With humour and wit, Vincent Namatjira explores the complex issues of colonial history and its living consequences on Aboriginal Australians in his bold and dramatised portraits.Read More
Born in Alice Springs, Namatjira was sent to live with foster families as a child when his mother passed away in a car accident. After finishing high school, he returned to Hermannsburg to join his extended family and began reconnecting with his Western Aranda heritage.
Painting, which he picked up in 2011, became one way of exploring his family history, and his humorous portraits of historical figures garnered attention in 2014 when the Queensland Art Gallery purchased all of the works presented in a solo exhibition at Marshall Arts, Adelaide (now Galerie Zadra).
Painting with broad strokes in acrylic, Namatjira often exaggerates the physical features or expressions of his subjects to create portraits that appear to dilute the seriousness of history, distilling the power dynamics of the historical moment with his use of humour.
Recurring characters include Captain James Cook, members of the British royal family, and politicians, many of whom appear in the series of paintings Namatjira submitted in Sydney Contemporary 2017 to show with THIS IS NO FANTASY. Standing in groups of two or three, the historical and contemporary figures are rendered with oversized heads or slanted faces, such as the stern-looking Barack Obama and Donald Trump in Mr Obama and Mr Trump (2017).
Namatjira also frequently inserts himself in his works as with Captain Cook with the Queen and Me (2017) and The Royal Tour (Vincent and Elizabeth on Country) (2022). The artist smiles in both unlike his companions, who appear stiff or relegated to the side of the canvas.
In 2016, Namatjira told Ocula Magazine that he is drawn to figures of power because of their seeming disconnection from the more remote parts of the world such as the Aboriginal community in which he lives. Yet, as leaders and decision makers, their impact has been and continues to be felt internationally. By distorting his subjects in the manner of a caricaturist, Namatjira lifts the figures of power from their zones of influence and strips them of dominance traditionally accorded to them.
Another pivotal figure who frequents Namatjira's paintings is his great-grandfather Albert Namatjira, the celebrated watercolour painter, who was the first Aboriginal person to be granted restricted Australian citizenship in 1957. Albert has been an inspiration for the artist since the onset of his career; in a 2018 interview with Ocula Magazine, he observed that his great-grandfather's contribution to their country made him determined to find his own path, 'and not follow anybody else's'.
Namatjira has dedicated several works to the elder Namatjira, notably R_ex Batterbee and Albert Namatjira_ (2018), which pictures the two significant Australian watercolourists and close friends side by side before a vast landscape that they painted. In 2018, Namatjira was a finalist for the prestigious Alice Art Prize for this painting. The series of paintings purchased by the Queensland Art Gallery in 2014 also included depictions of his great-grandfather.
Working from his studio Iwantja Arts at Indulkana in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands, South Australia, Namatjira is equally devoted to addressing Australia's colonial history and its ongoing consequences as well as celebrating Aboriginal communities in his paintings. For the TarraWarra Biennial 2016: Endless Circulation, for example, he created a series of portraits of the seven prime ministers who had served during his lifetime and whose policies determined the lives of Aboriginal Australians.
In 2018, Namatjira participated in the group exhibition Weapons for the Soldier at Hazelhurst Regional Gallery, which attempted to shed light on the forgotten stories of Indigenous men who fought for their land. He presented a six-panel work, painted on army materials, each depicting an anonymous Aboriginal soldier. Namatjira also honoured Aboriginal celebrities and leaders in the series 'Legends', included in his solo show Legends at THIS IS NO FANTASYin the summer of 2018, which showed portraits of singers Archie Roach and Gordon Bennett, political activist Eddie Mabo, and footballer Nicky Winmar, among others.
Vincent Namatjira has exhibited internationally.
Group exhibitions include UN/LEARNING AUSTRALIA, Seoul Museum of Art (2021); Archibald Prize Finalist Exhibition, Art Gallery of New South Wales (2019); 9th Australia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Queensland Art Gallery of Modern Art (2018).
Sherry Paik | Ocula | 2022