This series of paintings is Vincent Namatjira's first solo exhibition. All thirteen paintings have been reserved by a public gallery.
Stories are how we come to know ourselves and others. Narrative has been a powerful device since the beginning of time for transmitting knowledge, beliefs and identity. But there is one Australian story that deserves a louder telling: Albert Namatjira.
For many Australians with a passing interest in art, the name Albert Namatjira (1902-59) is synonymous with the Arrente artist responsible for bringing delicate watercolours of ghost gums set against blue mountain ranges and rich red earth to the city. For those with a keen sense of Australian history, they would equate this great man’s name with the beginning of civil rights for Indigenous people in Australia.
But for Vincent Namatjira (b.1983), Albert is above all his grandfather. The post-humus influence the old man has had on the making of Vincent the Artist, is profound. Vincent’s mother died suddenly when he was a small child and he consequently spent many years in foster care far from his home of Hermannsburg. While Vincent has kept in contact with a couple of his foster families, he describes his youth as troubled and unsettled. It was his grandfather’s legacy that provided his life with direction and stability, and inspired him to paint.
Vincent’s series of thirteen paintings, Albert’s Story, explores the life of this extraordinary man. This series is, by all accounts, the first time that Albert’s life from youth to death has been depicted in one complete series. The fact that it is being told by one of Albert’s direct descendants makes this body of work even more poignant: it is at once historical and personal.
Vincent begins Albert’s story with initiation, a series of sacred and secret ceremonies led by elder men that transform carefree boys into men with serious cultural responsibilities. Importantly, it places Albert within the context of his true and abiding identity as an Arrente man, forever connected to his birth country.
Like many Aboriginal people at the turn of the twentieth century, Albert used to make artefacts to sell to Europeans so he could support his family. Such objects were usually sold very cheaply, and many Europeans saw their patronage as a form of charity; they weren’t necessarily interested in the artefacts or gaining a deeper understanding of the artisan’s culture.
A highly gifted, multi-skilled man, Albert Namatjira went on to forge a career in fine art that paved a path not just for his family members at Hermannsburg, but for all Indigenous Australians. His watercolours surpassed all previous attempts at expressing the sheer beauty and spirituality of the outback, and that these works were produced by an Aboriginal man was considered remarkable. Anthropologist Charles Mountford wrote “The bond between the aboriginal and his country is something that the white man can never fully understand, however sympathetic or well-informed he may be.”[i] Knowing that he could portray his country far better than any of the white artists who he was guiding through his lands, Albert asked watercolourist Rex Batterby to teach him how to paint. Albert Namatjira Painting with Rex Batterby depicts the seminal relationship that was to change Albert’s life for better and worse.
Albert’s sublime paintings caused great excitement in the cities and brought him much fame and money. Albert Namatjira First Solo Show in Melbourne captures the beginning of the meteoric rise of Albert Namatjira, Artist. Visitors are shown marvelling at the beauty of Albert’s watercolours, along with a despondent artist to the far right who has just realised that his work will never be a good as Albert’s masterpieces. This show was a huge success, critically and financially.
Another key person in Albert’s life and career was Australian portraitist, William Dargie. On a visit to Sydney in 1956, Albert sat for Dargie, who then submitted the finished portrait to the Archibald Prize. Dargie’s portrait won, and the painting was acquired by the Queensland Art Gallery in 1957. In May of this year, Vincent made a research trip to the QAG to view the famous portrait, and he, in turn, created a self-portrait standing in front of Dargie’s portrait for the 2014 Archibald. The painting was rejected by the Prize and the Salon des Refusés.
The painting relating to this Sydney chapter, Albert Namatjira in Sydney – Yeah, is the most revelatory of Vincent’s deep emotional connection to his grandfather. The artist’s own life memories have merged those of his grandfather: the Sydney Opera House only opened in 1973, ten years before Vincent’s birth. Vincent has never known Sydney without the Opera House, nor a life without the memory of Albert.
While Albert was lauded for his artistic achievements, he was a trailblazer in a more significant way: he broke through racial barriers to become the first Indigenous citizen, along with his wife Ruby, in 1957. This was four years after being awarded the Queen’s Coronation Medal and three years after being presented to the Queen.
Citizenship exempted him from the restrictions otherwise placed on Aboriginal people, such as the right to acquire property and to buy alcohol. Albert was convicted of supplying alcohol to family members in 1958. He denied the charge, and fought it in the Supreme Court and High Court, but he lost his appeals. He was initially sentenced to six months in prison, but the sentence was reduced to two months after a public outcry. On his release, Albert was a broken man. He was caught between two colliding worlds of diametrically opposed laws and customs; he was in an impossible situation. His health deteriorated rapidly. Albert Namatjira Hurts his Hand depicts another dark moment in Albert’s life when he lost a finger as a result of his truck bonnet falling on his hand.
Albert Namatjira is out Namatjira Camp to Reconnect with the Land encapsulates Albert’s fundamental connection to and need for country and family. He would return to his land to replenish his soul and repair his ailing body. This leitmotif of connection to country appears in Vincent’s final painting, Albert Namatjira Dies in Hospital, Broken Heart. Here, Albert is seen staring longingly at a painting of his homeland, shackled to his hospital bed by a drip while a European clock marks the passage of time. Albert was admitted to hospital after a heart failure and died soon after, never to see his beloved country again. Any Aboriginal person will attest to the heartbreak caused by dying away from country.
Gradually Albert’s magnificent paintings faded from favour, seen as derivate works in a European style, ie, “not authentic”. While many Australians know the date that Captain Cook landed in Botany Bay, few would know the date that Albert become an Australian citizen, nor that it would be a further ten years before the Australian Constitution was amended to include Aboriginal people in the Census, thereby conferring on them equal rights.
By presenting the story of Albert’s rise and fall, Vincent reminds us of just how little we really know about this great man. Albert’s contributions to Australian culture and history have been profound, but are poorly understood by the general public. Vincent’s personal investigation of his famous relative gives us all pause to reflect on just how important Albert Namatjira is to our collective cultural imagination and national identity.
Albert’s story is our story.
[i] C.P. Mountford, The Art of Albert Namatjira, Bread and Cheese Club: Melbourne, 1944, p.24.