Born on the Hermannsburg Lutheran mission in 1902, Albert Namatjira, a member of the Arrernte tribe, was the first of the Hermannsburg mission’s much-copied school of landscape watercolourists. Although lacking much painting experience, Namatjira assisted white artist Rex Battarbee on his painting expeditions through the Central Australian deserts in the 1930s during which his talent soon became obvious to Battarbee, who later became Namatjira’s agent. Like all NT Aborigines at that time, Namatjira was forbidden to buy alcohol, stay overnight in Alice Springs or leave the Territory without permission. At the insistence of southern do-gooders – and against his wishes – he was the first Aborigine to be awarded Australian citizenship, in 1956. This meant he could travel without limitations, but needed a permit to visit his own family on Aboriginal reserves. Following the success of his first exhibition in Melbourne, he became a reluctant celebrity, compelled under Aboriginal tradition to share his wealth with his extended family. A shy and modest man, he died in 1959 following a sordid conviction and short imprisonment for supplying alcohol to fellow Aborigines.
Critics could never make up their minds about his work, but his popular appeal was undoubted: today his paintings remain among the most valuable examples of Australia’s artistic preoccupation with its landscape. Sadly, the Twin Ghost Gums in the West MacDonnell Ranges, which featured in some of his most famous works, were destroyed in a suspected arson case in 2013.