In 2014 he painted a portrait of himself with the painting of the famous forebear he never had the chance to know as an entry to the prize. It was not accepted as a finalist then, but today hangs in the Queensland Art Gallery alongside the original. Undeterred, Namatjira has continued to target the prize and has exhibited as a finalist for four consecutive years from 2017-2020.
It’s this tenacity and commitment, along with a trademark wit and insight, that has won Vincent many admirers over the past decade.
His style – untrained, raw and personal – has also drawn detractors who demand greater pictorial realism over narrative content (style over substance), with many armchair experts deriding his success over the past few days since the award was announced.
His subject matter now seems an especially appropriate match – a meeting with AFL legend Adam Goodes, who was bullied from the game after standing up to racism. Here, both men, Black, determined, and successful, “stand strong for who they are”, speaking their truths despite the boos of many, upset that their aesthetic or social status quo has been disrupted.
As much as this year’s Archibald prize has been a celebration of the vitality of Aboriginal art, it has also been a symbol of power, with Indigenous artists and people “standing tall for who they are’” beginning to break down the last remaining barriers in the industry.
Against this backdrop, it comes as no surprise that this year the Art Gallery of New South Wales appointed, for the first time in its 149-year history, an Aboriginal person to its 11-member Board of Trustees, who also act as the selection committee for the award.
There is a growing understanding that our place in this industry as First Nations people is everywhere – from a gallery’s walls to its boardroom, from the Desert to the Domain – our presence, voices, histories and stories are the lifeblood of this nation’s art and cultural being. Although this year we’ve witnessed the first Aboriginal artist winning the coveted prize, it certainly won’t be the last.
As for Vincent Namatjira, the star of this year’s show, long may his subversive, witty and empowering portraits shine, as he turns his illuminating light on our stories throughout history to the present day.
Bruce Johnson McLean, a Wierdi/Birri-Gubba man, is the National Gallery of Australia’s inaugural Assistant Director, Indigenous Engagement, which is funded by a bequest of Barbara Jean Humphreys.