Vincent Namatjira says ‘people don’t have to like my paintings’ after Gina Rinehart demands portrait be removed

<span>Vincent Namatjira’s ‘Australia in Colour, 2021’, currently on display in the NGA, includes a portrait of Gina Rinehart and the artist alongside other famous faces.</span><span>Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP</span>
Vincent Namatjira’s ‘Australia in Colour, 2021’, currently on display in the NGA, includes a portrait of Gina Rinehart and the artist alongside other famous faces.Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

Archibald prize-winning artist Vincent Namatjira has responded after mining billionaire Gina Rinehart demanded that a portrait he painted of her be removed from the National Gallery of Australia.

The painting of Rinehart, arguably an unflattering picture of Australia’s richest person, is one of many portraits at the Canberra gallery on display in Namatjira’s first major survey exhibition.

Related: Gina Rinehart demands National Gallery of Australia remove her portrait

“I paint the world as I see it,” Namatjira wrote in a statement on Thursday. “People don’t have to like my paintings, but I hope they take the time to look and think, ‘Why has this Aboriginal bloke painted these powerful people? What is he trying to say?’”

Namatjira said he paints “people who are wealthy, powerful, or significant – people who have had an influence on this country, and on me personally, whether directly or indirectly, whether for good or for bad”.

The Indigenous artist and great-grandson of famed Arrernte watercolourist, Albert Namatjira, won the prestigious Ramsay art prize in 2019 for his depiction of Captain Cook and the Archibald in 2020 for a portrait of Adam Goodes.

Rinehart herself has featured as a subject numerous times in Namatjira’s work. He has painted himself alongside the mining magnate in two portraits titled Gina Rinehart and Me, while another painting titled The Richest (Gina Rinehart) became a Ramsay finalist in 2017.

Namatjira’s portrait of Rinehart hangs in the NGA alongside images of Queen Elizabeth II, Scott Morrison and Ned Kelly.

“Some people might not like it, other people might find it funny but I hope people look beneath the surface and see the serious side too,” his statement concluded.

The NGA has rebuffed Rinehart’s demands to take down the portrait. “The National Gallery welcomes the public having a dialogue on our collection and displays,” it wrote in a statement on Wednesday.

“Since 1973, when the National Gallery acquired Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, there has been a dynamic discussion on the artistic merits of works in the national collection, and/or on display at the gallery.”

Related: ‘I see myself as a royal’: artist Vincent Namatjira on colonialism, satire and his great-grandfather’s legacy

Before showing in Canberra, Namatjira’s portrait of Rinehart was on public display in Adelaide for months during the exhibition’s initial run at the Art Gallery of South Australia late last year. The Adelaide gallery has confirmed it did not field any requests for the removal of the painting.

The National Association for the Visual Arts (Nava) also released a statement on Thursday defending Namatjira’s work.

“While Rinehart has the right to express her opinions about the work, she does not have the authority to pressure the gallery into withdrawing the painting simply because she dislikes it,” said Nava executive director, Penelope Benton.

“Artistic expression is a fundamental aspect of Australian cultural life and it must include the freedom to exhibit, perform or distribute works that may be unpopular, shocking, or disturbing.”

Rinehart has been contacted for comment through her company Hancock Prospecting.

– with AAP