Australia: From the Royal Academy to the Outback


This year, London’s autumn season has an Australian theme. At the Royal Academy, a major exhibition of the past 200 years of Australian art opens on the 21st of September. Focusing on the powerful influence of the Australian landscape, Australia will bring together works, many previously un-seen in the UK, which showcase art by early European settlers, celebrated modern artists, such as Sidney Nolan and Aboriginal artists Rover Thomas, Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Albert Namatjira (1902-59). The Australian theme continues on London’s Southbank, where Theatre group Big hArt Inc. is bringing Albert Namatjira’s life story to the stage, at the Purcell rooms, Southbank centre from 27th - 29th November 2013.

Albert Namatjira

At one time the most celebrated of water colourists and the first aboriginal art star, Albert Namatjira died in 1959, having just served a prison term, reportedly made a scapegoat for allowing alcohol into his desert camp.

Born into poverty on the outskirts of the Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission, west of Alice Springs, Namatjira discovered Western style painting through the watercolours of amateur artist Rex Batterbee. Batterbee’s landscapes amazed Namatjira with a new way of representing the land, not least because the paintings included the previously un-seen colour blue, until then not familiar in the traditional landscape palette.

 Detail from the ancient rock art of Mt Grenfell historic site
Cobar NSW
Deciding that watercolour painting was his vocation, Namatjira’s first solo exhibition in Melbourne in 1938 was a sell-out and, after a steady succession of shows around the country, he came to the attention of Queen Elizabeth, who awarded him her Coronation Medal in 1953.

Immensely popular with the public, during his lifetime Namatjira was largely ignored by the art world, the then Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales Hal Missingham reportedly declaring: ‘We’ll consider his work when it comes up to scratch.’

Namatjira straddled two cultures which created intense pressures. At the height of his fame he was supporting more than 600 people and in 1944 was the first Indigenous person to be listed in Who’s Who in Australia. An understanding of light and form in watercolour is a capacity Namatjira taught his children, and in turn they passed it down to theirs. Now, third generation artists from the family maintain what has become known as the Hermannsburg painting tradition. In 1999, arts and social change theatre company Big hArt had a touring bi-lingual production called Ngapartji involving young artist Elton Wirri. At the end of each performance Wirri was introduced as Namatjira’s grandson to rousing applause.
 Elton Wirri Tjungurrayi, Petermann Ranges, 2008,
watercolour on acid free paperboard
Courtesy of Ngurratjuta Arts and Gifts, Alice Springs, Australia

Encouraged to bring Namatjira’s story to a wider audience, Big hArt began developing ideas for a theatre production through painting workshops at the ‘Many Hands’ centre, using Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolour and sable brushes. Called Namatjira, the production stars aboriginal actor Trevor Jamieson, and opened at Sydney’s Belvoir street theatre in 2010 with an accompanying exhibition of works made by descendants of the artist.

Art in the Outback

While London celebrates Australian works from the last 200 years, artists in remote communities in Australia continue to explore new art materials. Whilst water colour is a popular choice, there are other materials which lend themselves well to working in such a specific climate. Resident Artist for Winsor & Newton in Australia, Liz O’Reilly has been working with artists in rural and remote Aboriginal communities, facilitating printmaking workshops using Artisan Water Mixable Oil Colour.

Daily workshops were held with schools and community groups during a four week residency in each town, where elders and local Aboriginal artists presented cultural material as inspiration for the artworks. Printmaking was the chosen format as it echoes the traditional form of artistic expression found in outback New South Wales, where many forms of artistic representation were practised. These included carving designs into trees, dry creek beds and ceremonial grounds, into spears, shields and message sticks, as well as paintings on rock walls.
 Jaymee, Cobar 1
Artisan Water Mixable Oil printmaking
   Jaymee, Cobar 2
Artisan Water Mixable Oil printmaking
Printmaking lends itself to a ‘mark making’ type of art, direct transfer monotypes imitate the incised line of carving by pushing the paint aside with a simple drawn line. Simplify Monotype printmaking is a quick and easy process with instant results, and using Artisan Water Mixable Oil paints with a range of 40 colours, over half of them single pigment paints, gives a large scope of colours and an ability to attain clean bright mixes. Artisan also withstands long car journeys, in the often harsh Australian climate temperatures in places like Cobar and Collarenebri can soar to 40° or more. Acrylics would dry too quickly in these settings, and the particular virtue of Artisan is that it cleans up quickly and easily with water in a hot classroom setting where solvents would be inappropriate.