February 2021

Arts & Letters

The paintbrush is a weapon: Vincent Namatjira

By Quentin Sprague
The Archibald Prize winner’s politics are less straightforward than the art world might like to think

Vincent Namatjira, the young Arrernte artist who calls the tiny South Australian Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara community of Indulkana home, wanted to win the Archibald Prize for almost as long as he’s identified as an artist. Many Australian artists young and old want the same: one thing that marks the Archibald – at $100,000 no longer the country’s richest painting prize, but undoubtedly the one that carries the broadest recognition – is the wide range of painters, well known or not, who throw their hat in the ring each year. But Namatjira’s desire to join the ranks of previous winners, who include William Dobell, Brett Whiteley, Nigel Milsom and Louise Hearman, was about far more than youthful ambition. In 1956, the prize had gone to William Dargie, a once-famous mid-century portraitist of prime ministers and royalty, for his oil painting of Namatjira’s great-grandfather Albert Namatjira. Albert was a painter too, of course – for a brief time in the 1950s, he was arguably the most famous in the country – and the opportunity for a Namatjira to shift from passive subject to winning artist seemed to Vincent Namatjira too perfect to pass up.

The news that Vincent had won the Archibald, for his portrait of footballer and race-campaigner Adam Goodes, came in September last year. It was his fourth entry, and the third that had been hung as a finalist at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. His success was historic in more ways than one. “It took a while to win that Archibald Prize,” Namatjira told me recently, “but it’s good to be the first Indigenous artist to win.” He explained how the painting was inspired by viewing the 2019 documentary The Australian Dream, an account of Goodes’ lifelong struggle with racism on and off the football field. “After watching it,” Namatjira said, “I sat down and thought to myself, This is the kind of thing I went through when I was young.”

Namatjira has only been exhibiting regularly since 2012, but even before images of his winning portrait began to circulate around the country, his charmingly loose figurative paintings – messily executed in a style one might associate with the late enfant terrible (and fellow Archibald winner) Adam Cullen, but which finds precedent anywhere from Sidney Nolan to the American Henry Taylor – had already begun to lodge in the Australian consciousness. A typical early work, Painting of James Cook, 2015, depicts the titular captain as a grizzled old-timer, walking stick in hand; another, The Fight Between Indulkana Tigers and Pukatja Magpies, 2015, documents an on-ground stoush between two local football teams. More recently he’s turned towards more apparently political themes: a series from 2016, The Richest, took as its subject the seven wealthiest Australians, including an awkwardly posed Gina Rinehart, all of them whitely aglow with self-regard; the following year he painted Obama with Me and Donald, which portrayed himself, arms crossed defiantly, standing between Barack Obama and Donald Trump, their faces frozen in rictus grins.

Albert Namatjira – the canonical figurehead of the Hermannsburg School of painting – was known for far more restrained images: quiet watercolours of the white-trunked desert eucalypts, waterholes and red rock formations that mark the country around the namesake central desert mission community. Yet he too was a trailblazer. Reproductions of his now-iconic images were hung in countless mid-century suburban lounge rooms at a time when Aboriginal people didn’t yet have the right to vote. But although the arc of Albert’s story – the recognition, the early granting of citizenship, the late-career injustices that led to his internment in the Western Desert community of Papunya and his eventual death – is widely known, Vincent knew nothing of it until he was an adult. For much of his childhood and teenage years he’d lived at the whim of the state: he was born in Alice Springs in 1983, but when his mother died eight years later, he and his older sister were placed into foster care. They were put on a bus to Perth, where they grew up in a range of family homes. Although there were other Aboriginal kids around, he and his sister were the only two from the desert: they were actively discouraged from speaking Arrernte. Namatjira recalls being “shocked” to learn for the first time of his famous great-grandfather when he left foster care at age 18 and returned to his family in Hermannsburg. It was his grandmother, Epana Namatjira, who told him. She was a painter too – skilled at adorning the famous Hermannsburg ceramics with Namatjira-style landscapes – and as the young Namatjira watched her, he listened. He relearnt Arrernte, and soon after met his partner – a Pitjantjatjara woman from Indulkana – and relocated to her home region to start a family. Their three daughters are now 6, 15 and 17.

Namatjira’s paintings are often marked by humour (in his most recent exhibited series, The Royal Tour, which was accompanied in December by his first artist’s book, he inserted his grinning likeness amid images of Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s 1983 visit to Australia), but he’s quick to reject the often-made claim his work is “witty”. To him it’s deadly serious. The perceived politics of Namatjira’s work are also less straightforward than the art world might like to think. Donald Trump, for instance, has been a recurrent subject, and as easy as it might be to ridicule or damn the dangerously unhinged 45th US president, Namatjira instead takes the radical step of identifying with him: the two share a birthday, and in Namatjira’s hands Trump is stripped of detail regarding his tumultuous presidency to simply become a symbol of how Namatjira pictures himself. “I see him as a global leader,” he says without irony, “whereas I’m a leader for my family, and for a younger generation.”

This is part of what Namatjira means when he says that painting is powerful: it allows him to remake the world in his own image. “The paintbrush is a weapon,” he says, meaning that if it’s wielded with intent it can have an impact. “It makes people smile, makes people talk.” It’s this realisation that first convinced Namatjira he was an artist. During his initial years in Indulkana, he turned his hand to the established iconography of desert painting, to the dotted fields and roundels with which so many of his elders have found success. But it wasn’t for him. His father-in-law, Kunmanara Pompey – a well-regarded artist who passed away in 2018 – showed him a different way: he painted whimsical figurations of local history. When an art-centre manager at the local Iwantja Arts suggested that Namatjira paint a portrait of his famous great-grandfather, he thought of Pompey’s work and cut out on his own. He recalls the older painters becoming animated as they recognised his talent for portraiture. “I’m doing something,” he thought at the time. “I’m reaching them.”

The characters who have since populated his work are largely drawn from television or radio, or from research he undertakes on the art-centre computer. A reptilian-looking Tony Abbott has featured, so too has a bare-chested Vladimir Putin. But no matter how far Namatjira wanders in his quest for a subject, each always doubles as a kind of self-portrait at one remove. This is especially true for an upcoming commission at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, a foyer-scale wall painting originally planned for completion last year, and delayed by the pandemic. Now scheduled to go on display on February 26, the painting – part of an ongoing MCA series that has previously featured artists including Guan Wei and Daniel Boyd – is by far the largest he’s ever attempted. In preparation, he initially pinned a to-scale section of canvas to a wall at Iwantja Arts and mapped out a deceptively simple composition. It arrays a group of recognisable figures against a desert landscape. Namatjira has often depicted well-known white faces, but this time they’re all Indigenous Australian: Adam Goodes will feature alongside the boxer Lionel Rose; Namatjira’s late father-in-law and famous great-grandfather will represent both sides of his artistic family, sharing space with land-rights campaigner Eddie Koiki Mabo, and a retired Aboriginal stockman from Indulkana who stands in for any number of the old men Namatjira holds dear.

They each tell their own story, but Namatjira wants people to look deeper than that. He wants them to see that what links his chosen subjects is not simply their shared identity as Indigenous Australians but also the way they illuminate something of his own biography. “What you see in these people you actually see in me,” he says. “These people are Vincent.”

At one level, this is markedly different to the granular detail of so-called traditional desert painting, in which depictions of place locate an artist’s identity by way of story and language group. One might suggest that Namatjira, by contrast, deploys the kind of pan-Aboriginality by which this country’s Indigenous political movement first drew its strength: a connection by way of common experience rather than shared language or tracts of ancestral country. Yet each approach remains closely related. Both intone the same lesson: This is us; this is me – each is the same. In this way, Mabo reminds Namatjira of land rights, which in turn reminds him of his own youthful dislocation from country, of the years spent in Perth, far from home. The choice to include Goodes – whose disrupted football career serves as yet another symbol of Australia’s enduring struggle with racism – is just as personal. It was the racist insults Namatjira recalls being casually flung around during after-school footy games in Perth that first made Goodes’ story resonate for him: when he recounted this to Goodes during an early meeting in Sydney, the footballer simply shook his head knowingly. When Namatjira first returned to Alice as a young man he took up boxing – he even dreamed, for a period, of winning the Golden Gloves – so Rose, the first Indigenous Australian boxer to win a world title, was another obvious addition.

The fact the wall painting was initially set to be unveiled during the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s arrival in Australia, which came last year, is not lost on Namatjira – he recalls being taken as a schoolchild to see a replica of the Endeavour in Fremantle and imagining the colony’s first whites emerging from the water like ghosts – but he didn’t conceive it with this in mind. As with so many of his paintings, he sees the work as a “reversal”: a means to alter the meaning attached to images, and to then play them back in a fashion that suits his own narrative rather than someone else’s. He plans to depict himself at the painting’s edge, standing proud atop his great-grandfather’s Dodge truck. He’ll be holding an Aboriginal flag, and pointing out through the museum’s entrance to the harbour beyond. In this, his painting will perhaps best be seen as an abbreviated history of Aboriginal excellence that ties into a representation of a single figure: the young artist, standing on the shoulders of giants, reaching forwards.

Quentin Sprague

Quentin Sprague is a Geelong-based writer, and author of The Stranger Artist.

Queen Elizabeth and Vincent (on country), 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Iwantja Arts

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