By Sally Goers Fox
This recent exhibition in the Barossa Regional Gallery in Tanunda, South Australia highlights the longstanding relationships and reciprocity between the Barossa Valley and the Hermannsburg/Ntaria community of Central Australia. It is a tangible representation: revealing to the community not only the art which has stemmed from the Hermannsburg school of watercolour painting, but the role that the Barossa has played in this historically significant relationship over the years.
Hermannsburg watercolours have been viewed from multiple vantage points, with changing perspectives over time. Albert Namatjira painted Country using a European medium learnt from Rex Batterbee, the World War 1 veteran who developed a long-lasting relationship with Hermannsburg and with the Arrarnte people. Namatjira initiated an art movement of integrity, creativity and powerful connection to family and Country. Following his example, multiple generations of artists have since developed their own nuanced style within this tradition now known as the Hermannsburg watercolour school. Cordula Ebataringa tended to use more delicate shades of colour as evident in her works in the exhibition. Richard Moketarinja’s works often demonstrate a playful sensibility, as seen by the dancing palm trees in one of his works and the kangaroo and goanna evoking the Australian coats of arms in the other. Otto Pareroultja’s painting is an example of the rhythmic pattern-making of the three Pareroultja brothers, Reuben, Otto and Edwin. Reuben’s son Hubert displays that influence in his work today. The exhibition contains works from different generations which gives us the opportunity to trace influences over time.
Namatjira’s paintings have been described as a window onto a different culture, but his work is a door, not just a window. When we walk through that doorway from our world, his paintings lay out the land before our feet. We walk on to it, passing under the limbs of the great gnarled ghost gums, across the rocky floor of the creekbed onto the sunlit grassland that leads us to the base of Mt Sonder. Namatjira’s works show us the ancestors of his Dreaming stories embedded in the land. These are not mountain ranges. They are ancestors who lay down to sleep. We can see the outline of his face, or of her belly. These works are filled with life and legends, stories for children, stern challenges, ancient and contemporary history, lessons of nature, and law.
What gave rise to this extraordinarily layered and subtle artform? Much of it arose from the creativity and tenacity of the artists who have had to negotiate two radically different cultures since the first European encounters. We could consider that the Arrarnte were somewhat fortunate in having access to a German Lutheran mission which did protect them against the worst effects of colonisation. Yet colonisation it still was.
In 1877, two German Lutheran missionaries reached their destination in the centre of Australia, after an arduous journey which had begun twenty-two months prior at Bethany in the Barossa Valley. They had reached a place which was called Ntaria by the Western Arrarnte people, who had cared for that place for millennia. The two missionaries, A. H. Kempe and W. F. Schwarz, planned to establish a mission at a recommended site on the Finke River. This began a long and complex relationship between German Lutheran culture (still evident in the Barossa Valley today) and that of the Western Arrarnte people with their profound connections to Country. The relationship between these cultures endures, alive and ever-changing. It is still underpinned by the connections through the Lutheran church but has broadened into strong secular connections as well.
The missionaries named their new mission Hermannsburg after the seminary in Germany where they had received their training. German language and Lutheran beliefs and rituals had arrived in a visually and culturally rich area that was being encroached on by squatters, mainly of English background. Kempe and Schwarz understood the importance of learning the local language and set about doing so. Kempe compiled a grammar and vocabulary book which was published in 1891. Over time successive missionaries held services in the Arrarnte language, and translated hymns and the Bible. The old Lutheran hymns sung in Arrarnte still resonate off the old stone walls of the Hermannsburg church today.
Kempe and Schwarz had followed the Overland Telegraph Line, which had just been built in order to connect Adelaide to Darwin and beyond. This telegraph line opened up the interior to communication but also to white settlement. This settlement, more aptly called an invasion, was on Country which covered the traditional lands of multiple Aboriginal language groups. Conflict, tensions, exploitation and massacres ensued. Complex Aboriginal trade routes and songlines were disrupted or severed. Ancient rituals could not readily be sustained. Land, and therefore essential food and water sources, became inaccessible or degraded. Sacred sites were under threat. Colonialism was being felt in its full impact by the traditional peoples of the interior. The decade following the arrival of Kempe and Schwarz coincided with a time of the worst deliberate violence by settlers and some law officials against Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. Hermannsburg offered safety and survival. Ongoing periods of drought reinforced the importance of the mission for the Arrarnte.
The missionaries were certainly a vehicle for the spread of European culture and values, and contributed to the destruction of traditional ways of life. But they were also instrumental in saving language and culture. Their emphasis on learning the languages of Aboriginal people has meant that some languages, which might otherwise have been lost, were saved. In 1897 German scholar Gustav Warneck articulated the basic belief behind this attention to language:
The human thinks in his [sic] mother tongue; it is the mirror which gives him his soul. And as it is with individuals, so it is also with peoples: in the language of the people the people’s soul finds expression.
Carl Strehlow was in charge of the mission from 1894 to 1922 and had trained in the German humanist tradition that worked to understand cultures according to their own evolution and value systems, rather than viewing them from a hierarchical perspective that saw European culture at the pinnacle. Strehlow’s handwritten German/Arrernte dictionary is a core part of his major work Die Aranda- und Loritja-Stämme in Zentral-Australien (The Aranda- and Loritja-Tribes in Central-Australia), a collection of Aboriginal myths, legends and mores. It remains a valuable resource for the Arrarnte people.
The Arrarnte exercised what agency they could in order to maintain identity and culture. The watercolour paintings, and later the Hermannsburg pots, are an example of that agency. As Philip Jones states:
Namatjira’s actions had a deeper resonance. By mastering the art of landscape painting he was the first Aranda man to take a European cultural item and, in a subversive sense, to make it his own.
The support that the new mission received from congregations back in the Barossa led to the mission’s survival when many others were abandoned. In fact, the missionary Pastor Albrecht took a number of Namatjira’s watercolours to a Synod in the Barossa in 1937 and managed to sell five pieces, beginning a long history of acquisition by people in the Barossa.
The Hermannsburg Potters also seized upon a non-Aboriginal art form, that of pottery. It was first introduced to Hermannsburg in the 1970s by a potter from the Barossa Valley, Victor Jaensch. Over time it became the domain mainly of women artists who reacted to the fact that men dominated as watercolour artists. The women wanted something that was theirs. The pots are built up using a hand coil-pinch technique from terracotta clay. They are then painted with landscapes reminiscent of the Hermannsburg watercolours but typically with people or wildlife added. These scenes flow around the complex curves of the pots and the lids often have sculptural and narrative elements related to the scenes depicted on the pots.
Namatjira rose to fame because the public were seduced by his vivid renderings of landscapes of the interior. The art world, however, mostly saw these works as derivative at best, declining to add any to their gallery collections with the exception of the Art Gallery of South Australia. It acquired one painting from Namatjira’s 1939 exhibition at the Royal South Australian Society of Arts Gallery. That dismissive opinion has since changed dramatically and today these works are seen as rendering Country through the difficult medium of watercolour. We delight in the way they capture light, in the muscularity of the rocks and cliffs, in the play of shadows and changing hues. But Ian Burn and Ann Stephen point to more in their essay, “Namatjira’s White Mask”, referring specifically to the work of Namatjira:
…the more we analyse his pictures in terms of a Western perception, the more convinced we become that the artist is covering the surface in a different way, one which has little conformity to Western picture-making as applied to landscape painting. What becomes curious is how like Western landscapes his finished pictures are. 
They are, in fact, a result of cultural interplay and adaptation. They may reveal the interior of Australia to us, but there is much more contained within them.
Namatjira layered in paint washes to create greater and lesser intensity of colour. Mountains, rocks and land are depicted at a specific time of day with light and shadow creating sculptural forms and features. Often part of the scene is awash in light, contained and moderated by the darker shapes around it. Sometimes those shapes are of mountains, sometimes the softer forms of trees and scrub. His trees are shaped with markings, with repeated lines and arcs evoking body paint designs from ceremonies or initiation markings. Cliffs and hills are textured with lines that clearly give glimpses of faces looking out towards us. How strange that we have wandered into the view of these ancient beings. Suddenly our gaze is matched. Those of us operating out of a pre-programmed Western view run into a powerful other. We stop. Our weight shifts slightly, unconsciously. We thought we knew how to look at a landscape. Here is something quite different, and yet apparently just the same. The space between them is palpable once we recognise its existence.
Desmond Ebataringa, son of Cordula and Walter Ebataringa, both major painters in the Hermannsburg tradition, recounted visiting his parents at the Palm Valley camp where they sold their works to tourists: ‘“When we’re painting country we think about the Dreaming of that country,” Desmond said. “My parents taught me to paint like that.”’
In August 2021, the Barossa Regional Gallery, together with the Barossa Council, put the call out to owners and collectors of Hermannsburg watercolours and artefacts in the extended Barossa community who may be willing to participate in this important exhibition by loaning works. The enthusiasm and generosity of the community’s response is unveiled in the Gallery with in excess of one hundred loaned artworks and objects. In addition, the exhibition delves into heritage, drawing a fascinating collection of artefacts, images and archival stories to share, trigger memories and spark conversation.
And so the connection continues.
Sally Goers Fox is an exhibition curator at the Barossa Regional Gallery where she curated this exhibition. Much of the text is from her research for her MA in Curatorial and Museum Studies from the University of Adelaide where she won the essay prize for the Australian Indigenous Art course in 2018. The Barossa, as it is more commonly known today, lies a one-hour drive to the north of Adelaide. The area was settled by German Lutherans who moved onto Peramangk and Ngadjuri land in the 1840s.  The name of the traditional custodians of Ntaria/Hermannsburg has had different spellings over the years. I use the form decided upon by the Western Arrarnta, but have included quotations which use the earlier spelling of Aranda.  Gustav Warneck cited in P. Monteath and M. P. Fitzpatrick, ‘German Missionaries and Anthropology’, Anthropological Forum, 27:3, 2017. pp. 203-4.  A. Kenny, The Aranda’s Pepa: An introduction to Carl Strehlow’s Masterpiece Die Aranda- und Loritja-Stämme in Zentral-Australien (1907-1920), ANU Press, 2013.  Hardy and Megaw, op. cit. p. 112.  Duane Boerth, resident of Hermannsburg (Ntaria) in the 1990s, interview by author. 19/10/18. I. Burn and A. Stephen, ‘Namatjira’s White Mask,’ in J. Hardy, J.V.S. Megaw and M. R. Megaw (eds), The Heritage of Namatjira: the watercolourists of Central Australia, William Heinemann Australia, Port Melbourne, 1992 p. 270.  Duane Boerth described sitting with Basil Rantji as he painted in a creekbed. The marks he was painting on art board were identical to the many scars on his torso, received each year as he assisted with initiating the young men into manhood. Interview by the author 24/10/2018. http://www.cooeeart.com.au/marketplace/artists/profile/EbatarinjaWalte/ Visited 10/17/2018
Caption: Pastor Liebler and Wife at Hermannsburg. Image as displayed in ‘Hermannsburg: The Barossa Connection’ exhibition at Barossa Regional Gallery, sourced courtesy of the Lutheran Archives of Australia. [Lutheran Church of Australia. Archives and Research Centre n.d., Missionary Liebler and Wife. Hermannsburg.] NB. No further information available from Lutheran Archives, however this similar photograph with information is available via Trove, c. 1911. http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-152877554
Caption: Hermannsburg: The Barossa Connection exhibition brochure.
Caption: Photograph of watercolours as exhibited in Gallery 2 at Barossa Regional Gallery. This image features 3 watercolour paintings by Rex Battarbee, followed by 3 watercolour paintings by Albert Namatjira, all sourced from private collections.