Saturday, September 19, 2009

Albert Namatjira

I am thinking that Albert Namatjira is an indigenous artist. I could be wrong though.

Let's go see.

Lord Wiki says I'm right.

Namatjira was an artist. He painted landscapes.

Namatjira's original name was Elea Namitjira.

Baby Elea was born 28 July 1902 in the Northern Territory of Australia. He was one of the Western Arrernte people. They live near Alice Springs.

Namatjira was born in the Hermannsburg Mission. Lord Wiki says this mission was started by two German Lutheran guys. I'm not usually big on Christian missions, but what I like about these guys is they learned the Arrernte language. If you're going to push your beliefs on others, at least absorb some of their culture as well.

The two Lutheran guys left before Namatjira was born. A new pastor appeared and took over. This guy's son was an anthropologist.  Ted Strehlow. Strehlow did extensive studies of the Arrernte people. It seems he was quite accepted into the culture. He was around the same age as Namatjira. Well, actually he was six years younger. I guess he actually grew up with the Arrernte people. He was probably seen as being a part of them.

Lord Wiki says Namatjira's childhood on the mission was westernized. When he was sixteen, he left the mission for the bush. I guess he wanted to return to a more traditional lifestyle. He joined the Arrernte community.   I guess it was among those who weren't living a mission life.

When Namatjira was eighteen, he married a woman from the wrong skin group. This is not really a racist type thing....more to do with kinship laws and stuff like that. I think. It's kind of confusing.

Lord Wiki is confusing me here. He says that Namatjira was ostracized in 1928 for several years. It seems he's talking about the wrong skin group thing. But it took them eight years to decide to ostracize him?

That can't be right.

Anyway, at some point Namatjira became a camel driver. This job allowed him to see a lot of Central Australia.

I guess eventually he returned to the mission. Lord Wiki says in 1934, they were visited by painters from Melbourne. One of the painters returned in 1936. Namatjira gave him a tour of the area in exchange for painting lessons.

Namatjira started exhibiting his work in 1938. He'd be about thirty-six then. His first show was in Melbourne. Then he had shows in Sydney and Adelaide. The latter two shows sold out. Namatjira was quite successful. He became rich and famous. Even Queen Elizabeth was a fan. Lord Wiki says that despite his wealth, he still enjoyed returning to the outback.

Wait though. Lord Wiki has some interesting things to say about Namatjira's wealth. In his culture, everything is supposed to be shared with relatives. At one point, this included close to six hundred people. Wealth divided by six-hundred probably doesn't leave you with much extra cash.

Namatjira had all kinds of bad luck getting a home for his family. He tried to buy a cattle station. The lease was granted at first, but then revoked. Lord Wiki says it was part of a returned serviceman's ballot. I guess that meant it was reserved for a military person? I think it's nice to have land reserved for returned servicemen, but since it was stolen land....I think the original owners should have had rights to it. They most certainly shouldn't have been rejected from owning it.

Namatjira bought land in Alice Springs. That was great. But then he found out he had been cheated. The land was on a flood plain. Oops.

Paul Hasluck who was the Minister for the Territories offered free land to Namatjira. Lord Wiki says it was rejected. Who rejected it? Namatjira? I wonder why. Was it bad land? Was he trying to prove some kind of point?

Namatjira and his family ended up moving into a poverty-stricken area called Morris Soak.

Oh my goodness. White people are nuts sometimes. No, I'm not going to be racist. ALL people are nuts sometimes. But here's an example of white people craziness.

In Morris Soak, the black people were under strict regulations. They couldn't drink alcohol. They couldn't vote. They couldn't own land. But since Namitjira was popular with the white people, they exempted him and his wife from the rules. They received rights that their families and neighbors had not received. Yeah. How would that NOT be a problem in any community? I think in all cultures that's going to lead to envy and resentment.

Namatjira was part of this culture that believed in sharing everything. I can imagine that put him in quite a bind. Actually though, as I said above....I think it would put ANYONE in a bind. I'm picturing my own family here. Let's say my American government forbid Jewish people from eating chocolate. But since they liked me, they decided I could buy the chocolate and eat it. My family doesn't come from a culture that believes we must share everything. Still, I can bet that my family would be asking me to give up some of the chocolate. I would definitely feel the pressure.

Anyway, chocolate is less likely than alcohol to lead to bad things. The alcohol that Namatjira shared might have led to a murder. Actually though, according to Lord Wiki, he didn't purposely share it. He left a bottle somewhere, and someone got it. A woman was murdered. I'm not sure how the alcohol was connected. Did the murderer commit the crime because he was drunk?

Well, whatever..... Namatjira was blamed. He was sentenced to six months in prison. The public protested this. The Hasluck guy paid attention to them. Namatjira was moved to the Papunya Native Reserve. I wonder what he did there. Was there a prison cell there? Did he have a house?

He stayed there for a few months. No wait, he was imprisoned there for only two-three months. But after he was freed, he continued living there. Then he had a heart attack. It's believed by some that he was "sung" by someone in the murdered woman's family. Maybe they cursed him and caused the heart attack. That's sad. And it shows that white people aren't the only ones who are mean and crazy sometimes. Although I guess there's no definite proof anyone caused the heart attack. Still, they might have done it. And if they did it, I think that was pretty awful of them. It's not like Namatjira killed the woman himself.

Namatjira didn't die right away. He was transferred to a hospital in Alice Springs. He died there on 8 August 1959.

After he died, some critics denounced his paintings. They said he was a product of assimilation. I think that's ridiculous. I mean I do think too much assimilation is a bad thing. It's bad if you completely lose your own culture. But it doesn't seem like this happened to Namatjira. From what I see, he borrowed from both cultures. Does it matter that his artwork doesn't look like traditional aboriginal artwork? Why do we have these restrictions? Should Indigenous Australians not be allowed to do more western style work? What if a white person wanted to paint in the style of traditional Aboriginal style? Would this not be okay? I remember reading about some white female artist who lied about her identity so she could paint in the traditional Aboriginal style. I think it was wrong of her to lie like that; but if we didn't restrict people...maybe she wouldn't have felt compelled to do so.

Fortunately, Lord Wiki says this viewpoint about Namatjira's painting style has been abandoned for the most part. That's good to know.

There's something weird here though. Although Namatjira's paintings are in a lot of Australian galleries, the Art Gallery of New South Wales rejected his work. The director of the gallery said, We'll consider his work when it comes up to scratch. I have no idea what that means.

Okay, well this website says If something doesn't come up to scratch, it doesn't meet the standard required or expected.

Well, that gallery sounds a bit snobby to me. What did they not like about Namatjira's art?

Anyway, I'm done with Lord Wiki.

Namatjira is featured on that awesome Artist Footsteps site. I noticed that while doing some googling.

This page talks about Namatjira's art, and it also talks about traditional Aboriginal Art. They say he learned to paint the European way in only two months. He was a fast least in terms of painting.

The Arrernte people usually stuck to four colors when doing their art: white, black, red, and yellow. Their artwork was also more symbolic. It's kind of hard for me to understand and explain. I guess I could say it was more representational. Would that be right? The European art had more....realism? It was more of a copy of what was seen.

The website says that Namatjira passed his new skills on to his family and friends. He brought new into the old. However, he didn't abandon the old. This website emphasizes what Lord Wiki had said. Namatjira loved, respected, and took part in his culture. He took some steps into the white world, but he never abandoned his culture or family. Although his style of art was European, what he painted was his land...his home.

This page of the website has some more biographical information.

They talk about the skin group thing. In the system around that area, there are eight skin groups. Namatjira was of the Kngwarriya group. His mother and father were both in different groups from that. So, I'm getting the idea that these groupings are there mostly to prevent incestuous relationships.

Daddy and Mommy Namatjira weren't Christians when their son was born. That didn't happen until 1905. It was then that Elea was given the name of Albert. I do think it's kind of sad that he had to change his name. Was this forced upon his parents, or was it a choice? Could they have become Christians and kept their original names?

The website says that for a long time Namatjira was just known as Albert. The mission had a custom of giving the Indigenous Australians one name only. So, he'd sign his paintings as Albert. Later he was encouraged to use his father's tribal name.

On the mission, children were taught in both English and the Arrernte language. As for missions go, this one really doesn't sound like awful. It really sounds like their culture was respected. They also pushed for self-sufficiency. The mission provided those living there with training in a variety of skills.

As a youth, Namatjira would go walkabout sometimes. This was done with family and friends. At the age of thirteen, he went away for six months. There he was initiated into manhood. This included learning the laws of the tribe. One of the laws that stuck in Namatjira's memory and soul was the one about sharing one's wealth.

After the initiation, Namatjira returned to the mission. However, he continued to go walkabout every so often. On one of these treks, he met a woman....the woman who was from the wrong skin group. That wasn't the only problem. The mission people also pointed out that she (Ilkalita) wasn't Christian. So she had two strikes against her.

Still, Namatjira didn't allow rules to get in the way of his love. He and Ilkalita left the area and eloped. They stayed away for three years. This is when he did the camel work.

Later he returned to the mission with his controversial marriage and three young children. The website doesn't say how they were received. Did everyone boo? Were there threats? Did they simply sigh and roll their eyes?

Well, it seems they stayed there. So I guess people weren't that angry.

The website says Ilkalita and the children were baptized. Ilkalita became Rubina. The kids were named Enos, Oscar, and Maisie. Later, the lovely couple had seven more children. I bet they have a lot of descendants roaming around Australia.

This was all during the 1920's. It was a rather rough time for the mission because of the drought. Namatjira lost a daughter and brother to malnutrition.

The mission tried to make money by having the Aboriginal Australians make traditional artwork. They'd sell this to visiting tourists. Namatjira participated in this. He made wood plaques with bible quotes. He also decorated boomerangs and coat hangers.

When the European style artists first visited the mission, Namatjira actually missed it. He was doing work at a cattle station. They returned two years later in 1934. He didn't receive lessons from them then. But he studied their paintings, and used their work as an inspiration for his own.

In 1935, he produced his first watercolor painting. He named it The Fleeing Kangaroo, and gifted it to a woman on the Lutheran Mission Board.

In 1936, one of the artists, Rex Battarbee, returned. He gave Namatjira some art lessons, and was very impressed with how quickly his student learned and progressed.

In 1937, the pastor from the mission took six of Namatjira's paintings to a Lutheran event. He sold four of the paintings, and bought two for himself. The website says he did this to avoid Namatjira being disappointed. I can imagine that's true. But maybe he also wanted some of the paintings for himself. Although, I'm sure Namatjira would have given him some for free. So yeah, it was probably mostly a charity-type thing. Charity might be the wrong word. I can't think of what word to use. It's basically just making someone feel good about their work. It's giving them the incentive to continue.

In 1938, Namatjira's work received attention from the Governor of Victoria's wife.  Lady Huntingfield. She's the one that helped put together his first solo expedition. It was held in Melbourne in December.

In the next few years, he had other exhibitions, and made more money. In 1945, he used his new wealth to build a small cottage near the mission.

In 1947, Namatjira was diagnosed with Angina Pectoris. I'm guessing that's related to the heart. Yeah. The American Heart Association confirms that. So, maybe he didn't die from having a bone pointed at him, or being sung. It could be that he simply had an underlying condition. Also, I guess a curse could have worsened the condition. We don't have to choose between modern western medical science and tribal magic. It could be a combination of both.

The medical folks suggested that Namatjira needed to lose weight. He did this by doing more of the walkabout thing. .

Also that year, Namatjira had his first income tax assessment. This was a bit nuts because he wasn't a citizen of the Commonwealth. He was not a citizen, yet he had to pay taxes. How fair is that?

1949 was a very rough year for Namatjira. One of his daughters died, and his son accidentally shot himself. On top of all that, this was when his application to lease the cattle station was rejected.

It seems fame didn't make Namatjira's life much easier. He soon lost yet another child. He was again rejected for a glazier's license. And forgeries of his work started to appear.

In 1951, he tried to build a home in Alice Springs. This idea was rejected by the Lutheran mission. The reason given for their rejection was Aborigines were not allowed to be in town after dark.

Namatjira was very upset by this. It was then that he moved to Morris Soak.

Where did the Hasluck guy come into this....the one Lord Wiki had mentioned? Maybe he supported Namatjira living in Alice Springs. Was that the free land that Lord Wiki had mentioned? Or did Hasluck offer him land somewhere else?

It was in 1957 that Namatjira and his wife received full Australian citizenship. This meant that they could vote, drink in hotels, bring alcohol home, build a house, and get regular wages for work. That's great, but horrible that one had to become a famous artist in order to receive such rights.

The other problem was that although Namatjira could build that house he wanted in Alice Springs; it would be illegal for his children to live with him. They were wards of the state, and were not allowed in town after dark.

The murder in Morris Soak happened in August 1958. Namatjira was informed that alcohol was the indirect cause of the death. He left town, but later returned. It was then that he was charged and sent to prison.

When Namatjira was released from the nature reserve imprisonment, he went into a severe depression. He even stopped painting. Was he cursed by relatives of the murder victim? Maybe. But more likely he was cursed by the unfairness of the society he lived in. How would it feel to be finally treated as a first class citizen, yet your own children are still treated like crap? How would one not be depressed by that?

This page of the website lists galleries in which one can see Namatjira's work. The Art Gallery of New South Wales is on there. Did they change their mind? Did they decide his work was up to scratch? Or maybe Lord Wiki had his facts wrong.....

I don't know. I'm googling for more information, but not finding much of anything. The National Library of Australia says Hal Missingham, the guy from the gallery who rejected Namatjira, was the director from 1945 to 1971. I suppose once he left, the next director might have accepted Namatjira's work.

I think now I shall start to look at the actual paintings.

Here's Central Australian Landscape. The title is simple, but the painting is SO beautiful. This was one of his very early works. It was done in 1936.

This here is not a painting, but one of the boomerangs he decorated. It was made from mulga wood.

This page of the ABC website says mulga is made from a type of plant called Acacia. Indigenous Australians often used the mulga wood to make stuff. And guess what...Australia's flower, the golden wattle is part of the Acacia family. The Australian Botanical Garden website
says that some of the plants within the species are used as a food source. The seeds can be ground into a flour, and then turned into damper or porridge. The plants can also be used for medicinal purposes.

I love learning all this stuff.

Back to the boomerang though. I love this Artist Footstep website because it gives the story behind the artwork. There were two sisters, Una and Violet Teague. They saw the difficult life of the Aborigines at Hermannsburg so they arranged for a charity exhibition. They made enough money to build a water scheme and pipeline for the mission. So, the painting on the boomerang depicted men building the pipe. I love that because it represents how within a crazy cruel world, there are people who do good.

I'm looking at all the artwork on the site, but I'm not going to talk about all of them. That will take way too long. I'll just talk about the ones I like a lot.

I love this painting of a ghost gum. It's in The National Gallery of Victoria. Maybe we'll visit it when we go to Australia.

I like this painting of the Ullambaura Haast Bluff. The purple mountains remind me of my childhood....I don't know what really. Maybe illustrations in old children's books?

Well, I thought Ullambaura Haast Bluff was a place, but it seems that it's not. Haast Bluff is a place. Ullambaura doesn't seem to be part of it's name. The word must mean something.....

When I try to google the word, I just get information about the painting.

Anyway, Lord Wiki says that Haast Bluff is an Indigenous Australian Community. It's not too far from Alice Springs.

I like this painting. It's called Finke River Bed. The nice thing is there's actually water in the bed. I wonder if it still has water today.

This Aussie geology website has some Finke River information. They say it's a very old river, and a very long river. But from what I'm reading, it's never totally dry. There's always at least a little water.

I like this painting of Heavitree Gap in Alice Springs. I think there's a little house in the picture. I wonder who lived there. Now there's a lodge in the area.

Okay. I'm tired of looking at paintings. I can do only so much of that.

I'm going to watch this video tribute to Namatjira. It includes a song about him. I really like the song. It was done by a guy named Archie Roach.

One thing I learned in the video was that Albert Namitjira was the first Indigenous Australian to become a citizen. Lord Wiki might have said that. I probably just missed it. It wasn't until 1967 that the rest of the Indigenous Australians were granted citizenship. Things are still pretty awful, but I guess slowly they're getting better.

Hey, America has a black president now. We're getting somewhere. Maybe. Hatred and xenophobia still puts a dark cloud over all of us.