Answer to the ‘Who am I?’ posted 8 June 2013 – Elea ‘Albert’ Namatjira


(1902 – 1959)

Albert Namtajira and his wife Rubina 1940s

Elea ‘Albert’ Namatjira and his wife Ilkalita ‘Rubina’  in the 1940s

Albert Namatjira is one of Australia’s great artists, and perhaps the best known Aboriginal painter.

His western style landscapes – so different to traditional Aboriginal art, made him famous.

Fame led to Albert and his wife becoming the first Aborigines to be granted Australian citizenship.

It was a significant achievement, because at this time Aborigines had few rights.

He wasn’t born Albert.

His parents called him Elea.

But after moving to an Aboriginal mission and adopting Christianity, they baptised and renamed their son.

Mission life was nothing like the life Albert’s people lived in the deserts of the Northern Territory.

That was a lifestyle he knew little about, until he turned thirteen.

At the age of thirteen Albert experienced an important Aboriginal ritual – initiation.

As one of the Aranda tribe, he lived in the bush for six months and was taught traditional laws and customs by tribal elders.

Work as a camel driver took Albert through the country he would later paint, the dreamtime places of his Aranda people.

By this time he had married Ilkalita, a member of a neighbouring community.

The couple built a house near the mission, and Albert supported his growing family by doing odd jobs.

These included making and selling small pieces of artwork.

In 1934 two Melbourne artists visited the mission to exhibit their paintings.

Seeing them, Albert was inspired to paint seriously.

Two years later, he volunteered to show one of the painters, Rex Batterbee, good places to paint.

In exchange, Rex taught Albert how to paint.

Albert was a fast learner.

He thought he had a natural gift, and he was right.

Albert’s first exhibition, held in Melbourne in 1938, sold out.

Exhibitions in Adelaide and Sydney drew similar enthusiasm.

Even the Queen liked his work

Albert was a celebrity, but not always a comfortable one.

It was always a relief for him to leave the big smoke and return to his desert home.

Success brought money – and Albert planned to use it to secure a future for his family.

He wanted to lease a cattle station – but as an Aborigine he wasn’t allowed.

Next he tried to build a house in Alice Springs.

Once again the law prevented him, just because he was Aboriginal.

It was a strange situation.

Here was a man, heralded as a top artist, treated like a celebrity and yet not even allowed to own land.

“He was definitely the beginning of a recognition of Aboriginal people by white Australia.” Charles Perkins

Public outrage at Albert’s predicament pushed the government to grant him and his wife full citizenship in 1957.

This meant they could vote, enter a hotel and build a house anywhere they chose.

It took ten years for the government to grant similar rights to the rest of the Aboriginal population.

As a citizen Albert could now also buy alcohol.

In keeping with Aboriginal custom, Albert’s friends expected him to share any alcohol he bought.

But in doing this he broke white man’s laws.

In 1958, police charged Albert with supplying alcohol to Aboriginal people.

He denied the charge, but the court didn’t believe him.

After two months in prison, Albert emerged a free, but broken man.

He had lost his will to paint, and to live.

Albert Namatjira died in 1959.

He was just fifty-seven years old.

Albert’s life and work have inspired other Aboriginal people to paint.

Among them have been his children and grand-children.

This great painter captured Australia’s heart in artwork and was praised around the world.

His life showed white Australians the injustice of racist laws, and contributed to long overdue changes for his people.

Albert Namatjira – Fact sheet 145

Albert Namatjira - 1946

Albert Namatjira – 1946 (A1200, L7861)

Albert Namatjira (1902–59) was one Australia’s most notable artists. His work, watercolour landscapes of Central Australia, is represented in all Australian State art galleries.

Namatjira was born into the Aranda community at the Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission, near Alice Springs, Northern Territory. He was first named Elea but then christened as Albert when his parents adopted Christianity. At 13 years of age Namatjira was initiated into the Aranda community and taught the traditional laws and customs. At 17 he married Ilkalita (Rubina) of the Luritja community. Namatjira met Australian artist Rex Battarbee who visited Hermannsburg in 1934. Battarbee tutored Namatjira in the western tradition of painting and helped him to organise his first exhibition in Melbourne in 1936. This exhibition was a success and Namatjira was encouraged to exhibit his work in Adelaide and Sydney. Other exhibitions of his work followed, especially during the 1950s.

Success brought Namatjira money, which he used to lease a cattle station. Granted in 1949, the lease was cancelled in 1950 when it was realised that cattle grazing in the area would not be viable. Namatjira then attempted to build a house in Alice Springs, but was hampered under the terms of the Aboriginals Ordinance (NT) 1918–1947. Namatjira was granted full citizenship rights in 1957. Unlike many other Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory, Namatjira was then entitled to vote, to live where he wished and to purchase alcohol.

In 1958 the Alice Springs Police charged Namatjira with supplying alcohol to Aboriginal people. He denied the charge and fought the sentence he received in both the Supreme Court and the High Court. His appeals were unsuccessful and he was sentenced to two months in prison. Albert Namatjira died in 1959.

Records relating to Albert Namatjira held by the National Archives

The National Archives holds many records relating to the life and work of Albert Namatjira. Most of these records are held in Canberra or Darwin, but scattered material may also be found in other offices of the Archives. Issues such as the questions over Namatjira’s citizenship rights and his 1958 imprisonment resulted in many personal protests to the Minister responsible for the Northern Territory. These are held in the Department of Territories’ records series A451, and can be identified on RecordSearch by searching on series ‘A451’ and narrowing the result by the keyword ‘namatjira’.

2 thoughts on “Answer to the ‘Who am I?’ posted 8 June 2013 – Elea ‘Albert’ Namatjira

  1. One of my favorite artists. He was a genius in the paintings of his country. An inspiring and very talented man who had to learn to deal with some of life’s hard lessons in his own native land.

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