Indigenous Watercolor Artists Render the Australian Landscape Anew

MELBOURNE, Australia — Across a series of rooms at the National Gallery of Victoria’s Ian Potter Centre, Watercolour Country: 100 Works from Hermannsburg presents a remarkable collection of paintings from the early 20th-century Australian art movement known as the Hermannsburg School. The exhibition includes 77 works on public view for the first time that narrate the movement’s story, legacy, and ongoing evolution.

The Hermannsburg School gets its name from a Lutheran mission established in 1877 in Australia’s Northern Territory, close to the Indigenous Aranda community. The movement has its roots in the 1930s, when Rex Battarbee, a visiting artist, met and befriended a young Arrernte man named Albert Namatjira. Over eight weeks in 1936, Battarbee taught Namatjira watercolors in the European landscape style.

Rendered in luminous watercolor, the landscapes of Aranda country are the hallmark of the Hermannsburg School, from mountain ranges and the oft-dry Larapinta River to ghost gums and spinifex. Many on view convey the heat and dryness of the desert, while closer readings of older works demonstrate the encoding of sacred Indigenous songlines, stories, ancestry, and cultural meaning tied to the land. While Battarbee may have provided the spark, Namatjira would go on to become the first Indigenous artist to have a solo exhibition in Melbourne, in 1938 and, in a short time span, he was exhibited internationally. His success inspired members of his family and community — most of whom were already making art in some form — to take an interest in watercolor painting. An artistic movement was born.

Among the works in Watercolour Country are three of Namatjira’s early paintings: a depiction of a purple and blue Haast Bluff mountain peak in Central Australia from the 1940s, a moody MacDonnell mountain range, and a rendering of the crystalline waters of the Finke River Gorge, the latter two dating to the 1950s. Over 40 other Arrernte, Western Arrernte, and Kemarre/Loritia artists feature in the show. An imposing ghost gum standing before the red James Range is an especially captivating work, painted in 1955 by Otto Pareroultja, a fellow founder of the Hermannsburg School. Also on view are four watercolor landscapes notable for their symmetry and pencil details by Cordula Ebatarinja, one of the only women to have a career as a painter during the movement’s peak during the 1930s to 1950s. Her works are shown alongside pieces by her husband and sons.

West McDonalds Ranges Benita Clements
Benita Clements, “West McDonalds Ranges” (2016), watercolor, fiber-tipped pen and ink over pencil, 8 x 11.41 inches (© Benita Clements; image courtesy the Iltja Ntjarra Art Centre and National Gallery of Victoria)

Numerous contemporary artists in the exhibition can trace their ancestry to the school’s founders and continue to practice in its style at the Iltja Ntjarra Many Hands Art Centre. In landscape after landscape, these artists offer a reprieve from the older, romantic landscapes, presenting political messages that often take aim at the lasting impact of empire and colonization. In a 2016 satirical work titled “West McDonalds Ranges,” a send-up taking its name from the MacDonnell mountains, Benita Clements — the great-granddaughter of Albert Namatjira — depicts Aboriginal people using traditional hunting techniques under the food chain’s Golden Arches sign. The work comments on the health risks facing First Nations people while lampooning fast food companies for their profiteering ubiquity. Elsewhere, a colorful, patterned work depicting Mount Gillen overlaid with the words “20 YEAR WAITING LIST” underscores the ongoing disenfranchisement of First Nations people. The artist Lenie Namatjira, Albert Namatjira’s granddaughter, had been waiting 20 years for adequate public housing in the Northern Territory when she created the painting in 2016.

Given Australia’s recent failed referendum, which would have created a parliamentary advisory body representing Indigenous Australians, it’s an essential time for cultural institutions to shine a light on Indigenous artists, as Watercolour Country does. Without glossing over the horrors of colonialism, the exhibition presents an abundance of Indigenous voices harnessing the Western watercolor style as a tool for agency and self-expression in the face of marginalization. This gathering of works makes clear that the Hermannsburg movement is ongoing, its messaging evolving, and the voice of the artistic community ever-growing.

Watercolour Country: 100 Works from Hermannsburg continues at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia (Federation Square, Flinders Street, and Russell Street, Melbourne, Australia) through April 14. The exhibition was curated by Sophie Gerhard, curator of Australian and First Nations Art at the National Gallery of Victoria.

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