The legacy of the name “Namatjira” – The Advertiser SA Weekend on acclaimed Western Aranda artist Vincent Namatjira

16 Oct 2023

Following the opening of Vincent Namatjira OAM’s debut solo exhibition Desert Songs at Yavuz Sydney, and in anticipation of his upcoming major survey exhibition, Vincent Namatjira: Australia in Colour at the Art Gallery of South Australia, The Advertiser SA Weekend expands on the significance and legacy of the name “Namatjira.” The article underscores the unique relationship between the great-grandfather and his great-grandson who have never met in person.

Vincent Namatjira OAM’s great-grandfather, Albert Namatjira (1902–1959) is possible the most widely known Australian artist who has life stories that encapsulated the experience of Aboriginal ambition, Aboriginal excellence and Aboriginal adaptation to a new world while met equally with the experiences of Aboriginal disempowerment and Aboriginal disadvantage. The article gives in-depth life background into the late Namatjira’s career as an artist, covering the inspirations that the elder drew from works in the 1934 exhibition to his renowned works of watercolour landscapes of Aranda Country. Though known to be the best craftsman in the region be it traditional or contemporary, portraits by Albert were rare. In the National Gallery of Australia’s collection, there’s a notable portrait from 1937 by Namatjira, Neey-too-gulpa (Ngalia tribesman). It’s a striking profile portrait, but even in this painting, the true star remains to be the breathtakingly detailed and vibrant landscape in the background. Known as a perfectionist, Namatjira was left frustrated with his ability to paint portraits, and abandoned them.

Albert’s descendant, Vincent Namatjira found himself dislocated from family, community and Country at a young age, yet his homeland drew him back to his roots during his late teens, rediscovering his connections to culture, language and Country. His travels to Ntaria to visit his aunt, the late Eileen Namatjra, leader of the Hermannsburg Potters, known to paint and create art about their country through their iconic pots. Witnessing his aunt made a profound influence on his decision to integrate familial styles, elements, and narratives into his own creations – these elements also serves as a tribute to the artistic legacy of Albert.

“For Vincent, working with and from Albert’s legacy has been a crucial driving force,” shared former Curator of Indigenous Australian Art at QAGOMA, Bruce Johnson Mclean.

The younger Namatjira, known for his painted portraits, won the Archibald Prize in 2020. By recreating the historical portrait of Albert Namatjira by William Dargie that won the the Archibald Prize in 1956, Vincent has an indelible impact in the propelling his work forward to winning the prize. In a sense, the great-grandson’s paintings help to take the Namatjira story full-circle – those parts of Albert’ earlier career that he was unable to realise are now being fulfilled by his descendant eight decades later.

Today, both Namatjiras are recognised as leading artists within their respective genres: Albert as the great landscape painter of Australia’s interior and Vincent as one of Australia’s most important contemporary portraitists.

“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.” — Vincent Namatjira

Image: The Advertiser SA Weekend article, page 8 featuring Vincent Namatjira. Courtesy of the artist and The Advertiser