The inspirational artist, Albert Namatjira

 

 

THE landscape paintings of Albert Namatjira are some of the best-known - and best-loved - of all works by Australian artists.

 

The Western Arrernte man's beautiful watercolour depictions of his country around Hermannsburg, 120 km from Alice Springs, hang on many walls around the country. Even his smallest works can fetch more than $20,000, according to Danny Newland, co-owner of Byron Bay's Bim Bam Gallery.

And Namatjira's artistic legacy lives on, too, says Newland, through his descendants and followers such as Elton Wirri making art as members of the Hermannsburg "school".

There is another, social, aspect to the legacy too - as an icon for young Aboriginals wanting to paint.

Lismore artist Luke Close says "he was always my hero". Digby Moran says he was "an inspiration to us all".

The story of the man himself is perhaps less well known, but it is also extraordinary. He found fame as an artist, became wealthy, met the Queen and was extended privileges that were rare for Aboriginals in the racist laws in the Northern Territory of the 1950s. Yet despite being one of Australia's most popular and respected artists he experienced years of poverty and was even imprisoned.

He died in 1959 aged 57.

Something of that tragic story - and the creative genius behind it - will be coming to the Northern Rivers in late September in a week-long multi-media celebration of his remarkable life and work.

The project, staged by arts and social change company Big hART, is being brought here by NORPA, whose artistic director Julian Louis saw it in Sydney and was blown away by it, especially by Trevor Jamieson as Namatjira.

"This is a very important story, a very moving story, and told with such virtuosic performance that it's a thrill to witness it," Louis says.

Also moved by the show was Namatjira expert Alison French, who says it communicates equally well his importance as an artist and as a pioneer of Aboriginal freedoms.

Events in the week leading up to the theatre show are designed to spark maximum community involvement and cultural exchange, Louis says.

Informal gatherings, an art exhibition and workshops are planned to give local people the chance to paint alongside his descendants, including grandchildren Kevin Namatjira and Betty Wheeler.

The project will go on a national tour in 2012, but Louis says NORPA's initiative has allowed Lismore to "jump the gun on that, and have the company here for a full week".

"A show like this is a real gift, and we're trying to make the most of it," he says.

 

ALBERT Namatjira's realist landscapes are very different to the highly symbolic work produced by nearly every other "school" of indigenous art, and reflect his Western upbringing and training.

Born, baptised and raised at the Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission near Alice Springs, Namatjira first saw European painting at an exhibition there in 1934. One of the exhibitors, Rex Batterbee, showed him how to paint with watercolours and he never looked back.

His gift only improved with practice, right up until shortly before his death.

The Western style has earned him detractors in both the indigenous and European communities, but his work still "shows the spirit of the land", according to local artist Luke Close. "There's a sense that it's alive, that it's talking back to you. You can tell a man of spirit painted them."

Other more traditional Aboriginal art has become popular in the wider community, partly as a result of Namatjira's influence as a cultural pioneer.

Its emergence is generally traced to the first use of board and canvas in the early 70s by painters in Papunya, northwest of Alice Springs, which gave their art some permanence.

The dot technique so familiar now was originally used to conceal the secrets within sacred myths and ceremonies, usually depicted in the sand or in body painting.

Before European settlement there were at least 600 different Aboriginal nations within Australia, with a cultural heritage going back 50,000 years.

Much of that diversity is lost but some of it can be seen in the great range of art forms under the umbrella of "Indigenous" art.

It ranges from the black and ochre work of Rover Thomas and his followers such as Henry Wambini, to dazzling colour works elsewhere, and more recently to the socially-conscious, graffiti styles of young urban painters.



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