Magabala Books, $24.99
Vincent Namatjira was 18 when he returned from being fostered in Perth to live with extended family in the desert in Ntaria (Hermannsburg) in the Northern Territory.
It was here that he learned he was the great-grandson of the famous Albert Namatjira, one of the most important painters in Australia.
Vincent won the Archibald Prize in 2020 with “Stand Strong for Who You Are” a portrait of Swan’s legend Adam Goodes. He was the first Indigenous artist to win the Archibald and his work is highly regarded here and overseas.
He never met his great-grandfather, but feels his work is “the next chapter in his legacy”.
It was Vincent’s partner, the artist Natasha Pompey and her father Jimmy Pompey, who inspired him to start painting in 2011.
He and Natasha (and their children) are based at Iwantja Arts, an Aboriginal-owned and -operated centre in Indulkana in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands.
In 2014, when Vincent began painting portraits of his great-grandfather, his work shifted. Albert’s Story is a suite of 13 paintings depicting a narrative arc from “Being Initiated in the Bush” to “Albert Namatjira in Prison” to “Dies in Hospital, Broken Heart” and which feature in his new children’s book Albert Namatjira.
The book illustrates Albert Namatjira’s life from when he was born and raised at the Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission outside Alice Springs, to when he became the first Indigenous person in Australia to be granted restricted Australian citizenship – a “strange and complicated time” as Vincent writes, given that Aboriginals had been living on their country for thousands of years.
At the time of his death in 1959, Namatjira had painted around two thousand paintings and he is hailed today as one of the greatest Australian artists as well as a pioneer for Aboriginal rights and respect. But he died in poor circumstances and, as Vincent writes, “Some say he died of a broken heart.”
Given that Namatjira did not paint seriously until 1934 (aged 32) and died when he was 57, what he achieved in his 25 years of painting is quite extraordinary.
Albert had shown interest in art from an early age but his painting flourished under the guidance of Melbourne artist Rex Battarbee. His paintings are clearly imbued with his love for Country and are said to contain coded expressions on traditional sites and sacred knowledge.
Vincent’s book conveys his great-grandfather’s complexity and doesn’t gloss over the tension or pain he felt from having to live in two worlds – one as a famous and successful artist, and one as a Western Aranda man with cultural and family responsibilities.
A poignant painting in the book shows Albert with his wife tending the fire, with their modest bed rolls, a little stool and a high-backed chair spaced around them in the wide expanse of red desert.
“When Albert was away travelling, he always missed his home,” the accompanying text says. “He really just wanted to be back living a simple life on his Country with his family.”
That Australians chose to laud Albert while turning a blind eye to injustices being wrought on other Indigenous people is a tragic truth we need to sit with. It was also an absurd injustice relating to Albert’s legal status that landed him in trouble with the law and which, coupled with an injury to his hand, seemed to twist his life towards sadness and ill health. (Racism and colonialism doing their worst to our brightest and best.)
This painful historical backdrop has not stopped Vincent injecting whimsy into his great grandfather’s story. For example, I love that Albert is depicted driving a green ute similar to the one that features in some of Vincent’s other works like the 2021 Circular Quay Foyer Wall Commission, titled P.P.F. (Past-Present-Future) (2021), and Vincent & Donald (2018) in which Vincent has one arm around Donald Trump’s shoulder, while his other hand wields a knife.
In the spread that talks about Albert’s sell out exhibitions in Sydney and Melbourne, there is a man in a yellow jumper seated in a gallery and slumped over. I have felt this kind of fatigue in galleries when I’m visually overwhelmed – but is that why he is here? I have no idea! But I relished the humour of it.
Albert and his wife Ilkalita (later Rubina) had five sons and three daughters and a number of their descendants paint at the Iltja Ntjarra – Many Hands art centre in Alice Springs. Vincent’s aunt, the late Elaine Namatjira (Eileen), was also a leader of the Hermannsburg Potters. Their work along with Vincent’s oeuvre make me consider how much poorer Australia would be without the contribution of Namatjira and his family.
Vincent’s picture book will help to ensure Albert Namatjira’s importance is recognised by new generations of Australians. It paints a nuanced portrait of an artist and individual who paved the way for greater recognition of Aboriginal people as custodians of the land and citizens of Australia.