History and Culture

The Watercolour tradition of Central Australia

‘Albert Namatjira used light in a dramatic, but not theatrical way. He used it as an all-revealing, all encompasing presence. His distances are not backgrounds, but integral parts of the landscape’.

The landscape or watercolour tradition of Central Australia continues to survive with many of its Aboriginal inhabitants valuing its watercolour painting as an ongoing part of their cultural heritage. Watercolours now take their place with other contemporary Aboriginal art forms, such as acrylic paintings, fibre art, barks paintings, batik and works on paper.

As a result of the construction of the Overland Telegraph Station in 1872, Australia’s vast, northerly frontier, gradually underwent European colonisation. Cattle stations along with government settlements and Aboriginal missions emerged in a landscape of harsh extremes and often conflict with its traditional indigenous owners. 

One such mission to emerge in the late 1870’s amidst this irreversible change and uncertainty, was the Lutheran built community of Hermannsburg, located some 125kms west of Alice Springs, in the traditional country of the Arrernte. It was here in the 1930’s that the famous watercolour movement also known as the Hermannsburg School of  Watercolourists originated. The person responsible for this unexpected and exciting development of western media was a relatively unknown Victorian artist by the name of Rex Battarbee.

Battarbee used the Lutheran community as a base for his many painting trips to Central Australia, often in the company of fellow friend and artist John Gardiner. It was after an exhibition of watercolours at Hermannsburg in 1934 by Battarbee and Gardiner that a young Aboriginal man by the name of Albert Namatjira voiced his desire to use this new found medium to realistically portray his totemic landscape rather than use traditional Aboriginal symbols.

After just an eight-week painting excursion to Palm Valley with Battarbee, Namatjira remarkably mastered the use and control of watercolour techniques. Such an accomplishment was largely attributed to his extraordinary powers of observation. Lyn, Australian artist and critic said in relation to an Anniversary Exhibition at Araluen in 1984: ‘Albert Namatjira used light in a dramatic, but not theatrical way. He used it as an all-revealing, all encompasing presence. His distances are not backgrounds, but integral parts of the landscape’.

Despite Namatjira paintings achieving widespread acclaim and triumph amongst public audiences nationally and internationally, art critics and institutions largely refused to accept his work because of its ‘borrowed style’ which they felt possessed no meaningful place in Indigenous Australian culture.

The enthusiasm and interest stimulated by Namatjira’s success soon involved members of both his immediate family as well as others with broader kinship ties each of which developed their own distinctive style, such as variation in compositional structure, colour use and technique.

Some of those artists who were first to join their famous relative (all of whom were taught by both Namatjira and Battarbee) were Namatjira’s older sons, Enos, Oscar and Ewald and the Pareroultja brothers, Edwin (whose works were noticeably geometric and highlighted by bold bands of colour) Ruben and Otto ( whose paintings incorporated concentric circles and wavy lines of traditional Arrernte sacred objects).

Other artists included the Inkamala brothers, Adolf and Gerhard, Henoch and Herbert Raberaba, Richard and Gloria Moketarinja along with Walter and Cordula Ebatarinja, the latter often depicting a series of portrait studies of mission dressed people. Cordula was also one of several women who painted in the predominantly male environment.

Despite strong market interest during the 1980’s in Western Desert acrylics which lead many watercolour artists to change their style of painting, there still existed a small body of younger generation artists who were determined to maintain their Arrernte watercolour tradition, particularly for the art-buying public in Alice Springs. Such artists included Clem and Douglass Abbott, Jillian Namatjira (granddaughter of Albert) as well as the Luritja speaking Pannka family, Claude, Ivan and Nelson.

Although the art of watercolour painting has been historically associated with the Western Aranda of Hermannsburg there has existed for well over three decades a very enthusiastic and passionate group of  Eastern Aranda watercolourists based at the Catholic mission of Santa Theresa, some 90 kms south-east of Alice Springs. Their art developed independently of the influence of Namatjira and only came into contact with his paintings much later.

Though equally concerned with the land, the art of the Santa Theresa painters differs stylistically from that of the Hermannsburg painters. It is usually less geometric and more concerned with painting effects in the sky such as sunsets. Three of the most popular and significant watercolourists from this community are sisters-in-law Kathleen and Gabrielle Wallace and Theresa Ryder.

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