Albert Namatjira<br/>
<em>MacDonnell Ranges at Heavitree Gap</em> (early 1950s) <!-- (recto) --><br />

watercolour<br />
34.5 x 52.0 cm (sheet)<br />
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne<br />
Presented by Esso Australia Pty Ltd, 2018<br />
2018.1129<br />
© Namatjira Legacy Trust/Licensed by Copyright Agency, Australia

A journey through Watercolour Country


Connecting multiple generations of family and kin through their embrace of a single artistic movement, Watercolour Country: 100 Works from Hermannsburg celebrates the ongoing legacy of an artform that transformed the lives of a small Community.

Hermannsburg, established in 1877 near the populous and established Aranda Community of Ntaria, was the first Aboriginal mission in the Northern Territory. The new town was named after Lutheran labourers from the German town of Hermannsburg who were sent to staff the settlement. To its colonisers, the land was frightening and inhospitable, its stifling heat and drought the cause of a ten-month delay in their journey from Glenelg, South Australia. To those who understood them, however, the lands and waterways of the Central Desert were fertile and alive.

Covered in spinifex, the settlement is nestled between Tjoritja (MacDonnell Ranges) and Uruna Tjina (James Ranges). Corkwood, mulga and desert oak trees provide shade during summer’s extreme temperatures while Lhere Pirnte (the Finke River) provides water when the rains allow. Deep canyons and gorges traverse the landscape, which is home to masses of red cabbage palms recently discovered to have been brought to the area by First Nations peoples over 30,000 years ago. When properly cultivated, the hearts of the young trees are edible. The trees are such a profound symbol of the area it has now earned the epithet, Palm Valley. Like the paintings it would come to be known by, Ntaria is vibrant and richly hued, dotted with ghost gums reminiscent of the white heat felt in the air while the ancient, often-dry riverbed radiates a near-crimson glow.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the relationship between Indigenous peoples and settlers was deeply hostile. Introduced animals drunk precious water in waterholes and massacres of Aranda peoples by police and station workers were frequent. Though the mission offered resources such as food and water to Aboriginal locals, lack of trust was a major barrier.

In 1894, German-born Reverend Carl Strehlow took over the mission’s management. At just twenty-two, he was determined to integrate local Aranda peoples into the Hermannsburg community. Though rooted in a system of colonial and racist ideologies, Strehlow’s position at the mission was relatively humanistic in approach. With a genuine interest in living alongside the First Nations Community and learning their language, customs and culture, Strehlow shared a respectful affinity with the Aranda people and began to earn their trust. Slowly, locals started integrating into the mission’s Community and, some time in 1901, Ljukuta and Namatjira, a local couple later known as Emilie and Jonathon, came to collect supplies. The following year, Emilie gave birth to the couple’s first son, who would be given the name Albert. It was not until Albert became known as an artist, some thirty years later, that he adopted his father’s totem name of Namatjira, meaning ‘Flying White Ant’.1‘Namatjira’ is most likely an error of transcription. It is likely that Albert Namatjira’s true name was ‘namatjirritja’, the correct spelling of the Aranda word for ‘flying ant’. See Martin Edmond, Battarbee and Namatjira, Giramondo Publishing, Artarmon, 2014, pp. 52–3. For some time, in his early career, Albert would sign his name ‘Namatjira Albert’ before finally settling on the signature ‘Albert Namatjira’.

An animate Country

The diverse topography of Central Australia continues to captivate landscape artists, who revel in the transformative spectacles engendered by the land’s cycles. The land around Ntaria is subject to powerful climatic forces, with sudden and harsh changes in weather, and though varied in their distinct styles and modes of capturing the landscape, today’s Hermannsburg watercolourists remain bound by their intimate connection to and knowledge of the characteristics of their Country. Works depicting Kwartatuma (Ormiston Gorge) and Lhere Pirnte (the Finke River) reveal the intimacy of the landscape’s narrow confines. At various times of the year, these tight spaces are prone to swift and severe flooding, their ancient rivers transforming the gorges into places of both dynamism and peril. Meanwhile, the red rock walls of Angkerle Atwatye (Standley Chasm) demonstrate light’s capacity to bend and enhance the appearance of colour. Ochres and browns are transformed into reds and purples, so vibrant they appear almost artificial.

The momentous energy of Country, however, is most prominently revealed in the watercolourists’ depictions of sacred sites. Laden with ancestral stories, memory and cultural meaning, these works reveal the life force that connects land, people and animals. Ghost gums, in particular, are anthropomorphised, often read as sentient beings, a history of survival embedded in their depictions. Twisted trunks become torsos and branches become arms while bark functions like skin, folding and wrinkling due to external pressure from the elements. In some works, black growth emerges from white stubs, a sign of regeneration.

Otto Pareroultja<br/>
<em>Ghost Gum, James Range</em> (c. 1955) <!-- (recto) --><br />

watercolour; laid down<br />
53.5 x 72.5 cm (image) 54.0 x 74.5 cm (sheet)<br />
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne<br />
The Joseph Brown Collection. Presented through the NGV Foundation by Dr Joseph Brown AO OBE, Honorary Life Benefactor, 2004<br />
2004.252<br />
&copy; estate of the artist l Aboriginal Artists Agency Ltd

First, there was Albert

‘You know, before I was an artist, all I ever saw were the tracks on the ground. We didn’t have time to look up at all. The tracks were our life, eyes down all the time. But now I see the beauty and it’s changed my life completely.’2Ken McGregor, The Life and Times of Albert Namatjira, Badger Editions, Melbourne, 2021, p. 12.

– Albert Namatjira

Albert Namatjira’s interest in art began in 1932 when, to combat the impacts of malnutrition and drought that had sent the Lutheran mission into severe economic distress, the residents were invited to produce wooden crafts to sell to the local Community. The funds generated were to go towards a regular supply of water to the area. Until this point, Albert had worked odd jobs to earn his modest living, such as cameleering, blacksmithing and woodwork. That same year, the mission was visited by Melbourne-based artists Rex Battarbee and John Gardner, who presented an exhibition of watercolour landscapes they had created on their journey across the Territory. Albert was struck by the works and immediately requested painting supplies from the mission’s workers to begin his own art practice. ‘I looked at those paintings,’ Albert once said. ‘Ah! That one I knew the place … Mount Sonder … and that … Gosse Range. I thought that if a white man could paint my country I knew so well, then I could do it too.’3Albert Namatjira, cited by Douglas Lockwood in Crocodiles and Other People, Rigby Limited, Adelaide, 1966, p. 174.

Albert began a friendship with Rex, and the two continued to write to each other after Rex returned to Melbourne. In 1936, Rex went back to Ntaria and requested Albert act as his guide on a two-month painting expedition around Palm Valley and Tjoritja (MacDonnell Ranges). While out bush, Albert learnt how to capture the landscape through watercolour and taught Rex the Dreaming of his Country – the eaglehawks that created the mountain cliffs and the ancestors who had left their poles behind, which later transformed into gums. After just eleven days together, Rex wrote in his journal, ‘I know now that he will make a name for himself and for his race too. I know that I could not do anything like as good at so early a stage of watercolour painting’.4Edmond, p. 142.

Albert went on to develop his own style of depicting the landscape, and today his name is synonymous with luminous depictions of undulating mountain ranges and ghost gums, denoting his indelible wisdom of Country. Frank Clune, a popular travel writer of the 1950s, who accompanied Albert on one of his painting expeditions, recorded his experience of watching the artist at work:

With nimble fingers and deft dabs of colour, while ants crawled across the drawing, he delineated the contours of jagged ranges. Eloquently, he outlined the flinty mountain massifs, blending them into soft images, pleasing to the eye. Then he turned the picture around and filled in the deep blue Centralian Sky. Amazing the vari-coloured contrast! The sun rose higher as the artist toiled away, regardless of ants and flies, while I boiled the billy and we lunched on bully beef, as we’d run out of fresh meat. At last, as the sun was setting, Albert completed his masterpiece in blues and reds, and we returned to Dashwood Creek, for another pleasant evening around the campfire.5Frank Clune, ‘Albert Namatjira: our great Aboriginal painter’, Dawn: A Magazine for the Aboriginal People of N.S.W., vol. 6, no. 3, March 1957, p. 11.

From the late 1930s, Albert’s practice garnered great attention in Australian society, and his engagement with Western painterly techniques became the focal point for critics. At the time, his watercolours were seen as symbols of ‘successful cultural assimilation’, in line with colonial policies of the era, and before long, the artist had become an internationally renowned celebrity. In 1954 Albert was flown across the country, to Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Adelaide, and presented to Queen Elizabeth II during her State visit that year. From there, the artist’s life increasingly became public property: his image was never far from journalists and tourists, and he even had bars and restaurants named after him, such as Hotel Namatjira in Melbourne and Namatjira Lounge in Sydney, which were two popular mid-century drinking spots.

To help navigate the influx of finances gained from the sale of his paintings, in 1957 the artist became the first Indigenous person to be awarded Australian citizenship. Until then, Albert had been refused the deed on blocks of land and modest homes within Mparntwe (Alice Springs), with laws stating Aboriginal people were prohibited from home ownership and banned from remaining within town boundaries after dark. The ‘privilege’ of citizenship was also given to Albert’s wife, Rubina, in order to keep their marriage – now an illegal union between an Australian citizen and an Indigenous woman – legal.

Although the couple’s citizenship was seen as a victory by those in Australia who supported civil rights for First Nations peoples, for Albert, it had little to offer. Suddenly, the couple were caught between two opposing worlds and expected to abide by the often-conflicting rules of societal law and cultural lore. There was no greater example of this conflict than when, a year later, Albert was charged with supplying alcohol to his close friend Henoch Raberaba, an action illegal in settler society but expected under Aranda lore, which insists that one shares what they have among kin. Albert was convicted under the Welfare Ordinance for providing alcohol to an Aboriginal person and served two months in prison. He was released a free but broken man and was desperately unwell after his incarceration. Albert died of heart failure just three months later, survived by Rubina, his daughter, Maisie, and his five sons, Keith, Maurice, Enos, Ewald and Oscar.

Today, Albert’s watercolours are celebrated for their exquisite depictions of traditional sites and sacred knowledge. They convey with authoritative understanding the ecology and geology of Australia’s Western Desert while brilliantly depicting the intimacies and intricacies of light, time and seasonal change. Throughout his life, Albert influenced a wealth of artists from his Community around Ntaria, and his legacy remains vital to artists four generations on. Through the work of Albert and his fellow artists, the Hermannsburg mission was transformed from a struggling community to an active and thriving art centre, sparking the genesis of what would become an iconic school of art in Australia and one which continues to inspire and sustain First Nations communities.

C. Stuart TOMPKINS<br/>
<em>Albert Namatjira</em> (1951) <!-- (recto) --><br />

gelatin silver photograph<br />
36.8 x 29.4 cm (image)<br />
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne<br />
Gift of the artist, 1971<br />
PH488-1971<br />


A continued legacy

Of the founders of the Hermannsburg school, Otto Pareroultja’s landscapes are some of the most powerful and expressive of the first generation of watercolourists. Compared to many of his counterparts, including his artist brothers Edwin and Reuben, Otto harnesses a bold use of line and contrast that emphasises geometric forms within the landscape. Taught to paint by Albert, Otto is thought to have placed importance on private, spiritual meanings in his paintings, in line with ancestral Aranda stories. Strong black and white markings are often seen in his paintings, particularly on the bark of white ghost gums, suggestive of rings painted on sacred ceremonial poles in the area. The work of Edwin Pareroultja, however, sits apart from other works of this period and is different from the paintings of his brothers, instead celebrating the interplay of light. Edwin painted his works quickly, in order to capture the fleeting cycle of the sun, highlighting the unique geological formations of rock formations around Kwartatuma (Ormiston Gorge). Like much of Central Australia, this area is abundant with the presence of iron oxide, giving the rock its red colouring.

Another significant family of watercolourists is the Inkamala family. Brothers Adolf, Gerhard and Clifford Inkamala were raised in Ntaria by their parents, Reinhold and Clara, and lived close by in Areyonga throughout their lives. Clara’s mother, Emilie, was Albert’s mother. Though all three Inkamala brothers became successful painters, Adolf had a dual career as an artist and pastoralist, successfully leasing a cattle station in Ikuntji (Haasts Bluff), which earnt him a substantial living. Perhaps thanks to his multiple streams of income, Adolf was a careful painter, who took a great amount of time refining his watercolours before they were displayed. He was openly proud of his career as an artist and is remembered for painting the side of his car with the words ‘Adolf Inkamala, artist Areyonga’. The Inkamala family remain indelible figures in the watercolour movement in the Northern Territory, seen particularly in the work of Vanessa and Clara Inkamala, who continue to practice in the tradition of their ancestors.

Reinhold Inkamala<br/>
<em>Homeless</em> 2016 <!-- (recto) --><br />

watercolour, synthetic polymer paint and gouache over pencil<br />
19.6 x 28.9 cm (image) 21.5 x 30.0 cm (sheet)<br />
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne<br />
Purchased NGV Foundation, 2018<br />
2017.17<br />
&copy; Reinhold Inkamala, Iltja Ntjarra Many Hands Art Centre

Eighty-five years on from Albert’s first exhibition in 1938, the land around Ntaria has changed dramatically since the first watercolourists began painting at the Lutheran mission. Today, through their Dreamings, the teachings of their ancestors, and their connection to Country, contemporary artists continue to showcase the movement’s traditions while embracing new techniques, media and motifs to ensure its survival. Many artists working in the manner of the early Hermannsburg watercolourists now practice at Iltja Ntjarra (Many Hands) Art Centre in Mparntwe (Alice Springs). Among those at the centre are Lenie Namatjira and Reinhold Inkamala, who incorporate text to construct politicised messages about the continued marginalisation of First Nations peoples. Similarly, Benita Clements and Vanessa Inkamala employ satire and humour to depict environmental changes on their Country caused by tourism and enterprise. While some artists repurpose discarded road signs as painting supports, others produce large-scale works on fabric, integrating pen, acrylic paint and graphite into their compositions. Iltja Ntjarra is also home to artists working within contemporary fashion whose graphic illustrations are printed and handpainted onto garments. Though diverse, the artists working at Iltja Ntjarra share kinship with those who began the watercolour movement in Ntaria in the 1930s, continuing the remarkable legacy of their family’s living history.

Mona Lisa Clements<br/>
<em>West McDonalds Ranges</em> 2016 <!-- (recto) --><br />

watercolour, fibre-tipped pen and ink over pencil<br />
20.4 x 29.0 cm irreg. (image) 21.5 x 30.0 cm (sheet)<br />
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne<br />
Purchased NGV Foundation, 2018<br />
2017.14<br />
&copy; Benita Clements, courtesy of Iltja Ntjarra Art Centre

In 2017, artists working at the centre began a new chapter in their history with the launch of the Namatjira Legacy Trust, begun by two of Albert’s granddaughters, Lenie Namatjira and Gloria Pannka. The Trust works to secure funds for better housing, education and the continued teaching of watercolour painting to future generations. Its revenue keeps the art centre financially afloat and works to publish books and films on the history of the Community. In its inaugural year, the Trust secured the transfer of copyright funding for Albert’s watercolours back to his descendants. The Namatjira family had not received any finances for the copyright since it was sold to a non-Indigenous art dealer in 1983.

Though woven with narratives of adversity, discriminatory governmental actions and profound sorrow, the history of the Hermannsburg watercolourists remains rooted in the lasting spirit of Community. The movement fundamentally changed how non-Indigenous audiences view the art of First Nations peoples, giving way to artistic traditions in nearby Papunya before providing a commercial platform for Indigenous artists across Australia to market their depictions of Country.

Sophie Gerhard is Curator, Australian Art and First Nations Art, National Gallery of Victoria

We are grateful to the late Darvell M. Hutchinson AM and his family for the donation of seventy-seven works displayed in Watercolour Country: 100 Works from Hermannsburg. Without this gift, the exhibition and the opportunity to highlight the ongoing art practices of the Hermannsburg watercolourists would not have been possible.



‘Namatjira’ is most likely an error of transcription. It is likely that Albert Namatjira’s true name was ‘namatjirritja’, the correct spelling of the Aranda word for ‘flying ant’. See Martin Edmond, Battarbee and Namatjira, Giramondo Publishing, Artarmon, 2014, pp. 52–3.


Ken McGregor, The Life and Times of Albert Namatjira, Badger Editions, Melbourne, 2021, p. 12.


Albert Namatjira, cited by Douglas Lockwood in Crocodiles and Other People, Rigby Limited, Adelaide, 1966, p. 174.


Edmond, p. 142.


Frank Clune, ‘Albert Namatjira: our great Aboriginal painter’, Dawn: A Magazine for the Aboriginal People of N.S.W., vol. 6, no. 3, March 1957, p. 11.