Australia’s Richest Person Demands That National Gallery Take Down Her Portrait

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 piece, part of a collection of portraits by an acclaimed indigenous artist, has been defended by the museum, the arts industry, and—perhaps worst for her—social media users, who have given it more attention than ever.

The portrait features Rinehart, who is 70 years old, with a misshapen head, downturned lips, and a double chin. It is part of an exhibition titled “Vincent Namatjira: Australia in colour,” which opened at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra in March and is set to run until July 21.

The exhibition of portraits by Namatjira, a 40-year-old Aboriginal Australian who has won the prestigious Archibald Prize for portraiture, also contains depictions of other famous people—including Queen Elizabeth II, former Australian soccer player Adam Goodes, and former Prime Ministers Julia Gillard and Scott Morrison—all in Namatjira’s signature style that often employs humor and exaggerated features to interrogate the rich and powerful.

Portraits by Vincent Namatjira
Portraits from “Vincent Namatjira: Australia in colour.”Courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia

“I paint the world as I see it,” Namatjira said, in response to Reinhart’s reported attempts to have her portrait taken down, in a statement shared with TIME by the NGA 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?’” 

“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,” he said.

According to Namatjira, who explained his intention behind the exhibition at a panel discussion organized by the NGA in March, the portraits are meant to convey that “we are all equal in Australia, no matter where you’re from, no matter what you do or what background you’re from, or what heritage you’re from, we’re all Australian.” He added that the choice of wall colors—red, black, and yellow—represents the Aboriginal flag.

Vincent Namatjira looks at the installation of his exhibition, "Vincent Namatjira: Australia in colour," at the National Gallery of Australia.
Namatjira, left, looks at the installation of his exhibition at the NGA.Courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia

This is not the first time Rinehart has featured in Namatjira’s paintings. In his 2017 paintings Gina Rinehart and Me and Gina Rinehart and Me II, she’s portrayed standing beside the artist himself; she was also painted as a standalone portrait in his 2017 series “The Richest.”

Rinehart, who took over mineral extraction company Hancock Prospecting from her father and whose net worth is estimated at over $30 billion, is known for her financial support of the country’s sporting scene. She’s also listed on the NGA’s website as a “friend” of the gallery for donating between A$4,999 (over $3,000) and A$9,999 (under $7,000) in the most recent fiscal quarter. 

Rinehart directly contacted NGA council director Nick Mitzevich and chair Ryan Stokes to ask for the removal of her portrait, and associates of her company have lodged more than a dozen complaints to the gallery, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on Wednesday. A group of 20 Australian swimmers—a sport for which she’s known to provide vital funding—have also campaigned against her portrait on display, calling it “offensive to a great Australian.”

Rinehart, contacted through Hancock Prospecting, did not immediately respond to TIME’s request for comment.

The gallery is not backing down, saying in a statement on Wednesday that it “welcomes the public having a dialogue on our collection and displays.”

“Since 1973, when the National Gallery acquired Jackson Pollack’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,” the NGA said. “We present works of art to the Australian public to inspire people to explore, experience and learn about art.”

The National Association for the Visual Arts also published a statement backing the right for artists to “create art about any subject and by any means.” 

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

Read More: An Australian Art Museum Is Installing a Toilet to Keep Its ‘Ladies Lounge’ Off Limits to Men

Rinehart has courted controversy before with Indigenous Australians. In 2022, Hancock Prospecting withdrew A$15 million (about $10 million) in sponsorship funding from Netball Australia after the national team voiced its support for Donnell Wallam, an Indigenous netballer who had refused to wear a uniform with the mining company’s logo. Wallam cited concerns about racist comments Rinehart’s late father had made against Aboriginal Australians, including that those who hadn’t “assimilated” should be sterilized—which Rinehart has long remained silent over, even as she faced growing public calls to apologize.

Now, instead of shielding the unflattering depiction of herself from public view, Rinehart finds herself the victim of the so-called Streisand effect—the phenomenon whereby attempts to quash attention to something ironically only cause it to get amplified—as news of her dissatisfaction with the art exhibition has inspired international coverage, which has resurfaced her family’s unsavory history, as well as widespread memes and mockery on social media.

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