“WE DON’T NEED ANY MORE heroic portraits of royals and colonial figures,” writes Vincent Namatjira in the pages of his eponymous monograph. “That mob were born into wealth, power and privilege, so I feel like it’s fair enough to make fun of their stuffy uniforms and their outdated traditions… even their teeth.”
You can imagine Vincent Namatjira penning these words with a twinkle in his eye. The paintbrush may be his weapon—a feather sword he wields to subvert the colonial narratives that have marginalised his people for centuries. Yet the sense of wit and candour the artist renders his oppressors with is, quite simply, unmatched. Take Charles on Country. Superimposed against the sunburnt soil and rocky outcrops of Western Aranda country, where Namatjira was born, the King looks about as out of place as an emu on the grounds of Buckingham Palace, a destination Namatjira is hoping for an invitation to visit.
“I’m not just hoping, hey, I’m actually being serious,” he clarifies over Zoom from his home in Indulkana, in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY lands) in South Australia. “I do want to go there, to put myself in the position where I can do my painting live.”
Charles on Country, 2022, is one of 13 new paintings that will appear in ‘Desert Songs’, an exhibition held by Yavuz Gallery in Sydney this month, and one of hundreds of works that appear in the first major monograph on the artist.
That these two milestones will coincide with the opening of ‘Vincent Namatjira: Australia in colour’, a major survey that will travel from the Art Gallery of South Australia to the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra in early 2024, is no coincidence. Namatjira has been one of our most celebrated painters for years. The great-grandson of Albert Namatjira, he became the first Indigenous artist to win the Archibald Prize in 2020, the same year he was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his contribution to First Nations visual arts.
But it’s impossible to ignore the chord his observational work is striking with this particular moment in history.
Can Yavuz, the founder and director of Yavuz Gallery, says the recognition is a testament to Namatjira’s “enduring engagement with some of the most significant issues of our time”.
“Vincent is not only one of Australia’s most important painters, but also a respected storyteller and a force for truth,” says the gallerist. Speaking to Esquire in the weeks leading up to the Voice to Parliament referendum, Yavuz points out that through “addressing sovereignty and recognition, his works are particularly galvanising as the nation prepares to decide on enshrining a Voice to Parliament.”
Indeed, Namatjira’s ongoing exploration of power and sovereignty feels especially potent in the current political and cultural climate. But the relevancy of his work is boundless; the legacy he’s proud to be continuing [from great-grandfather,
Albert is one of Australia’s most profound. “Albert’s story is an important reminder of the pressures and pitfalls of being a successful Aboriginal person in this country,” writes Namatjira in the monograph. “He made his mark on the world through his art and was one of the first Aboriginal people to really be noticed and acknowledged by non- Indigenous Australians… He found his own path with watercolour landscapes and that’s what made me determined to find my own way too.
“But a youngfella like me doesn’t want to make traditional paintings,” he adds, that same proverbial twinkle in his eye. “The canvas is a setting where I can combine the past, present and possible futures”.
Days before the opening of Desert Songs, we ask Namatjira about one ‘possible future’ he’s inspired by now.
“Just being famous,” he says. “Just being one of the most famous emerging artists in Australia.” He’s well on his way.
Desert Songs is on show at Yavuz Gallery until October 28; Vincent Namatjira, the monograph, is published with the exhibition Vincent Namatjira: Australia in colour, at the Art Gallery of South Australia, travelling to the National Gallery of Australia in 2024. Vincent Namatjira is represented by Yavuz Gallery.
This story appears in the October/November 2023 print issue of Esquire Australia. Available at all good newsagents. Subscribe online here.