Friday, July 19

Recent Drama in the Art World – The Back-Story

Many will recall the recent controversy about Jonathan Yeo’s new portrait of King Charles. Very soon after, there was a furore on our side of the world as well, focused on a portrait of a prominent person. In this case the picture represented Gina Rinehart, the Australian mining magnate. It had turned up in an exhibition at Canberra’s National Portrait Gallery featuring the work of indigenous artist Vincent Namatjira (b. 1983), as part of a display of well-known, mostly Australian figures. Gina Rinehart found the portrait of herself unflattering, and demanded it be taken down. The gallery refused. 

Whatever one’s views of his work, Vincent Namatjira has had a successful career. It is one, too, where he has stood up for his people – and this stance owes much to what he has learnt about the great-grandfather he never met. Albert Namatjira (1902-59) was a very famous artist in his lifetime, and the first with indigenous heritage to become widely known. But his life and career were testimony to the difficulties faced by indigenous people of his era, partly because of the legal status of aboriginals at the time and its undergirding in racial prejudice, but also because of assumptions held by the contemporary art world.

On one level, much of Albert Namatjira’s experience reflects a successful integration of indigenous and white Australian culture. He was born in 1902 to parents who had moved to the Lutheran mission of Hermannsburg (Ntala) outside Alice Springs, and it seems that Albert was able to absorb a Christian view of the world while holding on to traditional aboriginal spiritual beliefs, beliefs which were very much rooted in the landscape. In the mid-1930s, he had the opportunity to study western art with a white artist who lived for some time in central Australia, Rex Battarbee. Namatjira then began to paint watercolour landscapes based on the areas that were spiritually important to his family in central Australia, but his style had recognisably western elements, especially in his use of colour. 

Albert Namatjira’s landscapes became popular, and very quickly. He had a sold-out exhibition of 41 paintings in Melbourne in 1938, made many private sales during the war years, and then returned to successful exhibiting in the late 1940s and 1950s. He presented a painting to the Queen on her tour of Australia in 1954: he was one of the most celebrated Australians of his time. 

So what went wrong? Although Albert Namatjira was famous and sold a lot of paintings, his exhibitions were in commercial rather than high-culture galleries, including department stores. His buyers, too, were mostly private collectors, or ordinary people who could afford one or two art-works. One consequence of his art’s popularity too was that it was reproduced everywhere, not only in prints, but also on tea-towels and other household items. My own first exposure to his work as a child in 1960s Sydney was in a set of place-mats that my parents brought out when they had dinner-guests. I gather that his landscapes were prominent in such formats in New Zealand as well. 

Therefore Albert Namatjira was a popular artist, rather than a critically successful one – somewhat like Ken Done a few decades later. Only one of his works made it into a public collection in his lifetime. Moreover, as an aboriginal artist, he fell foul of what people in the art world considered “authentic” aboriginal art – that is, paintings based on ancient rock art, and/or the “dot paintings” continue which to be practised by indigenous artists, and which generally use traditional motifs, plus colours derived from natural resources. Namatjira often dressed in western clothes, which startled people who expected him to appear publicly as a traditional tribal aboriginal. Hence both as popular work, and as art that didn’t fit conventional ideas of what aborigines should produce, his reputation suffered an eclipse after his death.

But things went wrong for Albert Namatjira personally as well. As an indigenous man, he did not have the full rights of Australian citizenship – he was a ward of the state. He was officially turned down for land to build a house in Alice Springs.  As a special form of recognition, Namatjira and his wife were eventually granted Australian citizenship in 1957, and one privilege this entailed was the right to purchase alcohol. This right did not extend to other family or to his community, but as aboriginal custom means that community members with more money and opportunities than the rest are expected to share the benefits thereof, Albert Namatjira bought alcohol for other indigenous people. This sharing was a criminal offence, and he was sentenced to a gaol term. The Minister for the Northern Territory (and later Governor-General) Paul Hasluck did intervene, so as to allow the artist to spend two months at the aboriginal artistic community at Papunya that Namatjira’s example and fame had helped establish. But legally, he had to spend the first and last nights of his sentence in confinement.  Already in bad health, Albert Namatjira felt a tremendous sense of shame over his fate, and survived his release by only a few weeks, dying shortly after his 57th birthday.

The posthumous history of Albert Namatjira has been rocky as well. Aboriginal art has flourished, with practitioners including many of his descendants as well as great-grandson Vincent. But the stigma attached to popularity and assumed inauthenticity took longer to abate, and it is only since the beginning of this century that his art has begun to receive its due. His work was included in the exhibition of aboriginal art that toured to Auckland Art Gallery last year. 

There were also copyright problems that arose partly from the family’s lack of access to citizenship, and seem to have been perpetuated by negligence.  Oddly enough the catalyst for getting this problem sorted was the late technology tycoon Dick Smith, as late as 2017. Embarrassing publicity often works….

Vincent Namatjira himself became a ward of the state as a child. Growing up in Hermannsburg, he and his sister were fostered out far away in Perth, following the early death of their mother Jillian Namantjira. As an angry young man, Vincent returned to his original community, and was able to reconnect with it, learning about his great-grandfather and other artist relatives. He also married an indigenous artist, Natasha Pompey, a practitioner of “dot” paintings, who gave Vincent his first training in art. He soon ventured into portraiture – his first subject being Albert Namatjira – and he produced a series of paintings covering his forebear’s life; these were later collected into an illustrated children’s book.

Vincent Namatjira attained particular prominence when he won Australia’s most famous art prize, the Archibald, in 2020. This is a prize for portraiture which has been awarded since 1921, and Vincent Namatjira was the first indigenous winner. The award is often controversial – a lot of people like to weigh in – and I’d imagine that if one of the recently shortlisted portraits of Jacinda Ardern or Taika Waititi had won, some people would have complained about their oddness. Vincent Namatjira’s win was not controversial on artistic grounds as far as I know, but his was a portrait that made a statement. Its subject was the indigenous former Aussie Rules star Adam Goodes, who has been very outspoken about racism, especially in sport. He had been the target of a booing campaign from supporters of opposing teams that had brought his playing career to a premature end in 2015. The painting shows the artist himself standing in solidarity with Goodes, and in the background are further images of the footballer as player and activist.  The title of the painting is “Stand Strong For Who You Are”. 

However difficult standing strong has been for Goodes, it was harder seventy years ago for Albert Namatjira. And Vincent Namatjira has declared of his great-grandfather, “I won’t let him go. I just keep carrying him on, his name and our families’ stories”. Albert is up there too, in Vincent’s current exhibition.