Lockhart River artist Rosella Namok was 20 years old in the late 1990s when her work first burst onto the art scene. Now 31 she enjoys a celebrated reputation among international art collectors
Rosella Namok’s subjects are mindscapes of her own making, micro worlds informed by traditional law and detailed observation of nature. Impressive in their powerful immediacy, while deploying a geometric symbolism of the artist’s imagination, they embody a tactility and abstraction that addresses the artist’s sense of country and her connection to it. Namok paints her much loved Lockhart River lands, a former mission settlement 800 km north of Cairns in Australia’s tropical north east.
When Namok’s work first appeared on the art scene in the late 1990s, it was unlike any of the dot paintings so characteristic of Indigenous contemporary art. Instead it heralded an exciting new direction in art practice, reassuring collectors that public confidence in Indigenous art was anything but on a downward spiral. Says Sydney Morning Herald art critic John McDonald: ‘She appeared at a time when Aboriginal art seemed to have no clear succession … it was absolutely vital that Aboriginal art got an injection from youth at that stage … bold and abstract and raw and simple, Namok’s paintings absolutely passed muster as contemporary art, and when you learnt they were by a 20-year-old, it was a complete breaking of the mould.’ ‘I paint mainly about clan groups, country, family and what people do; says Namok. Other subjects include the seasons – the dry and the wet – rainforest, camping and tourists when they come through. I also paint about the stories people tell me about the spirits and carnival journeys to other communities.
I like to use my fingers when I paint such things – sand painting has always been a favourite style’ Namok’s career as an artist began in the late 1990s soon after her return from Carins to Lockhart River at age 15. There under the stewardship of Fran and Geoff Barker, the original mangers of the Lockhart River Art Centre, she was taught to paint. It was not long before she distinguished herself from other members of the now famous Lockhart River Art Gang. This group today includes Samantha Hobson, Fiona Omeenyo, Silas Hobson, Terry Platt, Patrick Butcher and Adrian King. Namok is now married with two children, and her life is divided between Cairns and Lockhart. Although her home and studio are in Cairns, she regularly visits Lockhart to renew connection to country, family and friends.
She works on canvases that are laid out on the ground using techniques which draw upon both Western contemporary art and indigenous art practice. As well as these she deploys finger painting which is used locally for ceremonial body painting, a practice that is widely incorporated into the work of celebrated Central Desert artists like Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Minnie Pwerle and Eileen Stevens. Body painting resides at the heart of ceremonial practice in traditional Aboriginal culture, it goes hand in hand with the creation of sand paintings or the sculpting in low-relief in traditional design, areas that are used for ceremonial dance. The marks or patterns used on the body and on the ceremonial ground are highly symbolic. They embody arcane and sacred meanings which have been handed down by Aboriginal people through the oral transmission of Dreaming culture for many aeons.
Namok learnt body painting from her father who was the painter of dancer’s bodies for traditional tribal ceremony at Lockhart River. She often helped him to do this as a child smearing clay onto the body and working it with the fingers to create the appropriate designs. Interestingly, transference of the tactility of this expression informs her current art practice, where the canvas is treated as skin and acts as a tableau for ceremonial decoration or ritual. Consequently, in Namok’s work we observe both decorative finger painting as well as “scraping” of the surface. The scaping could be seen to be a symbolic scarring of the skin – both practises are reminiscent of traditional ceremonial and initiation practice in Aboriginal culture.
Rosella Namok autographing a copy of Our Way – Contemporary Art from Lockhart River, at the book launch in Lockhart
The artist’s elegant rive-panel series, titled Old Girl, evokes directly the finger painting technique of ceremony. An essay in organic minimalist flow, the black paint overlay when painted with fingers reveals beneath a background of pinks, orange-reds and white. These subtly coalesce and delineate the parallel wavy lines in colour bands that flow harmonically from one end of the canvas to another. They are a symbolic reference to ceremonial knowledge that has been passed on to Namok by senior Law Women of her community. She is concerned that the influence of tribal elders is not exercised strongly in the community today as the majority have passed away. In a positive sense, she regards her work as one way of recording and transferring the sacred Indigenous knowledge of her people to future generations. Her paintings often address issues of moiety and Law. There are six different clan groups in Lockhart and hers on her father’s side is called Arko. Each group has its own homeland where those belonging to it enjoy hunting, residential and food collecting rights.
Namok’s lands are to the south of Lockhart. Her totem is the Rosella, which is named after a large bill in Lockhart where these birds live. This subject is one that she does hot paint. Her mother is from Torres Strait Island, whose country is unfamiliar and to which she consequently has little connection. Her mother died earlier in her life. She has four brothers, and one sister. The artist’s language is the Aankum Group.
In Clan Groups Salt-water Side the finger painting technique or ceremony ]s expressed in landscape that speaks about (tribal) Law. Here vertical parallel lines which appear to be translucent emerge as striations in greys, blues, whites and pinks against the smooth background layer. They are revealed through finger painting over a thick multicoloured horizontal ground.
Sometimes Namok chooses to paint subjects unrelated to topics of ceremony, which instead describe personal aspects of her life at Lockhart. Often these are inspired by memories, so have a nostalgic quality about them. She says: ‘I love to paint things that make me happy, like going camping and fishing.’ In these works she depicts natural features such as mud crab, paper-bark, waterfalls and black boy. These experiences and subjects can be explored in finger painting works like Mangroves Fishing up the Lockhart where a seemingly pencil strait forest of aqua blue mangroves is overlaid onto a burnt orange background, floating in space like Mimi spirit figures of the Aboriginal Dreamtime. She also uses the rhythmic design of finger paint in a series of serene sand bleached paintings that describes the ripple lines imprinted on the beach by the receding tide.
Rather than removing paint with the impress of fingers, Namok uses various implements to scrape the painted surface. Stinging Rain -yah fall down is a glowing work painted in a soft palette of bleached greys. In this work, rhythmic parallel lines paced obliquely to the vertical direction, take the moody narrative forward, their razor-sharp gashes to the painted surface, created by a fine edged scraping tool. This work relates to fishing from a boat on the river during a downpour. ‘It’s always good when it starts to rain … it stings your face and stirs up the fish underneath.’
In Taywai…full moon her confident skill as printmaker reveals itself in her representation of the moon in the night sky. There are two layers in the image: the white shape of the moon is stencilled into being as the negative image of a blue streaked background while its pale blue cloud overlay is created by a second sweeping fine overlay of paint. Namok comments: ‘It’s always pleasant when you are camping to see the full moon … We call it the big damper. When it rises you can see the reflection on the water…and its always good because you can see half-daylight when you are walking on the beach’
Two years after starting to exhibit, her first successful solo show was at Sydney’s Hogarth Galleries in 1999. Helen Hansen of Hogarth Galleries with whom Namok continued to exhibit (up to its closure, August, 2010), said: ‘We saw in Rosella a grain of creativity which has flowered with her maturity and natural process as an artist. She is a good colourist and creates depth in her layering of paint.’
Namok’s winning entry in the 2004 High Court Centenary Art Prize – Today now… we all got to go by same laws is a giant nine-panel work that depicts traditional tribal law overlaid by contemporary law. It hangs in the court’s main gallery. Over the years she has held many solo exhibitions and been included in important group shows. She has been curated into over 30 national and international exhibitions, biennales and prizes.
Rosella Namok is one of the youngest Aboriginal artists to achieve widespread success. Already she has a well established international art career and her paintings are represented in all major state and national institutional collections in Australia as well as the prestigious KlugheRugh Collection in Virginia, US.
Rosella Namok is represented by Australian & Oceanic Art Port Douglas, Baker Gallery in Brisbane, and Niagra Gallery in Melbourne.
Rosella has found herself in the position of being one of Australia’s most sought after artists.
Important copyright notice
The Copyright of all images and documentation remains with Sabine Haider. The Australian Copyright Act protects all artists from unauthorised copying by giving control over original works of art to the artist by law. However depending on the use proposed, Sabine Haider from Central Art – Aboriginal Art Store can facilitate reproduction of works with the permission of the artist as we have developed close relationships over the years with many individual painters and craftspeople.
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