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Vincent Namatjira: Desert Songs

  • Art, Paintings
  1. Vincent Namatjira: Desert Songs
    Photograph: 'Royal self-portrait with dingo' 2023, courtesy of the artist, Iwantja Arts and Yavuz Gallery
  2. Vincent Namatjira: Desert Songs
    Photograph: Yavuz Gallery/Jessica Maurer | 'Vincent Namatjira: Desert Songs', 2023
  3. Vincent Namatjira: Desert Songs
    Photograph: 'Vincent and Vincent', courtesy of the artist, Iwantja Arts and Yavuz Gallery
  4. Vincent Namatjira: Desert Songs installation
    Photograph: Yavuz Gallery/Jessica Maurer
  5. Vincent Namatjira: Desert Songs
    Photograph: 'Frank Yamma' 2023, courtesy of the artist, Iwantja Arts and Yavuz Gallery
  6. Paintings from Vincent Namatjira: Desert Songs
    Photograph: Images of paintings courtesy of the artist, Iwantja Arts and Yavuz Gallery
  7. Artist Vincent Namatjira stands with a self portrait
    Photograph: Yavuz Gallery/Jessica Maurer

Time Out says

This timely collection of paintings from leading Indigenous artist Vincent Namatjira tackles themes of leadership, power and legacy

Without mincing words, Vincent Namatjira OAM – the first Aboriginal person to win the Archibald Prize – is one of the most important Australian artists of our time. With his bold and subversive figurative paintings, Namatjira explores what it means to be Indigenous in Australia, and in the world. Desert Songs, a collection of 13 new works by Namatjira, has just been unveiled at Yavuz Gallery in Surry Hills – and this is your chance to see the artist’s work in the flesh, with no entry fee. 

A show for these times, the exhibition tackles the rich themes and concepts of leadership, power and legacy. Namatjira explores his own deeply personal histories through portraits of well-known figures that have shaped his life through art, music and politics – including the likes of singer-songwriter and Indigenous activist Archie Roach, and Australian country music icon Slim Dusty.

Speaking to arts and culture editor Alannah Le Cross, Namatjira said: “If you pick up a paintbrush, it does change lives, and it changes the world also.” 

Vincent Namatjira with self portraitPhotograph: Yavuz Gallery/Jessica Maurer

The Yavuz Gallery presentation also features celebrated works by Namatjira, including ‘Vincent and Vincent’ (in which the artist depicts himself on Country, standing with Vincent van Gogh) and paintings like ‘Charles on Country’ from the series where he depicts members of the British royalty in Australian landscapes. Namatjira lampoons the pageantry of the monarchy, with Queen Elizabeth II and others painted with caricature-esque features, appearing like strange aliens in a foreign land.

The paintings featuring Queen Liz also reference the artist’s great-grandfather, the famous Aboriginal landscape painter Albert Namatjira, who met the Queen during her coronation tour in 1954. Vincent didn’t discover that he was related to Albert until he left highschool and reconnected with his family after a childhood in the foster care system – which adds layers of complication to his exploration of family legacy. 

There’s a profound sense of humour and wit to Namatjira’s colourful style, but as he says, there’s more than that:

“There’s also the serious side when you look deep into the painting, and especially with the portraits. When I put someone on the canvas, it kind of takes away some of their power, whether it's a royal figure or a government figure, a world leader… They need to be at the same level as the rest of the world, and that's why I like to put some funny sense of something in, like a cup of tea, McDonald's or whatever.”

Paintings from Vincent Namatjira: Desert SongsPhotograph: Images of paintings courtesy of the artist, Iwantja Arts and Yavuz Gallery

Namatjira probes the complex colonial narratives implicit in Australia’s relationship with the Empire from a contemporary Aboriginal perspective  – commentary which is especially relevant with the country’s upcoming referendum, in which Namatjira confidently says that he is voting Yes.

“To be honest, where I'm from back in the desert, there’s a lot of my countrymen scratching their heads who don't know what's going on with this world today. When they [politicians] come up with voting “yes” or “no” – to me, that's childish. It's not levelling anything at all. But to me, voting Yes, I see it as a way to push forward for Indigenous remote and Torres Strait people in Australia,” he says.

Along with the history of the nation, this is a pivotal point in Namatjira’s career. Desert Songs coincides with a forthcoming monograph published by Thames and Hudson; and major survey, Australia in colour, presented at the Art Gallery of South Australia in 2023 and the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, in 2024. 

“Vincent Namatjira is a human that is able to tell stories – of a nation, of Country, of family, of what the legacy really is of Australia,” says Can Yavuz, founder and director of Yavuz Gallery.

“This [exhibition] is such a rare opportunity, you have four weeks to visit the show and to really learn from the stories he's telling on those canvases. These are all very personal stories, stories about his great-grandfather [Albert Namitjira], stories about himself, social commentary about how we deal with legacy, with the history of the Commonwealth and who we are.” 

If you don’t have all day to peruse a gallery, you’re in luck – you could do Desert Songs in an hour or so, making it the perfect lunch break culture hit for CBD workers, or to pair with a café outing in Surry Hills. Just enter through the decidedly non-gallery-looking building on the corner of Commonwealth and Reservoir Streets, and take a right into the Yavuz space. 

Desert Songs is showing now until October 28, 2023.


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Alannah Le Cross
Written by
Alannah Le Cross


Free entry
Opening hours:
Tue-Sat 10am-6pm
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