The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


Welcome To Indulkana: The Wild Satire Of Vincent Namatjira
John Quin , March 6th, 2021 09:38

John Quin lauds the paintings of the Australian indigenous artist Vincent Namatjira

Vincent Namatjira - MCA Foyer Wall, MCA. credit: Daniel Boud

“It only took 99 years”

The quote is from Vincent Namatjira’s recent acceptance speech after earning Australia’s prestigious Archibald Prize at the tale end of last year, the first time an indigenous painter had won in almost a hundred years of its existence. Namatjira’s triumphs continued only a couple of weeks ago in February with the unveiling of an enormous 14 x 9 metre mural at the Museum of Contemporary Art at Circular Quay, downtown Sydney. You don’t get a much more central exhibiting space as a contemporary artist in Australia than that. The museum’s proximity to the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House (not to mention the glorious views from MCA’s café) make it an entirely appropriate venue for Namatjira’s success. A well-deserved if belated achievement because Namatjira is, for my money, the funniest, most slyly subversive painter at work anywhere today.

Namatjira is thirty-seven, born in Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. He now lives in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands in South Australia. His great-grandfather Albert was a renowned watercolourist. When Namatjira’s mother died in 1991 he was removed by the state and fostered in homes in Perth, Western Australia. His adolescence was (unsurprisingly) challenging which makes his later achievements all the more remarkable.

He began painting relatively late in 2012 with traditional dot works but quickly moved on to portraiture. His paintings are instantly recognizable. Your first impression might be a gasp at his trademark irreverence and then a guffaw of relief. This is particularly the case if you are a viewer from the British Isles because Namatjira is quite unafraid to flagrantly take the royal piss out of our Royal Family. The old colonial powers cop the mockery. If you did what he does here, you might just find yourself in the Tower.

The bedizened madness of Liz, Charlie and the rest of the gang particularly obsess Namatjira; his pictures cannily deflate their pomposities. His figures have the naff kitsch we might associate with the grotesqueries of a Toby Jug. He achieves this with a style that has been compared to outsider art or caricature but his skills cut much deeper. Like the UK collagist Cold War Steve, there’s a scabrous wit at work here. Namatjira delights in imbuing his characters with bright primary colours. His gaze is like that of a precocious child who will not be taken in. There’s a sense of primal joy, a cheeky glee akin to the truth-telling of Hans Christian Andersen’s kid yelling that the Emperor is naked.

Welcome to Indulkana, 2018, 122 x 304cm Acrylic on Linen. Courtesy of the Artist and Iwantja Arts

Take Queen Elizabeth and Donald (2018), a painting that sees the Queen got up in a blue outfit holding a mug of tea. Her elbows look like weapons, sharply angled, aimed for a dig at Trump’s belly by her side. He, in turn, offers her a Big Mac from a paper bag. Trump looks simian, a gurning chatterer out of his depth. Both have outrageous dentition reminiscent of the predatory chompers Willem de Kooning favoured in his ‘Woman’ series. There’s something inherently comical too about their eyes.Namatjira loves to play with intercanthic distance and separation – his eyes are either comically too near one another or too far apart as with another of his monstrous images, this time of ex-Australian PM Tony Abbott.

Namatjira is brilliant too at bringing Australia’s wealthy down to size, as with The Richest (2017). Here are seven portraits in a row where porcine chins are tripled and saurian stares are blankly avaricious in their lust for power and money. Mining heiress Gina Rinehart (net worth > $14.8 billion) gets the full treatment and looks as frightful as Moby Dick. Various magnates are all jowl and scowl. In Australia in Black and White (2019), Namatjira’s ambition soars and we see a grid worthy of Gerhard Richter where Aboriginal heroes outshine crumpled old grumps like Rupert Murdoch.

Namtjira’s visions recall too the mocking bite of George Grosz and Otto Dix: there’s the same highlighting of gross societal inequality in these faces, a reveal that such bloated, privileged individuals don’t give a fig. But Namatjira’s anger is more controlled: his boyish renderings are only ostensibly less vicious than those of his Weimar predecessors. In a sense he’s cleverer in his use of more sweetener - his kiddy colours for one, his gurning and grinning buffoon faces for another – that help soften and humanize his satiric intent.

Queen Elizabeth and Vincent (on country), 2018, 122 x 152cm, Acrylic on Canvas. Courtesy of the Artist and Iwantja Arts

And it’s important to stress that although Namatjira may be hilarious, he’s not a fucking comedian. History matters to him a lot. Captain Cook pitches up in many of his works, wry jibes at the deluded colonial narrative that has the explorer down as the ‘discoverer’ of the continent. There’s also the fierce pride of his nation that he renders without being pious, as with Stand Strong for Who You Are (2020) featuring Adam Goodes (the famed Australian rules football player) who has faced down a barrage of racist abuse over the years. The painting glorifies in the colours, the red and black bands and yellow sun, of Harold Thomas’ Aboriginal flag. The MCA mural – P.P.F. (Past-Present-Future) (2021) – features other Aboriginal heroes such as Eddie Mabo, the land rights activist; boxer Lionel Rose; and Vincent’s own great-grandfather, the aforementioned painter Albert.

Finally, a quick nod to Namatjira’s delightfully impudent self-portraits such as Vincent and Donald (Happy Birthday) (2018). The painter could so easily be seen as an impotent clown, a bladder-on-a-stick jester stomping and shaking in furious anger at the elite. But look again at that knife in his hand. It might be for cutting the cake but watch where it’s pointing. Maybe Trump should be thankful he lost.