Most Australian Aboriginal painting focuses on the Dreamtime style of art which most
art lovers and visitors to Australia are familiar with. It comes as a surprise therefore for most people to learn about the existence of genuine pioneer of watercolour from the Australian outback.
His name was Albert Namatjira, he was born on 28th July 1902 near Alice Springs and raised at the Hermannsberg Lutheran Mission. Possibly his Western-style Christian upbringing afforded him the opportunity to experience non-Aboriginal styles of painting and perhaps this influenced him later in is career. Certainly the mitssion was visited by two watercolour painters in 1934 and in then in 1936 one of them returned to paint in the area. Namatjira acted as his guide and in return was shown watercolour techniques.
By then he had already completed his Aboriginal cultural initiations and was familiar with the traditional outback landscapes. Namatjira’s paintings quickly became popular, partly because they appealed to Australia’s Western city dwellers and Namatjira exhibited in Melbourne in 1938 very successfully, quickly followed by others in Sydney and Adelaide.
His success and wealth also brought it’s own problems and under Aboriginal tradition Namatjira was obliged to provide financially for his extended family, which at one point contained around 600 people. In 1957 he was exempted from the Australian governments harsh restrictions on Aboriginals which meant he became able to vote, buy land and buy alcohol. This led to his brief imprisonment after he was found guilty of supplying alcohol to a native by leaving a bottle on his car seat (the bottle was taken and drunk by a fellow artist). A public outcry ensured his incarceration was brief.
He died of heart disease on 8th August 1959, leaving a legacy of some two thousand paintings. His work can be seen in most of Australia’s galleries and he has been the subject of several short films as well as pop songs. He was also featured on a stamp in 1968.