Today, Australian Aboriginal artists are well-known worldwide and the culture of aboriginal art has become heavily commercialised.
Yet this is a recent happening of the past 50 years, or maybe it is more a renaissance of traditional aboriginal art dating back as far as 40,000 years, encouraged in its re-creation by the hounds of commercial artistic reality.
However, even at school over 50 years ago, we studied the art of one famous Australian aboriginal artist, Albert Namatjira, born 113 years ago today, 28 July, on Hermannsburg Mission not far, in Australian terms (where a drive to the local pub could well be over 100km), from Alice Springs, Uluru (Ayer’s Rock), the centre of Australia and the South Australia/Northern Territory border. It’s location is on the Finke River, a dry sandy bed where the water appears as an act of God, in the Macdonnell Ranges.
One can only assume that faith led the two German Lutheran missionaries to park themselves in the middle of nowhere to convert Australian Aborigines, who were not even counted in the census of this pre-federalised group of British colonies, to their European beliefs and their own dreamtime.
The apparently peaceful nature of the Aranda tribe at what the Germans named Hermannsburg Mission enabled on-going relationships to continue to this day, through the formation of Australia, the many political upheavals and land-rights issues since the 1960’s. In fact, about 100 years ago, the Bible was translated into the local aboriginal language.
But while these facts are interesting, the birth of Albert Namatjira as an artist in the 1920’s and his continuing artistic development in western style art till his early death at 57 years, has become a pillar in the history books of Australian Aboriginal artists. My main recollection from the ‘study’ of art in high school is a watercolour painting by Namatjira of the ranges capturing the purple hues of central Australia, that I then went to see for myself when just 17.
Albert Namatjira is remembered for these paintings of the ranges and particularly for paintings of ghost gums, those lone trees standing wherever a little water may be hidden underground. Their near white bark and grey-green sparse gum leaves appear as a ghost through the horizon whenever the dust is raised by the wind.
It is time to return to the outback and see once again what Albert Namatjira so poignantly preserved in his art.