The Commission.

Image result for Albert Namatjira painting of Mt. Sonder pics.

I read of this incident, one of many, in a biography of Albert Namatjira  called “Namatjira ;Wanderer Between Two Worlds”, by Joyce Batty.

If ever you want to read a matter of fact account of simply appalling , disgusting, vile racism that can ever be afflicted upon and to deliberately destroy a fine spirit and an artistic genius, then the understated outrage inflicted upon Albert Namatjira  carefully written in that book will serve you well.

It was a moment of absolute disgust , the manner in which he and his family were treated, as the indigenous are still now being treated. Will we ever see an end to this behaviour?

The Commission.

”Ah! there he is”….

Of course, she had been keeping a keen eye out for him.

“Albert ! ” she obviously but cautiously called, “Albert Namatjira?”

Janet Littlemore was the wife of the bank manager. She was a woman voluntarily trapped into that facile world of middle-class “social responsibility”, of contrived behaviour moulded by an invisible force into “correct” mannerisms and “polite conversation”. Though she had a sensitive side, it was a side almost, but not quite, defeated. She had just that week returned from Adelaide to The Alice on a visit to that southern metropolis of societal bondage and while there, had gone to an exhibition of Albert Namatjira’s paintings..now she wanted one. Many of her friends (or at least those that mattered) had one of those curios..one of those transitions between two cultures, called ( for want of a finer spirituality)”Water-colours by ; Albert Namatjira.” Janet wanted an original Albert Namatjira water-colour.

She had remarked while mingling with her entourage in Adelaide that;

Why yes, she had seen Albert Namatjira many times wandering around the town…and though she had never before had call to speak to him (perish the thought!) in the street, she might now “commission” him to do a painting for her.

“Albert!” Janet called again, her gloved hand holding a delicate balance on her purse.

“Yes missus?” Albert tipped his hat politely, while his eyes searched Janet’s face and demeanor for meanings, for here was “THE bank manager’s wife” accosting him in the street!

“Albert, I saw last week, a painting by you of Mount Sonder. I would like to purchase that painting”. She paused and snapped open her purse and took out a twenty pound note which, Albert intued, must have been put aside for just this action and moment.. “Now, all I am prepared to pay is twenty pounds”.

Janet flourished the note pinched between thumb and index finger as she had been advised ; (“show him cash…”they” can’t resist cash!..then wave it around a little under his nose”…). Albert remained silent. Staring first at the twenty pounds and then raising his eyes slowly, he looked directly into the bank manager’s wife’s eyes. He held his gaze. Hers answered for a moment , strengthened by the social position of her class, but then wavered and dropped and when they rose again to meet his, it was as an equal.

Albert shook his head wearily and sighed. He then spoke to her in his ‘mocking-English’ voice;

“You go along New South Wales (a pause). You go along gallery of Anthony Horden (pause) you see Albert Namatjira painting there ; one hundred and twenty five guineas. some smaller, one hundred guineas. You say : ‘That nice painting, I like, I give twenty quid? ‘ no, no..him price you pay what Anthony Horden say.”

Albert stopped there. He looked at the woman; she turned her head shamefully aside, this was the evidence of the remnant of Janet’s sensitive side..the instinctive knowing that she was trying to take the man down in snobbery and monetary fairness…her lips pinched together. Albert nodded his head , for here was the weakness in the chain, the Achilles Heel of the colonial white-man, the rock from which they will fall ; insatiable greed!… and failing to attain their desire; a swift descent into begging, for that is the soft underbelly of a haughty middle-class.

Nonetheless, as an individual, Albert could feel for the wretched woman, being fully aware of the structure of white-man’s society, he could see the shame the woman now endured. He could picture the build-up to Janet approaching him in the street like she did, the desire for a painting, not, as he was aware, for its artistic merit, but for the social status it gave. The contrived “assimilation”, the act of contrition unspoken, undemanded, uncommitted, that was bestowed upon those of that higher social status that “owned” a work by the aboriginal artist, a “veil” which, hung on the wall, would mask the abyss between their world and that of “the others”. It was this sad weakness in Janet that Albert turned from in sympathy. Janet touched his sleeve as he turned.

“Albert…Mr Namatjira.” she spoke softly, with a now less haughty pleading tone…could you then paint me a landscape of the Macdonnell Ranges?”

Albert turned his eyes to where Janet still held his sleeve. Her eyes followed, they both stood transfixed for the moment, then she quickly pulled her hand back to clutch her purse.

“I will,” Albert said, looking into Janet’s eyes, “But I want the money in advance.”

“How much?” Janet asked nervously, “I….I only have..my husband doesn’t think..I…” she ran out of words. Albert stared hard at the woman…one eye flickered a little.

“Twenty quid.”…….Of course, this price was Albert Namatjira’s way of satirising the banal meaness of both spirit and penny-pinching money value of Janet’s class…a satire that Janet, of course, completely failed to notice.

“You what! well there’s twenty pounds (Janet’s husband always used the correct name for currency) gone on a bender for Albert and his tribe!….AND, fat chance of you ever getting a painting from him!” Janet’s husband railed at her when she told him of her purchase.

“But Thomas… ”

“If only you’d have consulted me first. I could have arranged…oh….something or other though why you want one of Albert’s paintings I cannot begin to fathom… ”

“The Turnbulls have one.” Janet appealed .

“Likely as not!..they buy any daubing they see. Really, some of the ghastly prints they have..Bob Campbell rejected him, and if he’s not good enough for the National Gallery…”

“ That may just be Bob’s taste in art..”

“Be jiggered!…why, Bob’s on the board of half a dozen respectable companies. He’s a man with impeccable taste….in all things cultured….No. I’d suggest most strongly  you keep a good look-out for your Mr. Namatjira and chivvy him along about your painting or you likely as not can kiss that twenty pounds goodbye!”

Such a ponderous lecture from her husband made Janet worry that she had been a little unwise in trusting Albert. The last thing she would want is to be made to look a fool by a Black…!

“Oh lord! how the tongues would wag!.”

So Janet kept an eye out for Albert and the next time she saw him ,reminded him of her order.

“I’ll bring you the painting,” he promised. “What do you think I am…a bad white man?”

A couple of weeks later, Janet was walking down the street with a close companion, when Albert called her from the other side of the street. He waved and held up a rolled article.

“Oh!” she exclaimed “It’s my painting..yoo hoo!, Albert….over here!…over here! Oh is the man deaf..surely he doesn’t expect me to go running across the street after him now does he? Hoo-oo! Albert!… over here!” and she waved her gloved hand.

Albert stood there. He had one hand in his pocket. He put the rolled painting under that arm and then put his other hand in the other pocket. He stood still where he was. Janet suddenly stopped waving and making noises when she saw this….she was no social slouch. She was well skilled in the art of snubbing. Many a cutting remark had she delivered on cue with devastating effect.

Janet’s companion started prattling on at her elbow. but Janet had no ear for it. She had locked eyes duel-like with a “solid rock” and she knew she would lose!..But how to lose gracefully? How to keep face with her companion : To be seen crossing the street to gratify a Black man. Janet squared her shoulders .

“Oh well,” she heaved a false sigh with just ,she hoped, the right mixture of pique and impatience…”if the mountain won’t come to Mohammed…” and she stepped to cross the road.

“Wait here, Madeline, I’ll just be a minute while I deal with this.”

Albert watched as Janet crossed the road. It didn’t give him any pleasure to force her hand like this, he was a polite man..but there was something about the way she …she…expected things…and as he watched her arrogant confidence. he realised how terribly ignorant were these merchant people…and what compounded their ignorance was their dull insousiance!

4 thoughts on “The Commission.

  1. Some people are still being treated like second class citizens! They nay be black or any other colour. Even some whiter people are made to feel, that they are not deserving a lot of respect, even though they happen to be good people, but not very resourceful and coming from a deprived family background,

    Joe, because of your post, I wanted to look up some facts about the life of Albert Namatjira. The following ‘about’ page was published by Iltja Ntjarra /

    Many Hands Art Centre is supported by funding from the Australian Government through the Indigenous Visual Arts Industry Support.

    It seems to me, this ‘about’ page says a lot about A N’s life. I have the feeling, that it won’t be long now, that everyone will be granted full Australian citizenship with absolute no discrimination. Do you not think, Joe, that we have reason to hope for this?

    Here now is the ‘about’ page:

    Albert Namatjira (1902 – 1959)

    Albert Namatjira Heavitree Gap, Ngurratjuta Collection, Alice Springs

    Albert Namatjira is one of Australia’s great artists, and perhaps the best known Aboriginal painter. His western style landscapes – different to traditional Aboriginal art, made him famous. Fame led to Albert and his wife becoming the first Aborigines to be granted Australian citizenship. It was a significant achievement, because at this time Aborigines had few rights. He wasn’t born Albert Namatjira. His parents called him Elea. But after moving to an Aboriginal mission (Hermannsburg) and adopting Christianity, they baptised and renamed their son.

    Mission life was nothing like the life Albert Namatjira’s people lived in the deserts of the Northern Territory. That was a lifestyle he knew little about, until he turned thirteen. At the age of thirteen Albert experienced an important Aboriginal ritual – initiation. As one of the Aranda group, he lived in the bush for six months and was taught traditional laws and customs by tribal elders. Work as a camel driver took Albert through the country he would later paint, the dreamtime places of his Aranda people.

    Albert Namatjira’s watercolour tradition lives on through his family. Explore their paintings in our online gallery! Go to gallery
    By this time he had married Ilkalita, a member of a neighboring community. The couple built a house near the mission, and Albert supported his growing family by doing odd jobs. These included making and selling small pieces of artwork. In 1934 two Melbourne artists visited the mission to exhibit their paintings. Seeing them, Albert Namatjira was inspired to paint seriously. Two years later, he volunteered to show one of the painters, Rex Batterbee, good places to paint. In exchange, Rex taught Albert how to paint. Albert was a fast learner. He thought he had a natural gift, and he was right. Albert’s first exhibition, held in Melbourne in 1938, sold out. Exhibitions in Adelaide and Sydney drew similar enthusiasm. Even the Queen liked his work

    Albert Namatjira was a celebrity, but not always a comfortable one. It was always a relief for him to leave the big smoke and return to his desert home. Success brought money – and Albert planned to use it to secure a future for his family. He wanted to lease a cattle station – but as an Aborigine he wasn’t allowed.

    Next he tried to build a house in Alice Springs. Once again the law prevented him, just because he was Aboriginal. It was a strange situation. Here was a man, heralded as a top artist, treated like a celebrity and yet not even allowed to own land. “He was definitely the beginning of a recognition of Aboriginal people by white Australia.” Charles Perkins

    Public outrage at Albert’s predicament pushed the government to grant him and his wife full citizenship in 1957. This meant they could vote, enter a hotel and build a house anywhere they chose. It took ten years for the government to grant similar rights to the rest of the Aboriginal population.

    As a citizen Albert Namatjira could now also buy alcohol. In keeping with Aboriginal custom, Albert’s friends expected him to share any alcohol he bought. But in doing this he broke white man’s laws. In 1958, police charged Albert with supplying alcohol to Aboriginal people. He denied the charge, but the court didn’t believe him. After two months in prison, Albert emerged a free, but broken man. He had lost his will to paint, and to live. Albert Namatjira died in 1959. He was just fifty-seven years old.

    Albert Namatjira’s life and work have inspired other Aboriginal people to paint. Among them have been his children and grand-children. This great painter captured Australia’s heart in artwork and was praised around the world. His life showed white Australians the injustice of racist laws, and contributed to long overdue changes for his people.

    Source: abc.net.au

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  2. If you read “between the lines” in that short bio’, Uta and apply learned experience of how oppressive authorities use “legitimised articles of law”..read : “THEIR LAWS”, you will read in that account the inhuman treatment of Albert, his wife and family…for instance..that piece about after being granted citizenship so he could buy a block of land and live in Alice Springs…yes, he could..and himself and his wife could live there..but..BUT..because his children were still considered wards of the state, THEY were not permitted to remain in Alice Springs with their parents after the night-time curfew….
    You’d wonder on just what sort of arsehole could enact such a piece of legislation..then you’d ask also how many middle-class whites would want an indigenous family living next to them in a racist town like Alice Springs was in those days…and the reason they blocked Albert from buying land to run a cattle property (he wanted to take his people out of the church charity cycle)was NOT just because he was indigenous..that might have brought the southern media on their backs, so instead they said it was because there was not a gauranteed water supply in that country…..hey..hey..telling an indigenous person that he couldn’t find enough water on his own tribal lands….like teaching your grandmother how to suck eggs!

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  3. I agree, Joe, from our way of looking at things now, these ‘laws’ in how to treat indigenous people were indeed horrendous. Overall, society has changed quite a lot, but the change is too vast for some people. So, even now there are still a few people around that have not changed their thinking sufficiently. – Maybe good teachers can help a lot in eradicating racism in the community. Yes, I think we do need a lot more good teachers! So, it is indeed very important to invest in relevant education. 🙂

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