Australia has long been a favourite travel destination of the British Royal Family – it just took them a while to get here. One hundred and eighty-four years after Captain James Cook claimed the eastern portion of the Australian continent for the British Crown, Queen Elizabeth II became the first reigning monarch of Australia to actually set foot on our soil. In 1954, she visited all capital cities (except Darwin), and met thousands of her subjects, who eagerly lined the streets to catch a glimpse of this significant milestone.
This royal visit was particularly significant for the Namatjira family. Vincent’s great-grandfather, acclaimed painter Albert Namatjira, was awarded the Queen’s Coronation Medal the year prior, and was flown to Canberra to meet Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh during their 1954 tour. However, despite being widely celebrated both in Australia and abroad, Albert was not considered a citizen in his own country until 1957, and it would be another ten years until Indigenous Australians were constitutionally recognised as Australian citizens.
Vincent Namatjira’s new paintings feature portraits based on images sourced from vintage Royal Family photobooks, produced as souvenirs for royal visits to Australia. Vincent juxtaposes this source material against his own visual language, so as to create an intervention in the colonial narratives that are so deeply entrenched in our national identity. His works are bold, poignant and funny. I don’t want to dismiss this element of what I call ‘guerrilla’ humour – a tactic used in Blackfella art to make Whitefellas laugh at themselves. Let’s be honest, as Aboriginal men we have much more luck in interrogating White nuances through a joke than by pointing the finger. This is one of Vincent’s strongest attributes.
As Vincent himself puts it:
“Whenever I paint powerful figures like the royals, I’m trying to take away some of their colonial power and ownership. I use a mischievous self-portrait and a bit of cheeky humour as a kind of equaliser, a way of putting everyone on the same level. Whilst humour is a way of getting people’s attention, I really hope people also see the serious side. When I place an Aboriginal person front-and-centre or use the Aboriginal flag in a painting, it is as a symbol of our strength and resilience.”
With these most recent paintings, Vincent has invited us into his world. We are equal to the power structures that have pushed us down for so long. Vincent continues this legacy of empowerment and excellence. There is nowhere we no longer belong. But most importantly we belong here.
Over the course of six decades, Queen Elizabeth II has visited Australia a total of sixteen times. I too find myself drawn to the sounds, sights and people of this country. However, Queen Elizabeth and I have a very different vision of Australia, and I see myself in Vincent’s pages, laid out before me. A culture warrior; a speaker of truth. I salute you my brother.
Coinciding with the show is the release of The Royal Tour, Namatjira’s new artist book produced in collaboration with Perimeter Editions. For more details and to purchase the book, please head to Perimeter Editions website