It would be easy to assume that Vincent Namatjira always planned to become a painter. He was born in Alice Springs on Arrernte land in 1983 but spent the majority of his childhood in foster care in Perth where he toyed with the idea of becoming a footballer. When he graduated high school, he returned home and began to reconnect with his family and their history.
It was at this time when he first heard about his late great-grandfather, Albert Namatjira, an acclaimed painter and the first recorded Indigenous man to be granted citizenship in the Northern Territory in 1957. But it wasn’t until years later when Vincent was living with his partner, artist Natasha Pompey, on APY Lands in South Australia, that he finally picked up a paintbrush.
“My partner was doing dot painting at the art centre,” Vincent tells Broadsheet. “I was sat around the house and I got bored so I just went to the centre to try to pick up art. One person mentioned, ‘you should do a portrait of Albert Namatjira’. And that’s how it all happened.”
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Although separated by generations, the lives of Vincent and Albert Namatjira run parallel like train tracks along the same milestones. In 1956, a portrait of Albert Namatjira painted by William Dargie won the Archibald Prize, the first time a portrait of an Indigenous person was awarded that honour. Sixty-four years later, Vincent became the first Indigenous artist to win the Archibald Prize with Stand strong for who you are, a 2020 portrait of former AFL player and community leader Adam Goodes.
Another tie the pair share is an unlikely connection to the British Royal family. Albert was awarded a coronation medal in 1953 and met Queen Elizabeth II in 1954 on her coronation tour, while Vincent often painted portraits of himself alongside the former queen (who he stopped painting after her passing) as well as members of the British Royal family – including her son Charles II who, according to Vincent, played a key role in acquiring his portrait of James Cook for the British Museum. Vincent is hoping to cement this connection by being awarded a coronation medal one day, or being knighted.
Although the idea of becoming Sir Vincent Namatjira might be a little while off, his career is thriving. His exhibition Desert Songs features portraits of King Charles, Albert Namatjira, Pitjantjatjara musician Frank Yamma and self-portraits of Vincent alongside Queen Elizabeth II and Vincent Van Gogh, and is showing at Sydney’s Yavuz Gallery until October 28; a major monograph of his work featuring essays from curators and Vincent’s frequent collaborators Ben Quilty and Tony Albert will be published in coming weeks; and he’s the headliner for Art Gallery of South Australia’s Tarnanthi Festival.
His Tarnanthi Festival exhibition is entitled Vincent Namatjira: Australia in Colour and will feature new paintings and never or rarely seen works from public and private collections. “I’m most excited for people to see my self-portraits [at Tarnanthi] and how it fits into my [portraits] with other people,” says Vincent, who describes the works as a great equalising force. “To me, [these paintings] are like climbing on the right level. We’re walking on the same country and around here to be honest, we’re all countrymen.”
Vincent has also selected a series of Albert Namatjira’s works from AGSA’s collection to be hung alongside his figurative portraiture and says he feels “very proud and very privileged” to see their work hung side by side.
For the Namatjira family, art is not just a way to express themselves, but a vehicle through which they can help their community and advocate for causes such as The Voice to Parliament, which Vincent describes as “a push forward for Indigenous people”.
He hopes his continued success will encourage younger generations of Indigenous people to pursue a career in the arts. “I’d like [them] to pick up a paintbrush and paint a prominent Indigenous figure or role model,” says Vincent. “It’s good to pick up a paintbrush and when you pick up a paintbrush, it changes lives.”
Desert Songs can be seen at Yavuz Gallery, 69 Reservoir Street, Surry Hills until October 28. The Tarnanthi Festival will run at AGSA from October 20 to January 21. The monograph Vincent Namatjira ($90) is available here.