The Namatjira trust


Dear Artist,

Amid 20th Century masterworks here at the Art Gallery of South Australia glimmers a collection of small watercolour landscapes: delicate white ghost gums striped in creeping shadow, wisps of desert brush and tumbleweed, weighty, dirt-red hills under distant clouds. Unlike the museum’s flashier acquisitions, the landscapes hint at timeless spaces, their strokes describing light and leaves, inviting us in with a quiet ease. I drag my nose through a plump, dauby stand of sap green gums, whispering aloud, “Who, what, when, where?”


“Waterhole, Macdonnell Ranges” 1950s
watercolour by Albert Namatjira (1902-1959)

When Elea Namatjira was born in 1902, he was baptized “Albert” and lived with his family at the Hermannsburg Lutherian mission near Alice Springs before being sent into the bush for his initiation at age 13. There, in the shadow of the MacDonnell Ranges on his ancestral land, Albert soaked in the cultural traditions of his Arrernte-speaking people. At 18, he went to work as an outback camel driver, travelling the bush after being ostracized for marrying a girl of a different skin group. When he returned to the Mission in his early thirties, he struck up a friendship with a couple of touring Melbourne plein-air painters. Knowing he was longing to learn how to paint, when the artists returned a few years later, Albert was hired to guide them to local spots in exchange for lessons.


“Illara Creek, Western James Range, Central Australia” ca.1945
watercolour by Albert Namatjira

Within a couple of years, Albert’s enchanting, intuitive watercolours were showing in galleries in Adelaide and Melbourne. Accessible, subject driven and honest, his paintings became wildly popular as a connection to the outback and its people. While his work suffered a critical backlash after his death and was regarded by some as merely an example of successful assimilation policies, Albert Namatjira was eventually recognized as one of Australia’s most treasured artists. The Hermannsburg School, inspired by his legacy, included all five of Albert’s sons Oscar, Keith, Ewald, Maurice and Enos and their children, many who continue to paint near Alice Springs.


“Mangeraka and Hunter” 1939
watercolour by Albert Namatjira



PS: “We’ll consider his work when it comes up to scratch.” (Hal Missingham, Director, Art Gallery of New South Wales (1945-1971), who initially rejected Albert’s work as a product of assimilation.

“His legacy continues in the art of his descendants who paint watercolours that demonstrate ancestral connections to place.” (Alison French, author of Seeing the Centre: the Art of Albert Namatjira 1902-1959)

Esoterica: After twenty years of commercial success, including receiving the Queen’s Coronation Medal in 1954, in 1957 Albert Namatjira was the first Aboriginal person to be granted restricted Australian citizenship, giving him the right to vote, some land rights and permission to buy alcohol. Over time, the emotional and physical strain of straddling two cultures, including financially supporting his resource-sharing community, drove Albert and his wife, Rubina into squalor. Two years before his death at age 57, Albert, desperate and camping with Rubina on a dry creek bed on the outskirts of Alice Springs, agreed to sell a portion of his copyright to a Sydney art publisher in exchange for a small royalty. In 1983, the Northern Territory public trustees, without consultation with Albert’s impoverished heirs, sold the rest of his copyright to the same art publisher for $8,500. After decades of public outrage and fundraising efforts, Albert’s copyright was finally returned to his descendents in October 2017, allowing his work to be fairly and ethically shared with the world. To this end, illustrations here on The Painter’s Keys are used under the Fair Use Clause: “…for the purposes of criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship or research…,” — with the intention to enlighten, inspire and inform a global community of artists.

You can see the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies’ 1975 documentary Sons of Namatjira about the descendents of Albert, here. Or pop over to the Many Hands Art Centre in Alice Springs, Northern Territory, to meet the present day artist descendants of Albert Namatjira.


The audio letters are now ready to give as a gift!
The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love… and then we return home.” (Australian Aboriginal saying)



    • “The assimilation policy was a policy of absorbing Aboriginal people into white society through the process of removing children from their families. The ultimate intent of this policy was the destruction of Aboriginal society.”

  1. I grew up in Australia (now in Vancouver). Albert Namatjira was a boyhood, teenage inspiration to me and has remained so as I morph from being an architect to full time watercolour painter. He continues to dazzle me as I pour over the illustrations in the books on him that I have. Along with John Singer Sargent, JW Turner, Andrew Wyeth, Winslow Homer, Toni Onley, he is one of my watercolour heroes. So glad you featured him

  2. OMG! Thank you for this. The landscapes by this master are so beautiful. I don’t often comment but I couldn’t contain myself when I viewed this letter.

  3. Must native peoples always find their contributions in the arts, sciences, politics considered less valuable than those of the dominant culture? Namatjira’s story is tragic. The rejection and devaluation of his work cost him economic suffering as well as the emotional suffering of rejection. Some day, I hope these artists and pioneers may experience the recognition they are due while they are still alive.

    • Same with female artists in the ‘old days’! As an Australian I am very grateful for Aboriginal art and the cultural markers they left behind and continue to create in the outback of Australia. Namatjira was an exception, in that he ‘copied’ the European way of replicating the landscape. However, he had the benefit of being ‘part’ of the land that he painted, which adds an evocative and personal touch to his work. Amazing art.

  4. Dianne Dykstra on

    WOW! The painting ” Waterhole, Macdonnell Ranges” is almost duplicated in the state of Arizona, USA. Duplicated by sight that is at Boyce Thompson Arboretum. The State Park is located in Superior Arizona about 1 hour east of Phoenix. There is h an Australian walk with exhibits, Eucalyptus forest and information about native people of that country. The terrain and view with the mountains in one area of the park is just like that of his remarkable painting. Thanks for the great article on one an amazing artist!

  5. Many thanks for bringing this artist & his wonderful work to public notice – so sad so many nasty, greedy people have taken advantage of artists (and other less powerful people, of course) – and so good to learn of eventual recompense, as much as such can be of value after damaging a person in the first place. Clearly none of the abuse interfered with this man’s attachment to and production of his art, thankfully for the rest of us, too.

    • I repeat Kate’s thanks. Seeing these incredible watercolours made my heart sing!

      And kudos to you, Sara, for your writing skills. You write a lot like your father did. Each time I read the Painters Keys, I try to figure out if you or your dad wrote it before I get to the end. I had this one pegged as one of Robert’s past posts, especially when you ‘dragged your nose’ over the painting. It made me chuckle.

  6. Interesting that the excuse “successful assimilation policies” was used to justify ignoring the obvious mastery shown (“comes up to scratch” Really?!) Did the “politically correct” think he should only be working with “indigenous” materials and designs because he happened to be aboriginal? Not allowed to explore beyond those limits? Real freedom will come for all when we stop categorizing and setting artificial “protective” boundaries. He wanted to learn, he was not forced! We are fortunate that his works survived as they are certainly treasures.

  7. Having grown up in the 50s with two Namatjira prints (in heavy dark wood frames) on the walls of my childhood home, I am so pleased to have read this particular letter today. He always seems to be a backdrop to my childhood memories. I remember Mum telling me of Namatjira’s sad story while I was still young, and how that affected me.
    I’m glad to say that those two prints now hang on my walls.

    In case anyone is wondering, I came from an ‘ordinary’ white home :)

    • Thank you for this wonderful letter and introduction to aboriginal art. I visited Australia over 20 years ago and saw firsthand how the aboriginals were treated at that time. I do believe that native peoples are being recognized more now (in the U.S. as well as Australia). Lovely and inspiring work for all of us watercolorists.

  8. I do not have enough words to say how infuriated I am in Namatjira’s behalf for his mistreatment by both the “whites” and his own people. What a wonderful painter he was. No artist should ever have his or her vision limited. To be forced into a specific genre because of one’s heritage is barbaric. To be denied one’s perceptions and use of skills is cruel and inhumane. Never mind to have one’s compensation stolen.

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