Western Aranda artist Vincent Namatjira was born in 1983, Mparntwe (Alice Springs) in the Northern Territory. He spent most of his childhood in Perth and returned to Ntaria (Hermannsburg), Northern Territory after he finished high school. It was not until this time that Vincent learnt about his famous great-grandfather, Albert Namatjira. Vincent would watch his aunty, Eileen Namatjira, make pots in the Hermannsburg ceramic studio.
Vincent began painting with his wife at Iwantja Arts, in the Indulkana Community, Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in the north-west of South Australia. With the help of his wife, he first started painting in a dot painting style and after a few years he felt confident to paint a portrait of his great-grandfather Albert Namatjira. Vincent continued to develop his distinctive figurative style, expressively painting portraits of politicians, historical figures, athletes, musicians and members of his family and community.
Vincent has established himself as a celebrated portraitist and a satirical chronicler of Australian history and identity. His paintings offer a wry look at the politics of history, power and leadership from a contemporary Aboriginal perspective. Vincent often positions himself in this history – out of place and out of time – and in doing so he helps us to reconcile our complex and traumatic pasts. Humour and parody are his tools for staging difficult conversations about Australian history and society.
Albert (Elea) Namatjira
Find out more about Vincent's great grandfather, Albert (Elea) Namatjira, with our education resource.
Prioritise the artist’s voice. Bring Vincent Namatjira into the classroom by watching this artist video with your students:
More artist videos:
A major highlight of Tarnanthi at the Art Gallery of South Australia in 2023 is the first survey exhibition of Vincent Namatjira. Vincent Namatjira: Australia in colour, with an accompanying book, is a project led by the artist in which he uses a thematic approach.
Showcasing his expanding artistic practice, this major exhibition brings together paintings, works on paper and moving image from public and private collections nationwide. It also includes work from the Gallery’s collection by his great-grandfather Albert Namatjira, whom he cites as one of his greatest inspirations. Following Tarnanthi 2023, Namatjira’s survey exhibition will travel to the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra in 2024. These are the first words you’ll read as you enter the exhibition:
Welcome to the past, present and future. I stand side by side with my great- grandfather, who I never met – two painters from the centre of this country, standing up and making our voices heard. Over there is James Cook, his ship has washed up in the desert. He’s sunburnt, lost. British royals are out of place, wandering in the sandy creeks, among the ghost gums. Indigenous leaders and legends are one with Country, becoming part of the desert landscape. The forgotten heroes, the red dirt, the rich and powerful, the orange rocks, the old stockmen, the white trees, the politicians, the blue sky, the singers and storytellers – this is Australia in colour.
Curated as a collaboration with Namatjira, supported by Iwantja Arts, the exhibition charts Namatjira’s career. It reveals the power of his painting but also the potency of his words, with the artist’s voice at the forefront of the exhibition experience. The importance of having a voice and holding a space is not lost on Namatjira, having cultivated a distinct position in the story of Australian art and culture. As he explains,
Just like Albert Namatjira, I wanted to find my own way, to find my own voice and to be heard. I started painting portraits because I’m interested in people, and power, wealth and politics. For me, portraiture is a way of putting myself in someone else’s shoes as well as to share with the viewer what it might be like to be in my shoes. I use portraiture to look at my identity and my family history. It’s also a way for me to look at the history of this country, to ask who has the power, and why. Let me take you on Country, where the past and the present meet, where cheeky humour is side by side with gut-wrenchingly hard stories – this is Australia in colour.
Text written by Dr. Lisa Slade, Assistant Director, Artistic Programs, Tarnanthi Catalogue, 2023.
Take a look at all the works in Vincent Namatjira: Australia in Colour. How would you describe Namatjira’s style. Are there common themes or subjects that reappear? Share three words with your class that describe Namatjira’s works. As a class collate these words on a large sheet of paper to display in your classroom. As you continue to learn more about Namatjira and his works, you might like to add or change words on this list.
Close Contact is a three-dimensional painting by Namatjira that speaks to Australian history. It features a self-portrait on one side and, on the other, a portrait of James Cook based on Emanuel Phillips Fox’s famous painting Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770. By positioning the two men together shoulder to shoulder, Namatjira plays with the heroic image of Cook. Furthermore, by resembling the wooden cut-out figures at fun fairs and carnivals into which people physically place themselves for souvenir photographs, the work demands that visitors transpose themselves into the problematic conversation about Australia’s double-sided history. The work reflects this complex and contested national debate, where past and present, coloniser and colonised, and Aboriginal ownership and European invasion all collide and interrogate each other.
Having just a little bit of humour can take the power out of a serious situation, whether something is happening to you right now, or it happened long ago. Painting some humour into a serious event or an important person lets you be in a little bit of control again, you can get a little bit of cheeky revenge
- Is Close Contact a painting or a sculpture?
- “There’s two sides to every story.” – Vincent Namatjira. Discuss what two stories you think Namatjira is trying to tell in Close Contact?
- Namatjira was inspired by carnival cut-outs (the type you see at amusement parks) in his creation of Close Contact. Carnival cut-outs allow people to pose with well-known figures or even pose as other characters. Why do you think Namatjira has referenced these carnival cut-outs?
- How has Namatjira conveyed humour in Close Contact? Namatjira states that using humour to portray a serious event or issue allows you to be in control. What do you think he means by this? Can you think of a situation where humour has alleviated a serious situation for you?
- Namatjira has adapted a historical portrait of James Cook and juxtaposed this with a self-portrait. In what ways does Close Contact challenge traditional portraiture as seen in art history?
- Did you know that James Cook was not a captain, he was actually Lieutenant Cook. The Australian Maritime Museum have a great resource on Mythbusting Cook. Select some facts about James Cook and mix these with the myths. In small groups, discuss which statements are true and which are not.
- Recreate the two poses of Namatjira and James Cook. How are the two poses different? What do you think the body language of the two figures suggests?
- What other differences do you notice between the two sides of the work of art? Imagine that Namatjira and James Cook could meet and have a conversation, what might they say to each other? Act out this conversation with a classmate.
- Research a historical figure and imagine you could have a conversation with them. Create a video or write a screen play about this meeting.
- Write a diary entry from the point of view of James Cook and one from Namatjira.
- The title, Close Contact references the meeting between James Cook and the Gweagal and Bidgegal people, the tradition custodians of what is now known as Botany Bay. Research the two different perspectives of this encounter. How could have this meeting turned out differently and changed the course of history?
- How have other Aboriginal and Torres Strait artists such as Ali Gumillya Baker, Julie Dowling and Christian Thompson explored themes of identity in their work?
- Create your own life-size self-portrait by tracing around your own shadow while you strike an interesting pose. What identifying features would you add to your portrait so people could identify you?
- Namatjira has used one shape to create two different images on either side of Close Contact. Cut a shape out of cardboard and draw two different images on either sides.
- Namatjira is interested in people and their stories, how someone from today is connected with the past. Create your own double-sided portrait which either references the past and the present, or two different perspectives
- You may like to have a self-portrait on one side and someone who you admire or who has influenced you from your past on the other.
- Your double portrait could include a self-portrait with a portrait of a friend or family member living in another part of the world.
Vincent Namatjira’s discussing the portrait of Captain Cook from E. Philips Fox’s painting Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770:
This painting is a typical heroic representation of Cook, and the Indigenous Australians in the painting are off in the background, pretty much out of the picture. So, when I was planning my work I was thinking, ‘What might be the flipside of the heroic portrait of Cook?’ I like the idea of an unexpected contact or conflict between past and present and that’s what I was thinking about with this work, and why I decided to experiment with the double-sided painting, trying to say, ‘There’s two sides to every story.
- How is the meeting between James Cook, his crew and Aboriginal people depicted in E. Philips Fox’s Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770? What was the purpose of such a painting?
- Find out more about Fox’s Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770. With what you know about Australian history and the impact colonisation had on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, create your own response to Fox’s painting.
Appropriation in art is the deliberate use of pre-existing images or conscious copying of a style or movement.
Artists often use appropriated imagery in the hope that the viewer will recognise the context of the original work of art and use these associations to develop a new meaning. In this way, artists who use appropriated imagery may be attempting to change the original image and position it in a new context – altering the original meaning of the work.
- Research other artists who have responded to E. Philips Fox’s painting. How have these artists represented James Cook’s historical landing through an Aboriginal perspective and non-Indigenous perspective? You might start by looking at the following:
- Daniel Boyd We Call them Pirates Out Here, 2006
- Julie Gough, Chase 2001, and Imperial Leather 1994. (Works of art by Julie Gough in the collection include Malahide, 2008, The Promise 2019)
- Percy Trompf, The Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1929
- Ben Quilty Inhabit 2010 and The arrival 2007 (Primary and Secondary resources available)
Cook and Namatjira reappear in a moving image projection made for the Art Gallery of South Australia in 2022, titled Going Out Bush. Through the work, presented as part of the Illuminate Festival, the colonial façade of the Gallery is temporarily relocated to the Central Australian desert. In its new home, ‘out bush’, the gallery building becomes a stage set for a vibrant and witty series of encounters. These include a football game with Namatjira’s favourite team performing spectacular marks. The Aboriginal flag takes pride of place in the work, supplanting the state’s emblem of the piping shrike carved in sandstone at the apex of the building’s pediment. The classical sandstone columns grow as ghost gums, the legendary eucalypts that appear in the work of Albert Namatjira, and Albert Namatjira’s iconic green truck traverses Country, weaving in light across the face of the building.
In a scene both dramatic and comic, strange things occur as night falls on Indulkana – Cook and Queen Elizabeth emerge and lose their heads, which bounce up and down the Gallery’s columns as though in a fair ground game. Their heads are replaced by Namatjira’s own as he inserts himself in a position of power, and slyly comments on a history of colonial collecting that has seen Aboriginal people treated as trophies and museum specimens. In the final scene, there is a gesture of peace and reciprocity whereby Queen Elizabeth and Vincent exchange bush treats – maku (witchetty grubs) and tjala (honey ants). Projected as a continual loop, the work repeats itself, suggesting perhaps that history has done the same.
By combining imagery and ideas from across time and place, Namatjira levels us all. In his words:
I’m interested in painting strong figures and leaders, we see them on the news and wonder how and why they make their decisions. These powerful people are far away from us here on the APY Lands, but when I paint them it brings them right into the studio. I like to paint with a little bit of humour, humour takes away some of their power and keeps us all equal
Text written by Dr. Lisa Slade, Assistant Director, Artistic Programs, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art in the Classroom, 2022.
- In the animation Queen Elizabeth and Namatjira exchange bush treats as a gesture of peace. If you were making amends with someone, what might you offer as a sign of peace?
- List all of the things you can see in the projection. Can these items be grouped in some way?
- Describe Going Out Bush in three words. Now use these three words as a starting point or prompts for your own work of art.
- The Aboriginal flag takes pride of place in the projection work. Why are flags important? Find out more about the history and origins of the Aboriginal flag. Imagine you were a country. Create a flag that represents who you are.
- Using collage and drawing, make an animation that tells the story of your life – you might like to have the flag you designed earlier feature in the animation.
Australia in colour is a series of 21 portraits depicting significant people including politicians, historical figures, athletes and musicians from Australia and overseas. Namatjira believes these people have had an impact on shaping Australia, sometimes not always in a positive way. He has also identified some figures as personal influences, people who are not Australian such as rock ‘n’ roll musicians like Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix.
The figures fill the majority of the canvas, are unified by black backgrounds and are identified by either a first, last or a nickname written in the negative space. Displaying the portraits side by side within a similar format, suggests that despite their social status, wealth or power – everyone is equal in Namatjira’s eyes.
- What does the word ‘power’ mean to you? Are the figures depicted in Namatjira’s paintings powerful? Why or why not?
- Identify all the figures in this work. You might need to do a bit of research to find out about the people depicted in Namatjira’s paintings.
- What defines a hero and what defines a villain? With a friend, write a set of criteria that determines a hero and a villain.
- Group these figures into heroes and villains. How did you make your decision?
- What is their legacy?
- Is your hero list and villain list similar or different to other people in your class?
- Make your own list of heroes and villains of famous figures you are aware of.
- Do you think the people in these portraits would be happy with how they have been depicted?
- Who is a hero is your life? Draw or paint a portrait of this person that commemorates what they mean to you.
- In Namatjira’s book, he has said:
Part of making things equal in this country is a greater acknowledgement and recognition of Aboriginal excellence past and present – our heroes, leaders, visionaries and trailblazers
- Investigate an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander leader. Create a work of art that celebrates their achievements. Write an artist statement to accompany your work that tells the viewer about your subject. Create a class exhibition to display these portraits for your school community.
- Vincent uses humour throughout his work. How does he do this?
If a painting is making me laugh while I’m working on it, then I know there is something there, like a spark that’s going to get people interested. Humour can disarm, and in my paintings, I use humour as an equaliser, to put everyone on the same level. If I start out painting someone powerful, usually I can’t help but exaggerate some of their features or give them a strange expression or pose to make them seem a little less comfortable – I sort of chip away at their power
- Refer back to your villains list. Select a famous villain to depict in a portrait. Like Namatjira, exaggerate their features, or give them a strange expression to remove their power.
Set in an Australian landscape, Displaced features Vincent Namatjira in the foreground, wearing an ACDC t-shirt, he waves the Aboriginal flag with one hand, and places the other on the back of a dingo (the protector totem). Behind Namatjira, but in the centre of the painting, is James Cook shown in a pose we have seen before in Namatjira’s Close Contact and originally in E. Philips Fox’s painting Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770. Grinning atop a horse sits Queen Elizabeth wearing a ceremonial red uniform with blue riband (representing the Order of the Garter), medallion and tiara.
Namatjira’s juxtaposition of these figures in the Australian landscape, their faces pink and hot from the Australian sun, suggests they are out of place here. This displacement of powerful figures, like Cook and the Queen, references the displacement experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people since colonisation.
- Before reading anything about this work, what does the word displaced mean to you? Why do you think Namatjira has titled this painting Displaced?
- Who are the figures depicted in this painting?
- Namatjira has included the protector totem, the dingo. What would be your protector totem? Is there an animal or object that you feel protected by?
In 2022 Tarnanthi presented Wild Dog, an immersive installation and exhibition exploring the importance of one of Australia’s most misunderstood but significant cultural symbols – the dingo. You can learn more about the dingo in the education resource developed by Country Arts SA.
- Namatjira has displaced Cook and the Queen by positioning them in the hot Australian landscape. By doing this he has removed their power, taken them out of their comfort zone and thus removing their dominance.
- Think of a political or historical figure who has had tremendous power.
- Using AI technology (WomboDream) place these figures in situations you might not normally see them in. For example; “Scott Morrison bungee jumping from the Sydney Harbour Bridge”. Tip: Composing good prompts is the key to interesting results in aps like WomboDream. If you aren’t able to use this technology in your schools, students can create collages instead.
See Year 6 student examples that responded to Andy Warhol using AI Technology.
In 2022, Tony Albert (Girramay/Yidinji/Kuku Yalanji people) invited Vincent to his studio in Brisbane, as he says:
I immediately felt like one of the family alongside Tony, his studio team, his studio dog and his own family including, of course, little Norman. We collaborated on a series of works, cheekily altering children’s pop-up books of the British royal family that Tony had sourced specifically for the project. I like to think that young kids, especially Indigenous kids, would learn more and smile more looking at our versions of the books.
- With a friend, select an old children's book that you can modify, like Albert and Vincent did. Try a second hand store or your library may have duplicates of books that haven't been borrowed in a while that you can transform. Read the story and brainstorm with your partner different ways you could alter the book and how you could revise the story to tell a new and improved narrative. You might draw or paint on top of the existing illustrations or add collage so that your picture book has three-dimensional elements. If the book you selected isn't already a pop-up book - how could you modify it so that it is? Look at mechanisms in existing pop-up books to learn techniques to apply to your alternative children's book.
About Tony Albert
Queensland-born artist Tony Albert works in multiple art forms, including drawing, painting, photography and installation. His challenging and conceptual art explores the political, historical and cultural issues significant to Aboriginal people in Australia today, including their experience with war. Albert, who is based in Sydney, has created a number of works that respond to the contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to Australia’s military forces, including the contribution of members of his own family.
Universal Soldier in AGSA’s collection is a sculpture assembled using ‘Aboriginalia’ objects, which are covered in shredded camouflage fabric. ‘Aboriginalia’ refers to items such as tea towels, ashtrays, spoons and decorative wall plaques that present stereotypical depictions of Aboriginal people from a colonial perspective. Universal Soldier depicts two figures, one carrying the other, their gender and cultural background obscured. Albert recalls his family’s experience with war, noting that gender and culture were irrelevant during battle, but on their return home their rights as soldiers were removed because of their Aboriginality.
As a young person, Namatjira loved seeing Aboriginal players run on to the football field in the AFL – these players were his heroes. In remote Indigenous communities, sport is an important part of daily life, in good and bad times, sport brings Namatjira’s community together.
Australians are crazy about footy and this is especially true for young. Indigenous people. I was a typical young fella … into footy, soccer, basketball, boxing, swimming – sport kept me occupied and out of trouble. Something I loved about sport was that it was somewhere you’d see Aboriginal people really celebrated. You could turn on the TV and see Indigenous heroes on the running track or on the footy field.
- Who is the superstar in your life? It might be a sportsperson, musician, actor, writer or even a family member or friend. Share a memory about this person – how have they lifted you up? Immortalise them in a handmade trading card.
- Now investigate a First Nation’s icon that you may not be familiar with. It might be someone from history or a recent rising superstar, perhaps in a sport that you wouldn’t normally follow. Create a trading card like you did for the superstar in your life and display these in your school community so that your peers can learn about them too.
- Watch a game of football, soccer or netball etc. You might be able to watch it live in your school community or if not, watch a match on the TV. As you watch, create a series of quick blind contour drawings. Don’t be precious about the rapid marks you make, instead focus on capturing the energy, movement and spirit of the game.
As the title suggests, Albert Namatjira, Slim Dusty and Archie Roach on Country, three well-known figures feature in this imaginary painting. Despite each figure being from another place and time, Namatjira unites his three heroes in a place that is significant to him. They are located in Indulkana Ridge in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands of northern South Australia. In the distance, a lone stockman on horseback looks on at the country and western singer Slim Dusty and the late singer/song-writer Archie Roach performing in the foreground. Roach’s hands are positioned on the guitar as if to be playing to the viewer, or to Namatjira as he paints. Albert Namatjira’s pose mimics that of his stance in the portrait of him painted by William Dargie in 1956, which was the winning portrait of the Archibald Prize of that year.
The lone stockman is an unidentified Indigenous stockman that is a reference and tribute to the role played by Aboriginal people in Central Australia’s pastoral history.
- When Namatjira is in the art centre painting Aboriginal music such as Warumpi Band, Coloured Stone, Saltwater Band and Archie Roach is played. Why not listen to some music by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists in your classroom? We have composed a playlist to get you started. Listen here >>>
- Namatjira is a huge rock n roll fan – the louder the better. For Namatjira, music is an escapism. What music do you listen to when you want to escape? Create a painting inspired by this piece of music.
It’s pretty much what’s in my life and the stuff that I’m really into. Country music, living in the land, being brought up in the land, that kind of thing. That’s why I paint country figures and also the people I look up to.
- Namatjira uses portraiture to explore his own identity and family history. Create your own painting, bringing together three people who are heroes in your eyes. It might be someone in your family or community combined with a famous sports person, performer or musician.
This education resource has been written in collaboration with Kylie Neagle, Education Coordinator and Dr. Lisa Slade, Assistant Director, Artistic Programs
Tarnanthi is presented in partnership with BHP and with the support of the Government of South Australia.
AGSA’s education programs are supported by the Government of South Australia through the Department for Education.