjira in their lounge room, which the family insists was bought from the artist prior to Battarbee's return in 1936 (personal communication, April and June 2004). It was not until Namatjira's first solo exhibition that he adopted his father's tribal name (Megaw and Megaw 1992:5-6). This choice has been explained from two positions. Megaw and Megaw (1992:6) considered it a marketing device: most professional painters use two names and an Aboriginal name accentuated the 'novelty' of the product. But McLean (1998:99-103) argues that the adoption of his father's tribal name as his patronym was an affirmation by Albert of his Aboriginality. Both explanations are probably true but one thing is not contested: there was no attempt to downplay or deny his Aboriginality. This signifies a positive shift in perception from his Aboriginality being an obstacle to success to it becoming advantageous.
In the early days of Namatjira's painting, his watercolours were 'under priced', based on the perception that they were just 'black fella paintings' (ABC 2003b). This changed as his work achieved popularity and increased in value. McCulloch (1968:398) noted that 'this initial success started a fashion which soon extended to the whole of Australia'.
One aspect of the popular acceptance of Namatjira's work is timing. His art developed in an era when the Australian psyche, in search of a distinct identity, began to embrace the central desert. The opening-up of the interior facilitated the emergence of the desert theme in Australian art. The introduction of the railway to Alice Springs in the late 1920s, which allowed access to the desert for artists such as Battarbee and Gardner, also established a tourist market for the Hermannsburg pokerwork plaques and water-colour paintings. Exhibitions of Namatjira's works were 'to some extent advertisements for an escape to winter sunshine' and his paintings were promoted by the tourism industry as pictorial souvenirs of Central Australia (Thomas 1986:22). There were few major art works depicting the Australian desert before the onset of the Second World War (McGrath and Olsen 1981:11). Until that time, most Australian landscapes tended to retain an echo of nostalgia for Britain. These included seascapes and rural or bush scenes in blues and greens (and the wetter lands of southeastern Australia), in a softer light that was more reflective of Britain than the harsher desert light. The post-Second World War era, when Namatjira began to seriously exhibit his art, was the beginning of the emergence of the desert as the 'heart' of Australian identity. Strong light, vibrant colours--in reds and browns--depicted the 'sunburnt country' so readily recognised today. The desert offered a uniquely Australian identity, becoming the ideological 'soul' of the nation (McGrath and Olsen 1981:11). Namatjira's work during this period shaped the perceptions of the public to the outback, once the 'dead centre'. His beautiful paintings of Australia's sunburnt heart touched a deep chord in the Australian psyche.
Albert Namatjira founded the Hermannsburg School of art, teaching members of his family and tribe to paint (Megaw and Megaw 1992:8), although Battarbee persisted in his claim that he was their sole teacher (Battarbee and Battarbee 1971). The Aboriginal artists at the mission anticipated that the demand for their work would increase their economic and personal autonomy. However, the battle for control over the art produced at the Hermannsburg Mission saw the artists' autonomy decrease, not increase. The mission controlled the income earned from the sale of their paintings (Megaw and Megaw 1992:8-10). The artists received credit at the mission store but had to justify the supply of further funds in terms of need. The dissatisfaction of the artists with this arrangement eventually led to the establishment of the Arrernte Arts Council. The council included three Aboriginal and six European members, with Rex Battarbee as its chairperson. Battarbee also retained control of pricing and retail sales of the paintings produced by the Aboriginal artists, including Albert Namatjira. The establishment of the council opened the artists' access to earnings from their paintings but an ongoing struggle over what was painted, and where, continued.
Ironically, Namatjira's artistic success has been used to defend the legitimacy of the assimilation policy (Megaw and Megaw 1992:9; McLean 1998:99), which aimed to suppress Aboriginal culture and its intergenerational transmission (James 1998:168). Namatjira was presented as an emblem of what the assimilation policy could achieve. His success was used to demonstrate that Aboriginal people, with the appropriate training, could become productive members of the broader Australian society. The ability of an Aboriginal person to learn and, indeed, to master a Western style of painting was considered proof that they could ultimately be incorporated into Australian society. Namatjira's adoption of a Western artistic style was considered a rejection of his Aboriginality and, therefore, a validation of assimilation (McLean 1998:102). The Eurocentric belief in the superiority of 'progressive' Western culture and in the static nature of Aboriginal culture led to the conclusion that the only thing Aboriginal about Namatjira's paintings was the artist (Morphy 1998:22).
The assimilation policy relied on the assumption that Aboriginal people would want to become 'white'. Namatjira displayed no such desire to deny his identity. He was offered 'honorary white status' several times but consistently refused the offer (ABC 2003b). Clearly, he understood the social restrictions this would impose. On the third occasion, he actually sued, unsuccessfully, to reject the 'honour'. The Administrator for the Director of Native Affairs expressed the view that an exemption from the provisions of the Aboriginals' Ordinance (2) would not be in Namatjira's best interests (Wise 1952:9-10). The fact that one of Australia's most famous artists held the status of a ward of the state due solely to his Aboriginality was becoming an embarrassment, both domestically and internationally. The media reported the incongruous extremes that characterised Namatjira's existence. For example, the Truth newspaper published an article titled 'From hero to untouchable', outlining the stark transition between his celebrity treatment in Sydney and his life in Alice Springs (Amadio 1986:11). The incongruity of Namatjira being liable to pay taxes on his now considerable income, while being ineligible to vote, purchase alcohol or even enter town limits, was widely publicised (Wise 1952: 10). The contradiction of Namatjira's success and his incapacity to freely enjoy it was not lost on the Australian public. His story raised public awareness of the injustice caused by the marginalisation of Aboriginal Australians and increased pressure on the government to ameliorate Namatjira's position (McLean 1998:100). Clearly, the underlying motives for bestowing 'honorary white citizenship' upon Namatjira (against his own wishes) were political.
Notwithstanding his talent and obvious love of art, Namatjira painted through economic necessity (Jones 1992:100-20). Like most Aboriginal people during his lifetime, his economic opportunities were limited. Watercolour painting offered a pathway out of poverty. He possessed a keen understanding of the market and his paintings proved popular with the broader Australian society, ensuring his success (Megaw and Megaw 1992:4). But state officials often frustrated Namatjira's economic autonomy. His attempts to buy a house block in Alice Springs, a grazing licence north-west of Haasts Bluff and a copper mine were all thwarted by the Commission for Native Affairs (Wise 1952:11). The decisions were consistently justified on the basis of Namatjira's 'best interests'. Frank Wise (1952:11), the Administrator for the Commission, attributed responsibility for the decisions and their negative outcomes to Namatjira: 'he has never been prevented from bettering himself, except by his own limitations, and particularly by his continuing regard for tribal law, which compels him to share his belongings with his tribal relatives'.
By the time Namatjira had received citizenship, which might have ameliorated this oppressive financial control, he suffered from alcoholism (Amadio 1986:11). Thus, his capacity to execute his own affairs during the final years of his life had become severely diminished.
However, as Namatjira had recognised, 'honorary white status' was not in his best interests. Rubina, his wife, shared this citizenship but his children remained wards of the state. This meant they were not recognised as dependents for tax purposes nor were they eligible to inherit his estate upon his death (Amadio 1986:11). Furthermore, once 'white', he legally incurred alienation from his people and his country (Wise 1952:10). Although never enforced, his legal access to his tribal territory as a 'white' citizen was restricted. He also became subject to Australian law. This placed Namatjira in a difficult position. He still had to meet his kinship obligations to share freely with his family and he was now legally permitted--and financially able--to purchase alcohol (Amadio 1986:11). However, supplying Aborigines with alcohol was illegal.
Thus, the influx of significant income to one member of a kinship society that was largely economically dependent on the mission caused significant problems, perhaps exacerbating the abuse of alcohol within the Arrernte community. Characteristically, the problem was attributed to the essentialised incapacity of the 'inferior race' to cope, rather than the introduction of damaging substances or the imposition of culturally inappropriate social norms by the 'superior race'. McCulloch (1968:398) epitomised this attitude: 'Namatjira's use of [his] fortune followed the pattern which develops when primitive peoples try to cope with fortuitous success gained through contact with more sophisticated societies'.
Namatjira was charged with supplying alcohol to Aborigines and was sentenced to six months in prison, which was later reduced to three months (following two appeals) (Hasluck 1959:1). He served this sentence at Areyonga native reserve, which was described in a press release from the Minister for Territories as 'part of the tribal territory of Namatjira when he was an aboriginal' (Hasluckl959:l, our emphasis). This official press release, which denies Namatjira's Aboriginality and confirms his citizenship, blithely attributes its continuation to his failure to 'request himself to be placed under the provisions of the Welfare Ordinance' (Hasluck 1959:1).
Albert Namatjira died on 8 August 1959 at the age of 57 (ABC 2003b). It was widely considered that he died young. Unfortunately, 57 was then, and still is, within the average life expectancy for an Aboriginal man in 'modern' Australia (ABS 2011:4).
The influences on Namatjira's art
Albert Namatjira was born into a white Australia when the Aboriginal protection policy shaped all Aboriginal lives: when he and people like him, so-called 'full-bloods', were expected to 'die out' (McGregor 1997). He lived through the introduction of biological assimilation, 'breeding out the black strain' (Neville 1947), a new twist on the theme of eugenics, and its ideological shift to cultural assimilation (with little attendant change in practical application). How did an Aboriginal man become a household name in such circumstances? Namatjira's success undoubtedly owed much to his adoption of a Western medium but the answer is far more complex than that. Namatjira was not an artist's artist. He neither studied in a recognised academy nor pushed the boundaries of contemporary art. He learned to paint with 'only a few' lessons (ABC 2003b). Namatjira's choice of medium undermined his acceptance as a serious artist within the art world. Although many famous painters used watercolour, it nevertheless retains the aura of 'amateurism' (Thomas 1986:23). Watercolours fade when exposed to direct light, presenting a challenge to art galleries and museums, as they are more difficult to display and maintain. Namatjira's success grew from popular acclaim, not from the recognition of the art world or the academy.
Critical opinions of Namatjira's art during his lifetime arose from the beliefs and values of the broader society at that time. His vibrant palette confirmed assumptions of white superiority, as 'blacks liked strong colours because they lacked taste' (McQueen 2002:2). These critiques displayed prejudices primarily based on racial assumptions. A director of the National Gallery of Victoria regretted 'that an aborigine was producing a secondhand version of European art instead of developing his own native art' (in McGregor 2011:70). The view that his gift was for 'mimicry' rather than 'real' artistic expression reflected Darwinist theories that located Aboriginal people on the bottom rung of the evolutionary ladder (Darwin 1958:390; McLean 1998:66). The mimicry thesis has recently been restated, although in a much more uncertain manner and with infinitely greater subtlety by Paul Carter (1996:42-3). Rather than repeat a point he made in an earlier work--that Namatjira's works 'might conceal as much as they reveal...rather than represent a shared visual reality, they might mimic a European point of view and, by visualising the country in picturesque ways, perpetuate the white viewer's blindness to its special history' (Carter 1992 in Carter 1996:42)--Carter wanted to suggest a further point, that, though we might presume Namatjira's mimicry as the 'white' manner of depicting the land, we 'remain dupes of our own cultural frame of reference'. Yet, Carter advises us, Albert's so-called mimicry might have appeared very differently to the Central Australians. The 'native evangelists' (including Namatjira) might have thought their assumption of mimesis (i.e. mimicry) was an appropriation into their own tradition. Such appropriation is evident in the adoption of Christian names (e.g. 'Albert') while retaining their Aboriginal names (e.g. 'Elea') (Carter 1996:42-3). This double mimicry 'whereby the Aranda copied the other in order to reassert their own identities may be exemplified in the work of the Aranda watercolourists' (Carter 1996:43).
This post-modernist version of the mimicry thesis turns the tables on mimicry held in the pejorative but it persists in maintaining the centrality of the 'white point of view', if only to subvert its presumptions. It is not at all certain the pretensions of point of view, as in geometric depiction (which is an abstraction), actually applies to the presentation of the land, that in which one is intimately involved. Given the intensity in which all the Aranda watercolourists present their tribal lands, the presumption of a Western point of view cannot be made, even given the sophistication of the knowledge of land presented in the works. The subversion of the white point of view derives from a radically different relation with the land. Furthermore, the return to the same places, time and again, is itself indicative of this relation, much to the chagrin of art dealers. Perhaps they felt the same irritation at Monet's Rouen Cathedral series and waterlily paintings, or Cezanne's repeated return to the slopes of Mont Sainte-Victoire? It is perhaps unfair to identify the centrality of the white point of view within the double mimesis conception of Paul Carter, and we should see it as an attempt to disclose the (unconscious) subversion of Namatjira's paintings. We are inclined, however, to recognise the closure/disclosure intrinsic to the paintings as expressing a fundamentally Aboriginal sensibility, both positive (in what it unveils) and negative (in what must be withheld and veiled). Martin Heidegger identifies the unveiling and veiling manoeuvres of figurative art as typical of all (Western) art (Heidegger 1971:46-8), as Namatjira would have recognised so clearly in the artistic medium that he adopted.
His perceived failure to evolve was attributed to a 'primitive' culture, which was considered static and therefore incapable of adaptation or change (James 1998:170). From the perspective of art critics and the broader society, these assumptions effectively locked Aboriginal people and culture into the past, limiting their facility to learn and develop. And anything they did learn must necessarily be derived from the dynamic Western culture, not a static Indigenous culture. Rex Battarbee's claim that Namatjira had learned everything he had to teach him in two months, and decades later had not developed his style further, reflect these (self-interested) prejudices (Megaw and Megaw 1992:3). Battarbee wrote in his summary to the book Modern Aboriginal paintings (Battarbee and Battarbee 1971:n. p.):
Albert was anxious to learn watercolour techniques. I was uncertain how to teach him. I did not wish to divulge my own new method, but I knew that if I taught him in the traditional style he was intelligent enough to see the difference. So I decided that, for the sake of the Aborigines, I must teach my method to Albert at least. He learnt very quickly, absorbing my style and technique. This was helpful in one way, because it helped him to solve painting problems without difficulty, but caused him to forsake originality. When the critics analysed his work at his 1938 exhibition, they could see my influence and always remarked, 'So like his teacher.'
Battarbee's claim that his own art was the sole catalyst for Namatjira's adoption of watercolours is debatable. The influences shaping Namatjira's artistic expression were complex and not bound to a unilateral influence from a single individual. There were undoubtedly Western influences, including Battarbee. Although Namatjira was born to 'traditional' Aboriginal parents, they had adopted a 'white religion' through necessity (Megaw and Megaw 1992:3). He had a Christian upbringing and his first documented involvement in artistic expression (the poker craftwork) was actively encouraged by the mission (Thomas 1986:22). The mulga wood plaques produced for sale to tourists depicted religious themes, as well as desert animals and Aboriginal designs (French 2002:5). Namatjira had initiated and realised the Bible illustrations' figuration in an early monochrome method. But broader factors are also evident. The mission actively suppressed much Aboriginal culture at the period when Namatjira began painting in watercolour (Jones 1992:100). The practice of traditional ceremonies and customs was vigorously discouraged during this 'second wave' of cultural suppression. The missionary context, grinding poverty and dominant Protestant work ethic, clearly influenced Namatjira's adoption of a Western art style and motivated his prolific output, estimated at 2000 paintings (Megaw and Megaw 1992:1). However, Namatjira underwent his tribal initiation, like many on the mission. Discouraging though it was, the Hermannsburg Mission did not actually forbid traditional culture, as indicated by their translations of the Bible into Aboriginal languages.
During Namatjira's lifetime, traditional Aboriginal art was not viewed on an equal footing with Western art. Often, the term 'art' did not even encompass Indigenous creative expression. The market generally determines the basis of what constitutes 'art' and this was indeed the situation in Namatjira's case (McQueen 2002:2). His work received popular acclaim before receiving (grudging) acceptance by the art critic community. The term 'art', in a general sense, usually refers to enduring pieces, designed and created primarily for their aesthetic appeal (Morphy 1998:19-23). Therefore, a piece must be marketable in order to be accepted as 'art' according to Western standards. The majority of classical Aboriginal creative expression (except for rock engraving and painting) were ephemeral, made for specific purposes and then left or discarded (Morphy 1998:23; West 1988:8). Body painting, sand sculpture, song, dance and storytelling are examples of this fleeting form of creative expression (West 1988:8). Prior to the 1970s, traditional Aboriginal creative expression was primarily of interest only to anthropologists, as examples of primitive culture (Morphy 1998:22). Thus Aboriginal creative expression has only been accepted on an equal footing with Western art comparatively recently.
The presumption that primitive culture is static entails the assumption that all interaction between Western and Indigenous cultures simultaneously enriches the dominant culture while impoverishing the Aboriginal culture (Portella 2000:2). This enrichment is evident in the appropriation of Indigenous symbols or designs by artists such as Picasso (e.g. African mask designs appearing in his Les Demoiselles d'Avignon of 1907) or usually in the genre known as 'primitivism' (Kleinert 2000:218). This appropriation enhanced and extended the art in which it was employed (Jones 1992:102). The attitude is summed up very well by Mary Durack, who thought that Aboriginal advancement would never come with 'a further development of his [the Aborigine's] own art or even a new and interesting culture fusion' (in McGregor 2011:71). It was not the Aboriginal but the white artist, 'delighting in aboriginal design, often attracted also to the philosophy as reflected in the work, who effects the fusion of cultures' (in McGregor 2011:71). Durack believed that cultural fusions will only come when 'he [the Aborigine] has come round full cycle to look upon the religious symbols of his past with the eyes of the white man' (in McGregor 2011:71). Aboriginal people, she thought, were as yet unable to appreciate cultural traditions in the distanced, objectified manner of white people, and until they could their artistic expression was best confined to emulation. She considered Namatjira an excellent exponent of this. She dismissed all the 'idealists who believed that the aborigines might well keep the best of their own culture, blending it with the best of ours' (Durack in McGregor 2011:71). Aboriginal culture was 'an intricate mosaic of meaning only in its entirety'; it could not be combined bit by bit with other cultures (Durack in McGregor 2011:71). Aboriginal people themselves realised this, Durack (in McGregor 2011:71) claimed:
'Black-fellow humbug!' the modern native remarks, with a disparaging gesture towards a rock-face resplendent with stylized god-men and cultural heroes of the time long past that were to the ancestors the mainspring of life and religious inspiration. The modern aboriginal, in fact, regards the art of his forefathers rather as a snake that has shed its cast-off skin. He has grown out of it, and it is to him of no further use or interest.
But the static mimicry, claimed for Namatjira's art by Battarbee and Durack, does not hold up to scrutiny of the art itself. The retrospective of Namatjira's art (French 2002) held at the National Gallery of Australia in 2002 revealed an artist developing his mode of expression across a lifetime of creative activity, exploring new ways to depict his country. Battarbee might have taught Namatjira his watercolour technique, as he claimed, but the manner of depiction is more than a product of technique; it features pictorial, subject and self-expression, which is enabled by technique but far from limited to technique. Martin Heidegger (1971:35-9) marked the medium of the work of art as the technicality that lets the work 'be' but the artwork takes us much further by being 'the truth of beings setting itself to work'; its truth does not lie merely in its technical reality: art is truth setting itself to work (Heidegger 1971:35-9). Namatjira was a product of his milieu in terms of his technical skill but he was no mere mimic of Battarbee. Like many students of art, his work shows the influence of his teachers, especially during his early years, but he clearly outgrew them as he developed his own artistic practice (French 2002).
In his extensive biographical work Battarbee and Namatjira (2014), Martin Edmond often restates many of these conventional narratives of Namatjira and his art delivered through comments by contemporary critics and reviewers, all maintaining similar persistent views to those of Durack. For example, we discovered the restatement of the mimicry thesis, often in different terminology, in a number of places throughout this work, which reveals the author's considerable eye for detail but not for the general historical bias underlying the statements of his interlocutors. Repeating a conventional formula numerous times does not render its thesis any more true. Commensurate with this critique is the precedence given to Battarbee over his more famous contemporary in the title, Battarbee and Namatjira. This runs counter to the normal Western conventions of artistic status: no precedence is given to Picasso's agent or teacher before Picasso himself. Yet the simplistic narrative tropes of Aboriginal 'mimicry' and 'prirnitivism' serve to justify Battarbee's continued ownership and control of Namatjira and his artistic legacy. Such presumptions would be unthinkable in any other context within white Australia.
Suggestions of the complexity invoked by the lingual differentiation of Battarbee's English and the Arunta of Namatjira is to be found in Paul Carter's speculations concerning the homonym of 'colour' in English and 'kalla' in Arunta. 'Kalla' signifies 'completed', 'the tale is completed', and also carries the sense of 'he or she has finished and now goes on a new quest and/or begins a new experience' (Carter 1996:44). Strehlow wrote that 'kalla' was ever-present in tribal legends in the senses of finishing and moving forward onto a new quest. Battarbee's words (Battarbee and Battarbee 1971), says Carter (1996:44), unconsciously reproduce the very ambiguity they supposedly identify: it 'is evident that Battarbee alludes here to a troubling possibility: that it is not his skill as an art teacher that precipitated the new movement, but a mere phonic coincidence that, by temporarily masking an actual misunderstanding (or mutual incomprehension), seemed to create a common artistic ground'.
'Is it possible', Carter (1996:44-5) queries, 'that Battarbee's colour instructions were heard as a narrative, that in painting certain landscapes in the style of Battarbee, Namatjira was (despite the monumental appearance of the composition) narrating a story mobilely, tracing its gradual appearance, colour by colour, the routes taken, the places visited, the metamorphoses wrought?' Colour/kalla was a 'hinge word' whose effectiveness depended on the common ground between the two artists remaining 'folded, enigmatic, its value provisional upon its power to preserve fertile differences' (Carter 1996:45). Carter's linguistic speculations serve to identify the deep ground of lingual misinterpretation that both yields communication and incomprehension in that same linguistic figure affecting the relationship between teacher and student. It disinherits the continuing misappropriation of Namatjira's work and of Albert Namatjira himself by his teacher and agents, at least to the extent of its persistent paternalism evident in the ownership of the 'Namatjira' brand name.
However, the adoption of a European mode of expression by an Aboriginal man was critically understood to degrade the 'purity' or 'authenticity' of Indigenous creative expression. If a culture cannot adapt and change then it must disappear under the assault of a dominant culture. This belief has proven persistent. Namatjira's very act of adopting a Western artistic style was considered a disavowal of his own culture (McLean 1998:99). Thus for his contemporary critics, Namatjira's use of watercolours and a Western mode of depiction eliminated Aboriginal cultural influence in his art, not that they were in a position to identify any Aboriginal influences intrinsic to the art itself.
Yet some outside the art critical fraternity were more perceptive on this issue. In 1944 anthropologist Charles Mountford conveyed an inkling of the possibility of Aboriginal influence in The art of Albert Namatjira (Sayers 2001:142). Mountford was convinced that Namatjira's water-colours revealed that he had 'retained contact with the vitalising force of the beliefs that identify him so intimately with his surroundings' (Sayers 2001:144). This link between his artistic expression and his cultural identity is a step towards understanding that Indigenous culture is capable of transformation. Indeed, Mountford described his surprise at Namatjira's depth of traditional knowledge. He was struck by his capacity to depict Dreaming stories that 'stretched back to the dawn of his creation', as well as 'beautiful water-colours of the art of today' (Sayers 2001:144). Despite his surprise, Mountford recognised that Aboriginally had shaped Namatjira's perception and persisted in his expression in watercolours.
Clearly, it is impossible to extinguish culture simply through the imposition of a foreign culture. It is now understood that the product of such cultural interaction is not a clone of the dominant culture but a melding of both (Portella 2000:2), often in extremely subtle ways (Carter 1996:45-6), and the realisation of a new vision. Namatjira was an initiated Arrernte man (Megaw and Megaw 1992) with a depth of traditional knowledge (Sayers 2001). Relatedness to country shaped Namatjira's perception, and this is both unveiled and veiled in his art. Aland and Darby (1997:185) argue that country is central to the lives of Aboriginal people and Aboriginal artists reflect it through a diversity of styles. John Mundine (in Isaacs 1992:1), Adviser and Curator of Aboriginal Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, concurs: 'There is something...that runs through all Aboriginal art, something other Australian artwork lacks. It is the common thread of Aboriginal spirituality.' However, there is a real danger of mobilising simplistic essentialist assumptions in such generalisations. Namatjira's cultural knowledge, life experience and art validate his spiritual connectedness to his country. As Sayers (2001:142) argues, 'Namatjira's best work is characterised by a deep engagement with the natural world and a sensitivity to its subtleties'. An intimate knowledge of his ancestral lands and the Dreaming shaped his perception and thus his representation of country. Namatjira's success lay in his ability to communicate the depth of this spiritual bond with country to his audience.
A further presumption, the traditional Western separation of the economic and religious spheres, compounded misconceptions of the Aboriginal influence on Namatjira's work (Altman 1988:48). From a Western perspective, Namatjira's status as a professional artist undermined any possibility of cultural or spiritual influence in and on his art. But this dichotomy is not evident at all in Aboriginal life, wherein the economic and spiritual are strongly interwoven (Altman 1988:48). Namatjira spoke of his father's country in dual terms, from an artistic perception as a landscape painter and from his spiritual connection to it (James 1998:172). Country is at once the seat of spirituality and the economic basis for survival. Thus from the Aboriginal perspective, portraying his country strengthened, rather than weakened, the artist's cultural and spiritual relationship to that land.
Namatjira's work was claimed to lack a unified design, with arguments that there was 'nothing placed to lead the eye into the subject' (James 1998:172). While Battarbee painted grand panoramas, 'maintaining a palpable distance between viewer and subject, Namatjira's painting seems to take the viewer inside the picture' (James 1998:172). This difference in perception between the Western and the Aboriginal reflects alternative ontologies, yet Namatjira's so-called lack of unified design was attributed to his 'primitive intellect'. However, renowned European artists displayed similar stylistic qualities. Cezanne's lack of design formula and his use of texture were attributed to his affinity with the country he painted (Clark 1956:130-41). This is strongly reminiscent of Namatjira. Also like Namatjira, Cezanne painted the same landscape scenes repeatedly (such as the mountain Mont Sainte-Victoire). In Cezanne's case, his artistic style and repetition of scenery were attributed to his 'genius' (Clark 1956). In Namatjira's, they were put down to his primitive intellect and mimicry. Both artists used a style that effectively placed the viewer 'inside' the scene, revealing close ties with the country they painted, yet the critical discourses employed to describe them could not be more different.
Namatjira's works now command hundreds of thousands of dollars (Williams 2007). In 2003 controversy over the ownership of the copyright on his art illustrated that more than 40 years after his death, the battle for basic civil rights for Aboriginal people in general and Namatjira's descendants in particular is far from over. During his final years, Namatjira entered into an agreement for the copyright to reproduce his art (Rimmer 2003:1). The other party was art agent John Brackenreg, who had been supplying food and clothing parcels to the Namatjira family over this time. Upon Namatjira's death, despite his wife Rubina being a citizen in her own right, administration of the estate passed to the Northern Territory Public Trustee (Rimmer 2003:1). The trustee continued the agreement with Brackenreg, providing a licence on reproduction rights in return for a 12 per cent royalty (Dakin 2003:1). In 1983 the remaining copyright was sold to Brackenreg, then owner of Legend Press and a gallery in Sydney, for $8500 (Amadio 1986:11; Rimmer 2003:1). At the time of the sale, 26 years remained on the copyright--a mere $350 per annum for the sole rights to reproduce Namatjira's works. Senator Aden Ridgeway called on the Government of Australia to buy back the remaining copyright and restore exclusive control to his descendants and to extend it to provide protection of Namatjira's legacy in perpetuity (Commonwealth of Australia 2003:5-6). As the Senator stated, 'by doing this...belatedly, we will be showing Albert Namatjira the reverence that he has always deserved' (Rimmer 2003:1). Namatjira's children and grandchildren have never received their rightful inheritance from the ongoing profits generated by the reproduction of his paintings (ABC 2003a; Jopson 2002; Williams 2007). However, it is not only in retrospect that the rights of the Namatjira family, and indeed all Aboriginal artists, need protection. The ongoing exploitation of Aboriginal artists continues (Jopson 2002:2).
The article 'Forgotten fringe dwellers' published in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2002 echoed the sentiments of the article 'From hero to untouchable', published in Truth in 1956 (Amadio 1986:11; Jopson 2002:2). The 1956 article tells the story of the feted artist Albert Namatjira leaving the adoration of the city to return to a 'government dump', where he was treated as 'an outcast and an untouchable' (Amadio 1986:11). Today, Aboriginal paintings demand handsome prices at the gallery but the artists and their families still live in desperate conditions, often in tin houses 'not much more than a windbreak made of tin, blankets and tarpaulins', revealing that little has changed in the intervening years since 1956 (Jopson 2002:2).
Aboriginal art is the visual expression of a religion that 'has its origins in antiquity' but, like all cultural expression, it is constantly changing and adapting over time (Isaacs 1990:1). The recognition of the dynamic nature of Aboriginal culture and its artistic expression has only recently been applied to Namatjira's work in retrospect. Yet it is disturbing that certain presumptions of 'static' and 'primitive' culture are still invoked in order to maintain the self-interest at the heart of the economics of selling Indigenous art. Pertinent to this is the interpretation of the very nature of 'self-interest'. In the Western mode, self-interest pertains only to the responsibility to the individual self and is thought to be universal. But the Indigenous conception of self-interest addresses responsibilities to community, especially family and traditional lines of kinship. Clearly, Namatjira's primary motivation for his art was to provide for his family and maintain his traditional responsibilities. Self-interest cannot be removed from the fundamental contexts of the culture that inform and define the nature of the self. When Battarbee assumed the Aboriginality of Namatjira as 'static' and 'primitive', in that his art supposedly did not evolve from the techniques to which Battarbee laid claim, he was clearly motivated by his own self-interest in the Western sense. Namatjira would have grasped his Aboriginal self-interest in fundamentally different ways, in precisely the same way the homonym 'colour/kalla' would have created a similar mutual misunderstanding. Throughout the short account, above, of Namatjira's biography, the significance of family and communal responsibilities and obligation is completely in evidence, from the decision to return to the mission with his family to his reluctance to become an honorary 'white', which would have prevented him fulfilling his important kinship responsibilities. He recognised his identity and, therefore, his self-interest lay in using his art to address his responsibilities both to his community and to the depiction of his cultural sensibilities. We cannot say that this applies to all Aboriginal artists, but it is likely to apply to most. Namatjira was more than a commercial trail-blazer for his people; he was the trailblazer in the honouring of his Aboriginality in and through his works of art.
Albert Namatjira was hailed as an Australian icon during his lifetime but as an Aboriginal person he was not eligible for citizenship in his own homeland. Ironically, when he was finally given 'white' status, access to his homelands and people was legally curtailed. The period of Namatjira's life determined the social attitudes into which he was born but his presence helped to change those attitudes. The influences that shaped his art were as broad as those that shaped his perception. Namatjira's Aboriginal spirituality and his deep bond with country fostered a style that won widespread recognition, although the pressure of the dominant powers turned much that could have been good fortune into misfortune. But Namatjira was not a passive victim of circumstance, just as he was not a mere passive receptacle for the teachings of Battarbee. He actively engaged in Western economic activity to improve his and his family's life. His failure to enjoy the fame and fortune his talent earned should not be attributed to his failure to adapt. The success of his paintings in the Western art market proves that he did so. Namatjira was not lost between two cultures (Batty 1976:1). He simply did not fit the narrow, externally imposed social construct of Aboriginality as 'static' and 'primitive'. Despite the attitudes of the 'white' commentators to the contrary, the imposition of citizenship did not automatically extinguish Namatjira's own identity as an Aboriginal man. The authorities could not expunge 60,000 years of spirituality with the stroke of a pen. One fact that appears to have been beyond their comprehension was that Namatjira had no desire to be an (honorary) white (Morton 1992:24). His body of work is testament to his ability to grasp new techniques and to employ them in the service of his own evolving deep connection with his country and community: in short, as a truly grounded Aboriginal man expressing his spiritual and artistic vocation to the wider Australian community in a profoundly complex way. In this regard, his centrality to the formation of the modern Australian identity, which holds the Central Desert as the axis around which it rotates, in itself identifies this Aboriginal man and his works as no mere echo of the past nor as a simple mimic of modernity, but as an exemplar for our own modern Australia.
(1) The authors have borne in mind the significance of certain ethical choices in writing about Indigenous people. Namatjira is a public figure but he has a community and family that we need to consider. We have decided not to include particular references to Namatjira's family and community as AIATSIS ethics advises, except to underline the high value-given to family and kin by his Aboriginality. We recognise and respect that the authority for this knowledge rests with his family and kin.
(2) Northern Territory Legislation Act No. 4/1 939.
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University of Tasmania
University of Tasmania
Dr Wendy Aitken is a Tasmanian Aboriginal woman who was raised on Flinders Island with Indigenous ancestors from both sides of Bass Strait. A lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Tasmania, Dr Aitken's research interests include the decision-making processes behind the Northern Territory Emergency Response, the legacy of past portrayals of Indigenous women, and the creation and maintenance of othering in Western culture.
Dr Christopher Wareham was born and educated in Melbourne. He graduated in Architecture at The University of Melbourne. His Doctorate in Philosophy was obtained from the University of Tasmania. Dr Wareham's research interests include the ethics of art and poetry, our relations with landscape and nature, the question of ontology and the ethics of othering, especially in the conventions of discourse.
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|Author:||Aitken, Wendy; Wareham, Christopher|
|Publication:||Australian Aboriginal Studies|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2017|
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