In the 1950s, Albert Namatjira’s iconic watercolor artwork would often sell on the streets of Alice Springs for just a few shillings.
- Demand for Albert Namatjira artwork has surged, with one piece fetching more than $120,000
- A prominent art proprietor says people are realizing how important an artist the Arrent man was
- A member of Namatjira’s 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 images of people who have died.
Over the years and following his death in 1959, his paintings of the vast Central Australian landscape became highly sought after, with collectors across the world clamoring to own a piece of his work.
Now there’s been a renewed interest in the Arrernte artist and father of the Hermannsburg School with his work setting new records.
Namatjira’s Glen Helen Gorge on paper fetched more than $120,000 when it went under the hammer in Melbourne earlier this year.
In July his painting The Granseur – Mount Sonda sold in Adelaide for $54,000, an unprecedented price almost $10,000 above expectations.
“Namatjira’s work doesn’t come on the scene very often, but those works … bringing enormous value,” said Jim Elder, auctioneer and proprietor at Elder Fine Art in Adelaide.
“I don’t feel that the people in Alice Springs would be au fait with what has actually happened to his work.
“He should be taken a lot more seriously and I think it’s at this present time that people are waking up to how important an artist he really is.”
Born and raised at the remote Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission, southwest of Alice Springs, Namatjira was taught the art of watercolor by visiting European artist Rex Battarbee and greatly encouraged by the local pastor.
His status grew rapidly in Australia, and as a result became the first Indigenous person to gain full citizenship, enabling him to vote and buy alcohol in 1957.
Mr Elder said the whole Australian art market was enjoying a rush of buoyancy of late, but Namatjira’s work had far surpassed the market trend.
“What’s driving all this is availability, naturally, and people are coming more au fait with where this artist actually stands in the history of Australian Art,” he said.
“One wonders today, if Namatjira didn’t come along and Rex Battarbee didn’t come along and discover him, that whole school of paintings wouldn’t have existed.
“We owe a debt, a great debt, to the likes of Albert Namatjira, Rex Battarbee, and the Hermannsburg School of artists.”
Legacy painting the way for others
Selma Coulthard was just a small child when Albert Namatjira died.
She does not 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 Namatjira first inspired in Hermannsburg all those years ago.
“We’ve tried to revive his image,” she said.
“Some people don’t remember him because most of his children are gone, so we are the relatives actually carrying on his work and talking about his life here.”
She said Namatjira, widely considered the most famous Indigenous Australian of his generation, always maintained his connection to family and country.
“His connection was with the whole family tribe. No matter who it was it was called family,” she said.
“He was a really famous person and his mind was always there because he loved painting.
“He was putting down what he sees, and it showed, because his love for his country — the land as well — was there on the paintings that he did.”
Following a decades-long struggle, the copyright for Namatjira’s work was returned to his family in 2017 after it was sold by the Public Trustee in 1983 for $8,500.