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  5. Plunder and protection: attitudes to Aboriginal art
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Change and revival

An ironic outcome, and a mark of the resilience of Indigenous Australian cultures is that outstation communities have become the focal points of a dynamic process of Aboriginal artistic revival. Places like Hermannsburg (1877), Balgo (1939), Ernabella (1939) and Papunya (1960) were set up to serve the protective and assimilationist policies of non-Aboriginal administrators, but they are now known internationally as the bases of some of Australia’s most important and acclaimed artists.

Albert Namatjira was Australia’s first indisputably famous Aboriginal artist, ushering in the modern period of recognition of Indigenous Australian art. An Arrernte man, Namatjira was stimulated by the watercolours of a non-Aboriginal artist at Hermannsburg in the 1930s. His school of painting continues among Arrernte people today.

Namatjira’s work was ‘acceptable’: here was an Aboriginal artist who painted ‘like a white man’, and whose sympathetic landscapes struck a romantic chord. In some ways, social critics felt his prominence to be counterproductive, since his work could be viewed as a demonstration of the success of assimilation. Reinforcing this idea, the first overseas touring exhibition of Aboriginal art, Art of Australia 1788-1941, included images that were intended to represent the first wave of Aboriginal artists working in the European tradition. Along with these others, Namatjira was largely written off as a serious artist because his work seemed obviously derivative.

It is only recently that critical orthodoxies about Namatjira’s work have been revised. Recent rereadings have been much more sympathetic; increasingly they interpret Namatjira’s work as emphasising his attachment to significant country rather than simply portraying the beauty of the landscape (Caruana, 1993). In any case, he undoubtedly paved the way for the acceptance of later Aboriginal artists who, from a market perspective, have been much freer to work in their own cultural idiom.

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