Albert Namatjira (Vincent Namatjira, Magabala)
In his picture book biography Albert Namatjira, Vincent Namatjira paints a stoic and quietly devastating portrait of his great-grandfather Albert, one of the most iconic figures in Australian painting. An Arrernte man, Albert Namatjira was the first Indigenous artist to exhibit watercolour paintings in an ostensibly Western idiom. His landscapes were widely celebrated and his output was prolific in his lifetime. Yet while his success opened some doors, Vincent Namatjira’s book details a later life marked at every turn by the harms white Australia continues to visit upon the traditional custodians of the land. There is a wonderful tension in Vincent Namatjira’s paintings; his neutral and non-judgemental eye for his subjects lends itself beautifully to Albert’s story, bold marks constructing understated tableaus, belying a deep well of emotion. As a picture book biography, it is startlingly unique to look at and, notably, it makes no attempt to emulate any part of Albert Namatjira’s aesthetic in the telling. On opposing pages, the text is sparse, its simplicity rendering the arc of Albert’s life with unsentimental clarity. This is a wonderful example of the picture book form’s unique gift for dramatic understatement, of its ability to cut to the lean truth of a matter. Albert Namatjira is simply a triumph of painting, of biography, of history, and of tribute. Magnificent.
Phil Lesnie is a children’s illustrator and a bookseller at Kinokuniya Sydney.