A coupe of months ago, when I asked Glenn Manser to report on Desert Mob, he told me that he’d really like to write a piece for me on Vincent Namatjira. Last week, I received the article I’m posting below along with the images Glenn selected of recent works by the grandson of the great old man.
The timing was impeccable, with the announcement this week that the British Museum has acquired a work by Vincent. That was followed by another announcement from Marshall Arts in Adelaide that their new solo show, Vincent’s first, has been purchased in toto by a state gallery to be named at a later date.
And so, I’m happy once again to share the podium here with Glenn as he describes how…
The Namatjira Legend Lives On
There is something distinctly familiar, in a fashion, about Vincent Namatjira’s backstory.
Vincent was born in Alice Springs, and as a child he lived with his family in the Indigenous community, Hermannsburg within Ntaria country…However, at just six years of age his mother tragically passed away. With no available family to care for him Vincent and his older sister were taken into foster care, relocating to Perth in Western Australia. Vincent and his sister lived together in Indigenous foster care families throughout childhood1
His childhood was one of bewilderment and loneliness.
What followed, however, has been entirely inspirational. At eighteen he returned to Hermannsburg to reclaim his heritage. Observing his Aunty, Eileen Namatjira as she worked at the Hermannsburg Potters studio, an impressionable Namatjira subconsciously absorbed the inspiration of his ancestors.
After four years of work and study completing a land management course in Darwin, a starry eyed Vincent met his wife to be, Natasha through friends at the Kanpi community. It was under the tutelage of Jimmy Pompey, Natasha’s father that Vincent began to explore the medium of painting.
Exploring traditional dot paintings of country, Vincent learnt about colour and tone, shapes and movement, reigniting an interest in the traditional works of his mother and in the classic watercolour landscapes of his grandfather.2
More importantly his dormant desire to explore his own creative abilities emerged.
Although he never met his grandfather, inspiration was drawn from Albert Namatjira’s unique vision of country:
“I’m using his name – the same family name – but I’m pushing things forward. Instead of just painting scenery and stuff like that you can mix up your mind and paint other stuff too. Capturing now and the history too.”3
A more urgent imperative has, however, been the foundation for his artistic emergence:
“I’m sitting down here with no anything. Broke, poor and everything, you know… with two daughters and my partner. I want to give them a good future.4
Within the space of three short years, he has been represented in the following:
Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery, Outback Art Award – 2013 – shortlisted
John Fries Memorial Prize 2013 – finalist
30th Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award – 2013 – shortlisted
38th Alice Prize 2014 – shortlisted
Archibald Prize – Art Gallery of New South Wales – 2014 – entrant
31st Telstra national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award -2014 – shortlisted
In May, 2014 he visited the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art to observe the watercolours of his grandfather. More profoundly it was Sir William Dargie’s 1956 Archibald Prize winning portrait of Albert Namatjira that impacted him the most. The pride was obvious.
This experience provided the inspiration for his 2014 Archibald Prize entry. Surprisingly, the judging panel, at times given to episodes of myopia, did not short list the portrait of artist and grandfather. Unsurprisingly this piece will now grace the walls of QAGOMA next to Dargie’s portrait. The irony is profound. One can imagine Albert Snr reaching out to his grandson and calmly warning, “Vincent, let me tell you a thing or two about these Sydney people.”
Eclectic though his subject matter is, Namatjira intuitively explores the historical and contemporary with equal sincerity and, where appropriate, wit. His portrait of Captain Cook with Declaration, acquired by the British Museum in 2014, represents the explorer empathetically as if there is no blame to stain his reputation.
Amusingly, Tony Abbott’s 2013 election success is captured in a hand shake between Abbott and his mentor, John Howard. The time 6.05pm and even then victory was assured. The two dot paintings in the background symbolise Namatjira and his wife, Natasha, observing this moment in history from a distance. He has, therefore, inserted himself into this historic scene, and it serves as a powerful reminder that the people in the bush are watching proceedings in Canberra.
Karen Zadra from the Marshall Arts Gallery in Adelaide insightfully captures the essence of Vincent’s zest for painting:
I realised that his paintings are as much a reflection of his personality as they are portraits, landscapes or genre paintings. He’s a very warm, considerate, humble and perceptive person. And nothing escapes his notice! He’s a keen observer of current affairs, people, and history. The distillation of his observations comes through in his work and although his style is naïve, it is in no way sentimental or derivative. Instead, it speaks of a beautiful mind, sensitive eye and a gift for elegant narrative. While Vincent is fully aware of the dark side of life and history, he chooses to see and express the good. This is why – I believe – his works are so joyous and uplifting.5
There is much more that could be said about this young man who proudly bears his forebear’s name. Suffice it to say that like his cousins, Lenie and Kevin who continue to paint masterful watercolours for the Ngurratjuta Art Centre in Alice Springs, Vincent is determined to chart his own course as an artist yet in doing so remain true to the spirit of his famous grandfather.
“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 family’s stories.”6
No doubt Albert Snr would be proud to embrace the success of yet another Namatjira.
Images and text courtesy the Artist, Iwantja Arts and Crafts and Marshall Arts
Notes:1 Vincent Namatjira biography, Iwantja Arts and Crafts, 2014 2 ibid. 3Brush with greatness in the APY Lands, Katie Spain, The Advertiser, 9 August, 2013 4 Brush with greatness in the APY Lands, Katie Spain, The Advertiser, 9 August, 2013 5 Interview with Karen Zadra, Marshall Arts Gallery, Adelaide, 27 September, 2014 6 Namatjira biography