Walter Ebatarinja was among the amazed and delighted local Aboriginal audience who attended the initial exhibition of watercolours by Rex Batterbee and John Gardner at the Lutheran mission in Hermannsburg in 1932. Walter, already an accomplished craftsman, wished also to be taught the new painting method like his uncle Albert Namatjira. He had to wait however until Albert returned from his painting trips with the visiting artists, and then press him into imparting his new skills. Albert taught his sons to paint and a few of his wider relations, including Walter, often including them in his trips into the McDonnell Ranges and the dramatic gorges along the Finke River. In turn, Walter taught his wife Cordelia to paint, and then his sons Joshua and Desmond. This is how the Hermannsburg School of watercolourists began.
Despite Namatjira’s popularity, much criticism was levelled at the Arrernte artists because of their adoption of European materials and the introduced Realist style, so foreign to the acceptable Aboriginal cultural experssion at the time. Critics called it a ‘popular craze’ or ‘pretty pictures’ of imitative value only, rather than of artistic merit. Yet their consistent sales proved a strong incentive and public appreciation carried the day. Their luminous watercolours found their way into the hearts and minds of the Australian imagination and finally the art establishment. Contrary to initial perceptions, this new translation of the landscape was actually in keeping with the traditional, spiritual relationship between the artists and their country. The paintings have genuine meaning, tracing as they do the much loved landforms, full of ancient stories and hidden sacred sites, not unlike the forms of other Aboriginal art that depict country from a taditional omnipotent perspective. The paintings are more than landscapes in the conventional sense of scenery. They arise as part of the land and reflect an attentive custodial sensibility towards it. Arrernte landscape painters are part of a continuing tradition that today is becoming more important than ever.
Walter’s son Desmond Ebatarinja recalls his parents’ artistic activities, which brought much needed money into the family during difficult drought years. The children were sent away to the mission school while Walter and Cordelia lived at the Palm Valley camp, twelve miles out of Hermannsburg and sold art to passing tourists. In those days, the paintings had to be stamped by the Native Affairs Branch to be 'approved' by the authorities and attract good prices. Desmond remembers coming home during holidays and swimming in the Finke River and watching his father paint. Walter developed his own recognisable painterly style, often using clusters of dots and areas of parallel lines as he analysed the land in more broad and geometric terms. Cordelia meanwhile gave more attention to a decorative quality. “When we’re painting country we think about the Dreaming of that country,” Desmond said. “My parents taught me to paint like that.” Arrernte country was centred around Alice Springs and, though the traditional owners were pushed to its outer missions and margins, today’s thriving art centres still rest on the enthusiasm, skill and international reputation of the foundational Hermannsburg painters.
Profile author: Sophie Pierce
Edited: Adrian Newstead
Artbank, Sydney.; Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.; Flinders University Art Museum, Adelaide.; Museum of Victoria, Melbourne.; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.; Parliament House Art Collection, Canberra.; Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane.; The Kelton Foundation, Santa Monica, U.S.A.;
1963, The Melbourne Moomba Festival, Exhibition of Aboriginal Art, presented by the Aborigines Advancement League, in conjunction with the Myer Emporium, Melbourne, Victoria.; 1991, The Heritage of Namatjira at Flinders, Flinders University Art Museum, Bedford Park, South Australia.; 1992/93, The Heritage of Namatjira, touring exhibition, through Flinders University Art Museum.; 1995, Namatjira Ilakakeye, kinship, creativity and the continuing traditions of the Hermannsburg artists, Tandanya, Adelaide.
Battarbee, R., 1951, Modern Australian Aboriginal Art, Angus and Robertson, Sydney. (C) ; Battarbee, R. and Battarbee, B., 1971, Modern Aboriginal Paintings, Rigby, Adelaide. (C) ; Berndt, R. M. and Berndt, C. H. with Stanton, J., 1982, Aboriginal Australian Art, a Visual Perspective, Methuen Australia Pty Ltd, Sydney. ; Hardy, J., Megaw, J.V.S. and Megaw, M.R. (eds), 1992, The Heritage of Namatjira - the Watercolourists of Central Australia, William Heinemann, Australia. (C)
Walter Ebaterinja's paintings first appeared at auction in 1969, the year after his death. It was a measure of the affection owners felt toward his paintings that by 1984, 15 years later, only twenty five paintings had appeared for sale on the secodary market with the higheast result being $425, a quite considerable amount at the time. As his works sold from the Hermannsburg mission during his lifetime for $5 to $20 this was a remarkable increase in value. By 1995, when Sotheby's held its first specialist Aboriginal art auction in Australia more than 200 works had been offered for sale with his record price being the $900 set by Lawsons in April 1993.
Walter's success at public sale is quite remarkable though the average price of his works is very low at $699. His low average price is acountable to the length of time since his death and his works first appearance in Australian auctions. If his early sales pre-1995 are discarded, the average prices of his sales jumps dramatically. (Walter's AIAM100 rating accounts for this, as the rule that discounts an artist's ranking if their average prices fall below $1500 applies. Were this factor not taken into account, Walter's position amongst the most important artists of the movement would be significantly higher).
His current record price was set at Sotheby's in July 2007, when a lovely 39 x 57 cm image of Alice Springs as seen from Anzac Hill sold for $10,800. Another smaller image painted of the same scene from the same location sold in 2012 for $9,600 relegating an image entitled Aranda Landdscape that sold for $4,800 two years earlier to third place. Only 10 works have sold for more than $2,000 and 45 over $1000. That leaves no over 300 paintings which have either failed to sell or have achieved a price under $1000. All of Walter's sales over $1000 have been made post-2003. The reason? In 2002 the National Gallery of Australia staged its major retrospective Hermannsburg painting exhibition, Seeing the Centre, curated by Alison French. At the time of the exhibition Hermannsburg works were considered a rather kitch anomoly in the history of Aboriginal desert art, having been transcended by the sheer volume of traditional desert dot paintings created post-1970. Subsquently, works by Albert Namatjira, and indeed all of the leading Hermannsburg watercolourists underwent a reappraisal and this has resulted in steadily increasing prices.