London’s autumn art season has an Australian theme this year.
At the Royal Academy, a major exhibition of the past 200 years of Australian art, Australia, will focus on the powerful influence of the country’s landscape. It will showcase art by early European settlers and modern artists such as Sidney Nolan, and celebrate Aboriginal artists Rover Thomas, Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Albert Namatjira. Meanwhile, at the Southbank Centre, the arts and social change theatre company Big hART is bringing Namatjira’s life story to the stage.
At one time the most celebrated of watercolourists 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 Battarbee. He was amazed by the new way Battarbee’s landscapes represented the land, not least because the paintings included the colour blue, until then not familiar in the traditional landscape palette.
After deciding that watercolour painting was his vocation, Namatjira’s first solo exhibition in Melbourne in 1938 was a sell-out. After a steady succession of shows around Australia, he came to the attention of Queen Elizabeth, who awarded him her Coronation Medal in 1953.
Namatjira was largely ignored by the art world during his lifetime, but was immensely popular with the public. The then director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Hal Missingham, reportedly declared: “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, theatre company Big hArt toured a 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.
Encouraged to bring Namatjira’s story to a wider audience, Big hArt began developing ideas for a production through painting workshops at the Many Hands art centre, using Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolour and sable brushes. The show, Namatjira, starred Aboriginal actor Trevor Jamieson and opened at Sydney’s Belvoir St 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. Watercolour is a popular choice, but there are other materials that lend themselves well to working in such a specific climate. Winsor & Newton’s resident artist for Australia, Liz O’Reilly, has worked 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 a traditional form of artistic expression found in outback New South Wales, where many forms of artistic representation were practised. These included designs carved into trees, dry creek beds and ceremonial grounds, as well as into spears, shields and message sticks, and paintings on rock walls.
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. Monotype printmaking is a quick and easy process with instant results, and using Artisan Water Mixable Oils, available in 40 colours – more than half of them single pigment paints – allows artists to achieve 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 degrees Celsius 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.
*Lead image: Elton Wirri Tjungurrayi, Petermann Ranges, 2008, watercolour on acid free paperboard, courtesy of Ngurratjuta Arts and Gifts, Alice Springs, Australia