Herbert Raberaba’s watercolours drew attention for their subtle colouring and attentive rendering of the changing light across the rocky outcrops and tree-filled gorges around the mission town of Hermannsberg. Albert Namatjira had encouraged both Herbert and his brother Henoch, (who were both his tribal brothers), showing their work to his painting mentor Rex Battarbee. Battarbee was impressed, commenting that the Raberaba brothers had now found now their true work in life. Henoch had only just returned from trying his hand as a stockman, a tough and demanding life, often requiring long periods distant from family and friends. Life for the Arrernte people was cruel and difficult since the coming of European settlers to the Australian centre. Pastoralists and gold seekers had flooded into the region, including the small town of Stuart (that later became Alice Springs). The Aboriginal people were excluded from their traditional lands and were ravaged by sickness and starvation. Often they were reduced to begging beside the newly constructed railway from Adelaide. Miraculously, painting had opened a channel for both survival and wider attention. This was mostly due to the genius of Albert Namatjira, followed soon after by his fellow Arrernte watercolour painters.
A gentle and sensitive approach to his subject made Herbert popular with passing tourists who were keen to buy directly from the artist. Herbert divided the regular sized format (30 x 40 inch) into half size. This was popular with bus travellers and Herbert was obligingly prolific as he honed his skills and responded to requests. As word spread however, this arrangement was soon disrupted, though never entirely, by the Hermannsberg Mission’s Art Advisory Council who insisted upon the regularity of saving a wage that could support a family in the European manner. The artists, they complained, spent their money immediately, often siphoned off by relatives who had done none of the work involved. Tension ensued. In 1951, Rex and Bernice Battarbee took over the art management roles and established the Aranda Arts Council. It paid its artists a weekly wage. Herbert Raberaba was amongst this initial group. He was now recognized as a professional artist and though he never achieved the fame and prices that Namatjira was receiving by then, he was included in nation-wide exhibitions that drew national attention to Aboriginal art as well as their living plight.
Though disagreements about payment were never fully resolved, other issues came to the fore as mid-century art critics argued publicly over the emerging Hermannsberg watercolourists. Some suggested that the mastery of European style technique was simply a demonstration of the success of assimilationist government policies and not what might be considered authentic. Others (of more modern bent) recognised a skill and sensibility that was unique, challenging popular stereotypes and affirming the taste of discerning art lovers. As Alison French has written in her revision of the genre, these artists created a uniquely Australian alternative to the inherited and largely unsuited pastoral vision of landscape. The artists were crafting in visual form a deeply felt knowledge and love of their own Country, akin to the personal feeling for one’s own body. They had absorbed introduced techniques and materials but imbued them with their own relationship to the land, peeling away the layers of habitual landscape appreciation. They demonstrated a closeness and feeling for the land that many European newcomers responded to with interest and enthusiasm. The Hermannsberg School continues to develop and evolve today, with Herbert Raberaba revered still as one of its originating members.
Profile author: Sophie Pierce