Benjamin Landara is an historic member of the Hermannsburg watercolour school. Famously, it was Albert Namatjira whose representations of the dramatic scenery of the Australian interior west of Alice Springs founded this movement. Namatjira gained an unexpected burst of financial success and celebrity status, unheard of for an Aboriginal person at that time. This changed the course of Australian art. He went on to encourage his extended family members to take up the brush and follow in his footsteps. Benjamin Landara was included in that foundational group. He was related to the Ebataringa family, also artists, and married Namatjira’s eldest daughter Maisie. By the late 1940s he was painting alongside Albert, his early work revealing the master’s influence.
The Australian centre could be considered one of the most challenging living environments in the world. Yet Aboriginal people, over many thousands of years, lived a culturally and spiritually rich life here. In the 1930s Hermannsburg Mission (established by German Lutherans in 1877) became the place where a new Aboriginal art form emerged. The encouragement of painting by the mission enabled its continuance after visiting watercolour artists had introduced European materials and methods to an Aboriginal audience. Under Rex Battarbee’s mentorship, Namatjira transmuted the intimate relationship that his people have with their Country into a new visual form. It followed the realistic representational method of European tradition but imbued it with a new sensibility, absolutely unique. In a subtle manner, it communicated the rich and ancient indigenous heritage and counteracted to a small degree the widespread destitution caused by European settlement. The Hermannsburg School challenged the European perception of the centre as an unattractive and empty place and drew attention to the plight of Aboriginal people.
Landara attended the mission school and learnt English and Christian religious beliefs. Christianity became a strong support to his dispossessed people and seemed able to exist in harmony with their Dreaming beliefs, many looking back fondly on those early days with the German missionaries. The priests were kind and considerate of the Arrente people who were suffering greatly due to the loss of their vital hunting grounds and cultural support systems. Namatjira developed his craft over many long camel back excursions with Battarbee into the lands around Hermannsburg - first as an assistant and later as an artist of equal regard. Some argued that he soon surpassed his mentor. Soon he was taking his own painting groups, including Landara, on painting trips. Exhibitions in the Southern capitals were frequently selling out to an enthusiastic public while angry critics argued over artistic merit and even English royalty paid their respects.
It was this hopeful story that was the basis of Landara’s career. He became a stalwart member of the family, accompanying the group out along the Finke River and into the MacDonnell ranges to paint at different times of day and seasons of the year. Battarbee described him as “a kindly person, and an asset to the family group…an excellent colourist with a keen perception of beauty.” He was capable of rendering complex imagery with unfailingly exquisite brushwork. Consequently his work was sought after by visitors to the Namatjira camp near Alice Springs, hoping for a bargain by avoiding official channels. People admired his pleasing, pastel tones and grasp of light across the land. He was regularly included in exhibitions, eventually having his works bought by State Galleries and included in their permanent collections. But success brought its own particular forms of conflict and sorrow for the Namatjira family, particularly in regard to the contradictory expectations of white and black laws. It was this that led to Albert’s untimely death.
Though the mission is long gone and the laws have improved, the children and grandchildren of the early group have continued on and beyond the tradition of the Hermannsburg School. Art historians have reevaluated these landscapes as coded expressions of traditional sites and knowledge, not obvious to the uninitiated eye and somewhat in keeping with the abstract forms that burst onto the art scene thirty years later at Papunya. In consequence, from many points of view (aesthetically, monetarily and historically), the original works by Landara and others have become highly valued artworks.