Painting the red centre

February 13, 2006

Albert Namatjira Mount Sonder, MacDonnell Ranges
c.1957-59 watercolour and pencil on paper
National Gallery of Australia


One of the best things about being in Alice Springs is that you’re in Albert Namatjira territory. Taking the roads and trails through the West MacDonnell ranges is like walking through one of his luminous watercolours. Namatjira, the first Aboriginal artist to achieve international fame, died in 1959, but you see his fingerprints all over the landscape, almost as if he created it.

When first you look at his paintings, you think the colours are too strong, too dark, as though he were trying to paint in oils. But Namatjira painted his ancient landscape down to the bone. He knew its hard ribs, black hollows and blue shadows better than anyone. The West Macs are like that, deeply and indelibly inked. Wherever you look, they define the boundaries of vision, wave upon wave of rock, corralling the red sand. At their feet the desert stretches out in the heat like a cat, its dusty flanks spotted with spinifex, scratching at the wall of rock that rims it.

They change endlessly, the West Macs. At times an ocean of stone, pitching and rolling, making you dizzy; at others, the huge scarred backs of rock bulk like behemoths, slow-moving enough to seem motionless; sometimes the ridges drop to the desert floor like curtains, three or four deep. At other times a single escarpment lopes alongside, keeping pace and distance, with a cockatrice crest, racing you home.

The light is amazing out here. In the furnace of days you feel the scrape of its blades. Reach your hand into it and it splinters like glass, releasing the heat’s thunder. The air shakes with it, painting the land red, and the red earth paints it back. The air is red. Everything is red. You can taste and smell the red. On calmer days, when the land is ribboned with cloud, the light changes; it softens, becomes milky almost as mist. The harsh lines of rocks lose their edge, their aggression, and crumble slightly. The Macs could even be dozing, while the air is quiet, and the sun’s knives scabbarded.

Approaching Alice from the west, with the sun falling, you see one of Namatjira’s ghost gums in the middle distance, tall as two storeys, darkening the ranges behind it; a white arm thrust unexpectedly out of the earth almost to the elbow, skeletal fingers twisted with age or memory, dazzling in the horizontal light. It could be the only thing awake in this part of the Territory.

At Heavitree Gap, eons ago, the bluffs broke apart like breadsticks. Now they open up to a whole procession of ghosts, spilling down into Alice. Probably Namatjira himself is among them, driving his battered old truck back and forth between Alice and the baking hot Hermannsburg mission he was born at. Crowding through the Gap come other ghosts: once-were bikers, once-were hippies, once were lost and longed for. They came long ago and stayed, aging into Alice: almost solid forms now, amid the tall and young and the transient millions; faintly and translucently limned, here and there, as if they’d somehow caught the glow from the bone-white tree out in the scrub; as if they, too, had suddenly remembered.

And among the ghosts, the black shadows that slip away, down to the old dry river bed to sleep – a sleep as deep as the roots of rock, as their ancestors’ embrace; to sleep their grief and unalterable hurt at the loss of their blessed, matchless land, inseparable from dreams, the land that one of them, Albert Namatjira, also dreamed, or perhaps was dreamed by.



  1. Beautifully written post. You’ve got the gift, man. Fine stuff. Keep writing!

  2. Thanks, j_p_z!

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