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 Hermannsburg 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.
Encouraged by his partner, Vincent began painting at Iwantja Arts, in the Indulkana Community, Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in the north-west of South Australia. With the guidance of other Iwantja artists, he first started painting in a traditional dot painting style. 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.
Art has given me joy, prosperity and it's given me power also, because with a paint brush you can do anything
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 let’s you be in a little bit of control again, you can get a little bit of cheeky revenge
- Recreate the two poses of Vincent Namatjira and Captain Cook. How are the two poses different? What do you think the body language of the two figures is trying to say?
- What other differences do you notice between the two sides of the work of art?
- Imagine that Vincent Namatjira and Captain Cook could meet and have a conversation, what might they say to each other? Act out this conversation with a classmate.
- 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 in Close Contact?
- 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 Captain Cook and juxtaposed this with a self-portrait. In what ways does Close Contact challenge traditional portraiture as seen in art history?
- Write a diary entry from the point of view of Captain Cook and one from Vincent Namatjira.
- The title, Close Contact references the meeting between Captain 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 Baker, Julie Dowling and Christian Thompson explored themes of identity in their work?
- Vincent Namatjira has created a life size self-portrait. 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?
- Vincent 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.
- Create a double-portrait that shows two different perspectives. Your double portrait could include a self-portrait with a portrait of a friend living in another part of the world or a family member.
- Research a historical figure and imagine you could have a conversation with them. Create a video or write a screen play about this meeting.
- Namatjira is interested in people and their stories, how someone from today is connected with the past. Create your own double sided portrait which references the past and the present. You may like to have a self-portrait on one side and someone who you admire or who has influenced you from your past.
In this series Namatjira has painted portraits of the seven wealthiest people in Australia in 2016, presenting a chronicle of our times in his bold and expressive paintings. As he says:
‘I’m interested in who these people are, and how they made their fortunes. While I’m painting them, these figures become more real to me, more personal. It feels like these powerful people are really here in the art centre with me, in my home community of Indulkana in the APY Lands. Their lives must be really different from ours – from mine and my friends’.
- Look at Namatjira’s series The richest. Do you think the people in these portraits would be happy with how they have been depicted?
Senior Secondary Students: Cultural, social and historical contexts
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.’ ”
Quoted in ‘Vincent Namatjira wins 2019 Ramsay Art Prize’, The Adelaide Review, 24 May 2019
- How is the meeting between Captain 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.
What is appropriation?
Appropriation in art that 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 Captain Cook’s historical landing through an Aboriginal perspective? Tip: Investigate Daniel Boyd We Call them Pirates Out Here, 2006 or Julie Gough’s Chase2001, and Imperial Leather 1994 with E. Philips Fox’s Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770. Percy Trompf, The Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1929 and Ben Quilty Inhabit 2010