NAMATJIRA, Vincent; Albert and Vincent
By Bruce McLean
Vincent Namatjira is one of the leading lights of the emerging generation of artists from remote central Australia. Namatjira is a Western Arrernte man from Ntaria (Hermannsburg) and a descendant of the great artist Albert Namatjira. Vincent’s mother passed away when he was young, and he and his sister were uprooted from their country and placed into foster care in Western Australia. The period that followed was characterised by loss, with his sense of belonging and self eroded by his adoptive experience:
'It was not my decision to leave Hermannsburg and go so far away, but I was just a child, I didn’t have any voice. That life, my childhood memories, are not very good. Adolescence was hard for me, I was so lost. I had to figure it all out for myself'.(1)
At 18, Namatjira travelled to Ntaria to find his estranged extended family. Returning to his homeland, he drew strength from his reaffirmed connections to culture, language and country, and devoted much of his time to land management issues and training. On a trip through the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands (APY Lands), he met Natasha, the woman he would soon marry, and settled with her family at Kanpi. Natasha’s father, senior artist Jimmy Pompey, introduced Vincent to painting, and he soon began experimenting, in the more dominant dot style as well as the naive figurative style for which Pompey had become well known.
Namatjira and his young family visited Ntaria, where they would watch his aunt, the late Eileen Namatjira - a leader of the Hermannsburg Potters - paint and create art about their country and the legacy of their forebear, Albert Namatjira. These moments had a resounding impact on Vincent and he soon began to incorporate these important familial and national narratives into his own works.
Recently Namatjira has focused on portraiture, imagining and immortalising important historical figures and heroes. Many of his major works have featured his grandfather, Albert, but others have portrayed Queen Elizabeth II, and William and Catherine, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. His recent depiction of Captain James Cook was acquired by the British Museum. Namatjira’s inquisitive and exploratory portrayals - largely free of any judgemental quality - of these historical figures of British dominion have endeared his works to a wide audience.
Albert and Vincent is the result of the artist’s visit to the Gallery in May 2014 to view the Collection work Portrait of Albert Namatjira 1956 by Sir William Dargie. Vincent had seen the work only as a low-colour reproduction, and as a portrait painter whose work is often inspired by the image and cultural impact of his grandfather, he had a strong desire to view the Archibald Prize-winning portrait. Visiting the Gallery earlier in 2014, Namatjira spent many hours with the work, sitting in quiet reverence in the Australian art galleries, leaning a small mirror against a plinth (on which Daphne Mayo’s Olympian c.1946 stood) so that he could view and sketch himself with the portrait of his grandfather.
Taking his sketches home to Tjurkula and finishing the work there, he imbued it with the conflicting emotions so often evoked by Albert’s stories, giving the portrait a celebratory feel while retaining a sombre sensibility. Namatjira is one of the many grandchildren Albert was never able to meet, and through his portraits of his grandfather, Vincent is building his own connections to the Australian hero, while giving audiences an idea of the importance of Albert’s story and legacy within his own family:
'I hope my grandfather would be quite proud, maybe smiling down on me; because I won’t let him go. I just keep carrying him on, his name and our families’ stories'.(2)
The work was generously donated to the Gallery by Karen Zadra, the artist’s dealer, who identified that it should come to the Gallery where it can be displayed with the Dargie portrait, enriching the ongoing contemporary importance of its famous subject.
1&2. Artist’s biography, Marshall Arts website, http://www.marshallart.com.au/sites/default/files/Vincent%20web%20bio.pdf, accessed 17 December 2014.
Bruce McLean, Artlines no.1, 2015, p.35
Text © Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2015