It came as a serious shock to me when I rounded a corner at Art Basel Miami Beach, the world’s largest contemporary art fair, and came face-to-face with Donald J. Trump.
A second shock came with the wave of relief that washed over me: Here, after exhibit after exhibit of modern art I didn’t understand by artists I had never heard of, was something familiar. After attending various panels about the meaning of some piece or how one should assess various kinds of art, here was something I could just look at. Something I could laugh at.
I was looking at a portrait of Trump posing with her majesty Queen Elizabeth II— she with a cup of tea, he clutching a carton of McDonald’s fries. His expression is one of bland, insipid contentment; his skin is painted in shades of peach.
Perhaps it is this kind of familiarity that made Vincent Namatjira’s exhibit a popular one with Basel-goers this year. His absurdist portraits of global leaders are politically potent and technically impressive, but they’re also funny: Kim Jong Un getting a haircut, Vladimir Putin’s iconic shirtless horseback ride, reimagined in caricature. Namatjira, an Australian Aboriginal, often inserts himself alongside the leaders as a way to draw attention to his perspective as an indigenous person.
Namatjira hails from Australia’s Ntaria (Hermannsburg) territory, but now lives in the remote community of Indulkana, in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara area of South Australia’s far northwest. “These people are far away from the remote community where I live, but when I paint them it brings them into my world,” he says of the exhibit’s political content. “I chose to paint some world leaders—powerful figures—and strip away some of their power, to show a different side to what we see on the TV news,” he writes over email.
As for using humor in his work, Namatjira write that “humour and the paintbrush are my weapons. I use humour as an equaliser, it puts everyone on the same level. If a painting is making me laugh while I’m working on it, then I know there is something there, like a spark that’s going to get people interested.”
It’s a kind of comic relief that’s welcome at Basel. He doesn’t make it hard to “get it,” which is refreshing when so much of modern art begs to be understood, often leaving the viewer feeling confused and kind of stupid. His works are uncomplicated but still manage to address today’s thorniest topics: international politics and the power of the people who dictate them.
He adds, however, that while humor is a great hook for viewers, he wants people to look deeper: “I want to show a strong voice from an Australian Aboriginal man and put our Indigenous stories front and centre, not pushed to the background.”