Australian billionaire's attempt to remove gallery portrait draws international attention

Vincent Namatjira, Western Aranda people, Australia in Colour,

Vincent Namatjira, Western Aranda people, Australia in Colour, 2021, National Gallery of Australia, Kamberri/Canberra, purchased in celebration of the National Gallery of Australia's 40th anniversary, 2022, image courtesy Iwantja arts, Courtesy of the artist and Iwantja Arts, photo: Iwantja Arts © Vincent Namatjira/Copyright Agency

Aussies love to criticise successful people. It is called “cutting down tall poppies”, a national pastime often referred to by the Australianism Tall Poppy Syndrome. It was no surprise then that Australia’s richest person, Gina Rinehart, eventually became a target of online mockery.

Gina Rinehart is a highly successful mining magnate who inherited her initial wealth from her father Lang Hancock. Apparently, she objected to the inclusion of her portrait by Vincent Namatjira in an exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. Namatjira is an Aboriginal artist whose bold portraiture is sometimes referred to as caricature. He has won the Archibald Prize, Australia's premier portraiture award. He is the great-grandson of famous watercolourist Albert Namatjira. Online interest lasted well past the 24-hour news cycle, with satirical art mashups stoking reactions.

The portrait of Gina Rinehart is part of Namatjira's Australia in Colour 2021 series. It features portraits of 21 famous people associated with Australia, including explorers, sportspeople, politicians, artists and royalty.

A Guardian story, “Gina Rinehart demands National Gallery of Australia remove her portrait”, drew more than 400 comments on Reddit. Many reflected on the portrait's artistic merit and other works by the same artist. One user, BusinessBear53 picked up on an aspect which became a central theme of the attempted take-down:

Isn't this a case of the Streisand effect?

I would never have known about this and no one would have cared if she didn't demand to have it removed. Now it's arguably more valuable because of the attention it's getting.

It's another recent instance of the Streisand Effect down under.

The dust-up attracted international attention. Time Magazine quickly shared their take on the latest developments:

Gina Rinehart, Australia’s wealthiest person, is less than thrilled about a recent painting of her being exhibited at one of Australia’s largest art museums. But her reported attempts to get the unflattering portrait taken down is backfiring…

The news even got picked up by late-night US talk show host Stephen Colbert, even as his audience of 2.5 million had probably not heard of Gina before.

Award-winning journalist Quentin Dempster used X (formerly Twitter) to make his point:

There were many instances of sendups on social media. Some of the popular ones were shared widely on Facebook, Instagram and X:

Aristotle’s quote from “The Poetics’ seems to sum up the controversy:

One enterprising winery has organised a cellar-bration, bottling a number of whites inspired by Vincent’s pour-trait:

Not for the first time, sports popped up as a touchy subject for Rinehart, who has contributed millions in sponsoring swimming events. Olympic medal-winning swimmer Kyle Chalmers took a leading role in lobbying the NGA to remove the portrait. In 2022, Gina withdrew funding for a national netball team after players criticised “her record with Indigenous people”.

There were suggestions that Gina’s critics were just envious of her wealth and celebrity. The X account Woke Mob decided to poke fun at her by reposting Australian Kitsch's video collection of Rinehart portraits:

Progressives have other issues with Rinehart, especially about her politics. She has been a strong supporter of Donald Trump. She has also had close associations with conservative Australian politicians such as former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and current leader of the Federal opposition Peter Dutton. Her support for Dutton inspired this portrayal of the pair:

A campaign by satirical comedian Dan Ilic to put the artwork on a Times Square billboard in New York City was quickly funded online:

However, Ilic decided later not to go ahead with the stunt because it did not have Namatjira's approval.

Some proof of the Streisand Effect in operation over the unfolding days came from a self-identifying “woke” fact-checker on X:

On Bluesky Jason Murphy was not impressed with support for the painting, drawing a comparison with a scandal at an elite private school where male students were suspended for ranking female students according to attractiveness:

Last week: Australia is furious at a group of schoolboys for shaming girls for their appearance.
This week: Australians pitch in thousands of dollars to display a very unflattering caricature of a woman.

If you can't see the connection, you're part of the problem.

It appears that Pup Fiction may have been a big part of “the problem”. His signature appears on many of the online images. This thread has nine of these, with Picasso being the first. Please click replies to see the rest:

The NGA responded to an email request about the portrait indicating that the “Australia in colour exhibition is on display in full until the closing date”. It provided this statement from Vincent Namatjira:

I paint the world as I see it. 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?’
I paint 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.
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.

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