The winner was announced by the Art Gallery of NSW’s chairman David Gonski, who read from a statement composed by Namatjira’s subject.
Goodes said Namatjira’s win shone a light on all art by Indigenous artists.
“We have a 60,000-year history of art and culture in our people and we share this knowledge and gift of culture with all Australians,” he said. “Vincent and I are also countrymen. I’m so proud of Vincent and his family. Their journey has been shared through the art of generations.”
Archibald judge Ben Quilty was close to tears as he disclosed the judges’ vote was “almost unanimous”. The portrait, showing vignettes of Goodes on the playing field, was an unbeatable pairing of bold painterly strokes and subject matter, he said.
Namatjira is the great-grandson of acclaimed watercolourist Albert Namatjira who was the subject of William Dargie’s 1956 Archibald-winning portrait. “I think of his great-grandfather and the hardships he faced and his people faced, that Vincent’s faced. I just know there is going to be a big party out in Indulkana tonight,” Quilty said.
“He’s completely unique, he’s a leader in his community, and you know some of the best painters on the planet right now are coming out of this part of the world.”
Fellow Aboriginal artist Tony Albert said Namatjira’s win turned the tables on art history with Indigenous artists dominating the narrative. “We’re making history, we’re changing the vernacular, it’s the Aboriginal person who is in the position of power and this is why it is so important.”
In a strong year for Aboriginal representation among Archibald finalists, Albert said: “There is never a wrong time to rewrite history.”
Namatjira told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age he hoped his win would open some people’s eyes to the breadth and diversity of Indigenous art.
“Maybe they’ll understand that Indigenous art isn’t just dot paintings, or traditional designs. Aboriginal people make all kinds of art. We do everything – music, film, photography, contemporary art. We do it all, and we do it really well, too.”
To young Indigenous people, he said, “I would say, ‘Believe in yourself, don’t be afraid to give it crack.’ I’m a mentor and a role model for young people in my community and I want to use my position and profile to support the next generation of Indigenous artists and to help create opportunities for them.”
Highly commended in the Archibald Prize was Tsering Hannaford for Self-Portrait after ‘Allegory of Painting’. A six-time Archibald finalist and the daughter of Robert Hannaford, she had been inspired by Artemisia Gentileschi’s 17th-century portrait in which the artist used mirrors to observe herself.
The winner of the Sulman Prize is Marikit Santiago for her painting titled The Divine. The Wynne Prize went to Hubert Pareroultja for his painting Tjoritja.
A week ago Meyne Wyatt’s wry self-portrait made art history after being awarded the Packing Room Prize in this year’s pandemic-delayed Archibald Prize.
It was the first time an Indigenous artist had won any of the awards in the Archibald Prize’s history, in a year in which almost half the finalists were works by Indigenous artists.
This was also a record year for overall entries with 2565 works submitted, eclipsing the previous record set in 2012.
The Archibald Prize was originally scheduled to open in May. Artists were given three extra months to work on their entries after the Art Gallery of NSW opted to delay the exhibition until after the coronavirus health crisis when, it said, art would be needed more than ever.
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Linda Morris is an arts and books writer at The Sydney Morning Herald
Nick Galvin is Arts Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald