Vincent Namatjira presents Australia in colour
Colonialism, pop culture and family legacy are all part of the story shared through the first major survey exhibition of work by Vincent Namatjira, an artist who enjoys placing powerful people outside their comfort zone.
Vincent Namatjira with his work 'Albert Namatjira, Slim Dusty and Archie Roach on Country' in 'Vincent Namatjira: Australia in colour' at the Art Gallery of South Australia. Photo: Sam Roberts / supplied
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are advised that this story contains the names and images of people who have passed away.
Walking around his largest-ever exhibition on the eve of its official opening at the Art Gallery of South Australia, Vincent Namatjira is clearly both proud and slightly overawed to see the breadth of work on display.
The Western Aranda artist, who lives in the Indulkana community in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands, stops to highlight various pieces, such as a self-portrait showing him reclining on a sun lounger in Miami, a painting of his famous great-grandfather Albert Namatjira sitting for the Archibald Prize, and his Unknown Soldiers series featuring Aboriginal soldiers on a background of army surplus material.
Some works provoke a chuckle, including one painted in collaboration with Ben Quilty featuring the two artists alongside their dogs, where Quilty’s black and white pooch looks somewhat startled.
“With all these works around me, I feel proud and happy and honoured,” he tells InReview, explaining that the survey exhibition enables him to see his own work in a fresh light while also showing “newcomers” where he is coming from and what he does.
Australia in colour, a highlight of the 2023 Tarnanthi Festival, is Namatjira’s first survey exhibition and comprises more than 100 works from 2014 to 2023. They include new paintings and rarely seen works, as well as familiar pieces such as his 2020 Archibald Prize-winning portrait of footballer Adam Goodes and his 2019 Ramsay Art Prize-winning double-sided painting on plywood featuring a self-portrait on one side and Captain James Cook on the other.
Installation view: Vincent Namatjira: Australia in colour – featuring Unknown Soldiers – at the Art Gallery of SA. Photo: Saul Steed
The bold artworks make for a dazzling display, showcasing Namatjira’s unique, wry look at topics such as history, culture, politics and power. They are presented thematically, and include a scaled-down version his animated work combining landscape elements from his adopted home of Indulkana and from his great-grandfather’s Country around Ntaria (Hermannsburg) that was projected on AGSA’s façade during last year’s Illuminate Festival.
“I feel like I’m getting better and better at it,” he says, when asked how his practice has changed over the years.
“I just like painting people, pretty much. I just like the looks of people, their clothing, their age… where they’re coming from.”
The subjects of his portraits in this survey exhibition range from well-known musicians and sportspeople, to royalty, politicians, and family. In one large installation, bearing the same title as the exhibition, a self-portrait is surrounded by paintings of people including Ned Kelly, Jimi Hendrix, “Scomo”, Julia Gillard, Gina Rinehart, Eddie Koiki Mabo and Cathy Freeman.
The Australia in colour installation in Vincent Namatjira: Australia in colour at the Art Gallery of SA. Photo: Saul Steed
Namatjira’s favourite work on display is titled Displaced and shows him in the foreground wearing an AC/DC T-shirt and holding an Aboriginal flag, with Captain James Cook and the late Queen Elizabeth II (atop a horse) behind him.
“This one makes me proud and strong; resilience and strength,” he explains. “It makes me proud because of what I see in this country in the past and today… that’s why I choose this one… and that’s my dog, of course, the dingo – my totem.”
To Namatjira – who believes in “the power of the paintbrush” but also likes to paint with “a little bit of humour” – Displaced represents a kind of reversal of roles or power dynamics, with the symbols of colonialism pushed to the side.
“Here in this Country, we are the keepers of this land and the traditional owners of this land, and the people who first put foot on this land… They [Captain Cook and the Queen] are out of their comfort zone on this Country, and that’s why I see this one as my favourite, because I am holding the Aboriginal flag, I am strong and powerful and proud of who I am and for this Country also.”
Installation view: Vincent Namatjira: Australia in colour – including (second from left) Displaced – at the Art Gallery of SA. Photo: Saul Steed
While the Queen looms large in the exhibition, one of his newest works shows the recently crowned King Charles on Country in Indulkana.
“To me, I don’t see world leaders… I see us as leaders for this country. The ground, the stars, everything, the wind, that’s what I see… nature is where the power is; power comes from nature. That’s why we’re all here.”
Namatjira experienced tragedy early in his life when his mother passed away when he was six years old. He was sent from his home in Mparntwe (Alice Springs) to Perth and raised in the foster care system, losing contact with his family and culture until he turned 18 and was able to return to Country. It’s one of the reasons he likes to take political leaders out of their own comfort zone and place them on Aboriginal soil in the desert in his paintings.
The artist says his great-grandfather’s legacy has shaped his own career. At the same time, he is determined to forge his own path.
“That’s why I paint the way I paint, with acrylic, and he paints with watercolour. And I paint bold portraiture figuratives and modern, and he paints watercolour. He paints about the land; I paint about the people and the Country.”
Installation view: Vincent Namatjira: Australia in colour, Tarnanthi 2023, Art Gallery of SA. Photo: Saul Steed
Australia in colour includes many paintings of Albert Namatjira, including a canvas painted on Country that shows him with musicians Slim Dusty and Archie Roach. A number of Albert Namatjira’s carved and painted works from the Art Gallery of SA’s collection are also on display alongside Vincent’s paintings.
“He was a sitter for the Archibald Prize and that Archibald Prize was won by William Dargie, where me, I sort of reversed it and levelled it, with an Aboriginal artist painting an Aboriginal sitter, which was Adam Goodes, and won,” Namatjira says.
“That was one of my ambitions, to win the Archibald Prize, ever since I was a little kid going to school.”
Now, he says, his ambition is to keep the Namatjira name and legacy continuing. And maybe, one day, be known as Sir Vincent Namatjira.
Vincent Namatjira: Australia in colour opened on October 20 at the Art Gallery of South Australia and is showing until January 21, after which it will travel to the National Gallery of Australia. It is accompanied by a monograph on the artist, titled Vincent Namatjira. The Adelaide exhibition is part of Tarnanthi, which opens this weekend and encompasses dozens of exhibitions and events at 27 different venues across the city and state.