Albert Namatjira, an Australian identity


With the exhibition ‘Quilty‘ at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) until 13 October 2019, you have the opportunity to view and compare three portraits of Albert Namatjira — William Dargie’s iconic image has become the most identifiable image of the artist, and works by Ben Quilty and Vincent Namatjira who have each been inspired to incorporate this original into their versions.

Ben Quilty’s painting Albert 2004 features two identifiable Australian identities placed together, Namatjira, the pioneer of contemporary Indigenous Australian art, and the budgerigar, native to Australia, its common name derived from a Gamilaraay Aboriginal language name ‘Betcherrygah’.

By placing these incongruous images side by side, Quilty highlights their usual association. By juxtaposing Namatjra’s portrait with a bird once free, now caged and bred in captivity into a range of uncharacteristic colours and patterns, Quilty considers the idea of Australian identity and its connection to place.


Ben Quilty, Australia b.1973 / Albert 2004 / Oil on canvas / 135 x 220 cm overall (two panels) / Private collection / © Ben Quilty

From the series Beauty rich and rare, Quilty brings together artists and pet birds into diptychs, such as Arthur Streeton, Frederick McCubbin, Tom Roberts and Namatjira. The portrait of Namatjira is borrowed from William Dargie’s Portrait of Albert Namatjira which won the 1956 Archibald Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The painting was acquired by the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) in 1957, since then, it has become accepted as the iconic image of Australia’s most recognised Indigenous artist.

As the first prominent Aboriginal artist to work in a modern idiom, Namatjira was widely regarded as a representative of assimilation, able to bring traditions together… [Quilty] confronts the question of what constitutes a genuinely Australian Art… Are Namatjira’s works in a Western idiom less authentic than those by the celebrated exponents of Australian nationalism.1

Portrait of Albert Namatjira

Portrait of Albert Namatjira 1956 is a conventional portrait — a seated half-figure painted from life. In mid-twentieth-century Australia, Indigenous people had rarely figured in a genre that confirmed the status of ‘elder statesman’ upon its subjects. William Dargie’s name was synonymous with the portrayal of ‘captains of industry’, a portrait by Dargie represented the confirmation of great social value and this portrait of Namatjira challenged the attitudes of 1950s Australia.

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William Dargie, Australia 1912–2003 / Portrait of Albert Namatjira 1956 / Oil on canvas / Purchased 1957 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © QAGOMA.

Albert and Vincent

Albert and Vincent 2014 is the result of Vincent Namatjira’s visit to QAGOMA to view Portrait of Albert Namatjira 1956 by William Dargie. Previously Vincent had seen the work only as a reproduction, and as a portrait painter whose work is often inspired by the image and cultural impact of his grandfather, he had a strong desire to view the work in person. Visiting the Gallery, Vincent sketched the portrait taking his sketches home to finish the work. Albert and Vincent now hangs alongside the painting that inspired it.

Related: Albert and Vincent Namatjira

Vincent Namatjira, Western Aranda/Pitjantatjara people b.1983 / Albert and Vincent 2014 / Synthetic polymer paint on linen / Gift of Dirk and Karen Zadra through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation 2014. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Vincent Namatjira 2014. Licensed by Copyright Agency

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1 Michael Desmond, Ben Quilty Live, The University of Queensland Art Museum, 2009, p.82.

Feature image details by William Dargie, Ben Quilty, and Vincent Namatjira

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