In the 1950s, the famous watercolor artwork of Albert Namatjira was being sold on the streets of Alice Springs for just a few shillings.
the main points:
- Albert Namtagira’s artwork is in high demand, with one piece fetching over $120,000
- One prominent art owner says people realize how important a man arent artist is
- A member of the Namatjira family says his legacy has inspired many others to follow in the artist’s footsteps
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article may contain photographs of people who have died.
Over the years and after his death in 1959, his paintings depicting the vast landscapes of central Australia became in high demand, with collectors all over the world demanding to own a piece of his work.
Now there is a renewed interest in the Arrernte artist and father of the Hermannsburg School with his work setting new records.
On paper, Glen Helen Gorge of Namatjira brought in more than $120,000 when it got hammered in Melbourne earlier this year.
In July, his painting The Granseur – Mount Sonda in Adelaide sold for $54,000, an unprecedented price that exceeded expectations by nearly $10,000.
“Namatjira’s work doesn’t come out on the scene very often, but those works … bring tremendous value,” said Jim Elder, auctioneer and owner at Elder Fine Art in Adelaide.
“I don’t feel like the people in Alice Springs would be fond of what actually happened to his work.
“He needs to be taken very seriously and I think right now people are waking up to how important an artist he really is.”
Born and raised in the remote Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission, southwest of Alice Springs, Namatjira learned the art of watercolor painting by visiting European artist Rex Battarbee and was deeply encouraged by the local pastor.
His status grew rapidly in Australia, and as a result he became the first Aboriginal person to be granted full citizenship, enabling him to vote and purchase alcohol in 1957.
Mr. Elder said the entire Australian art market had been enjoying a rush of boom lately, but Namatjira’s work far outpaced the market trend.
“What drives all of this is availability, of course, and people are coming in more and more with the place this artist actually has in Australian art history,” he said.
“One wonders today, if Namtagira had not come and Rex Batarbe had not come and discovered him, I would not have found the whole school of paintings.
“We owe, and a great debt, to the likes of Albert Namatjira, Rex Batarbe, and the Hermannsburg School of Artists.”
Legacy chart the way for others
Salma Coulthard was just a little girl when Albert Namatjira died.
She doesn’t remember much about his funeral, but said seeing his artwork left her in no doubt about what she wanted to do when she grew up.
Now an accomplished artist at the Namatjira School of Art in Central Australia, Ms. Coulthard has spent the past three decades carrying on the art movement that Nammatjira inspired first in Hermannsburg all those years ago.
“We tried to revive his image,” she said.
“Some people don’t remember him because most of his sons are gone, so we are relatives who continue his work and talk about his life here.”
Widely regarded as Australia’s most famous Aboriginal of his generation, Nammatjira has always maintained a connection with family and country, she said.
“It was his relationship with the entire family’s tribe. Regardless of who it was, it was called family,” she said.
“He was a really famous person and his mind was always there because he loved to draw.
“He put on what he saw, and he showed it, because his love for his homeland – the Earth too – was present on the paintings he painted.”
After a decades-long struggle, the copyright of Namatjira’s work was returned to his family in 2017 after it was sold by a trustee general in 1983 for $8,500.