Lockhart River Way

The catalog for Our Way: Contemporary Aboriginal Art from Lockhart River (University of Queensland Press, 2007) offers sumptuous visual delights as well as important historical documentation for a development in Aboriginal art that is virtually unique in the history of the movement. It is written and assembled by Sally Butler, curator of the exhibition at the University of Queensland Art Museum (May 5 – July 1, 2007) and lecturer in Art History at the University. From the exquisite opening photographic essay on the “Sandbeach Country” that has spawned this remarkable art to the closing chronologies of exhibitions of the five major artists who have emerged from the community (Rosella NamokFiona OmeenyoSamantha HobsonSilas Hobson, and Adrian King), the catalog is above all a celebration of the Lockhart River Gang and the educational program that brought them to prominence at the turn of the century.

The Lockhart River Gang has attracted international attention for a number of reasons. Not the least of these is the extraordinarily young age of the artists. Adrian King (b. 1974) was the old man of the group at 23 when the Gang’s first exhibition took place in 1997; Rosella Namok, the first solo star to emerge, was only 18. The remote location of Lockhart River, just south of the tip of Cape York played a role as well: the art of north Queensland is largely sculptural, and there was little in the way of a painting tradition for the artists to draw upon. The Gang’s artistic skills were honed through an educational program based out of the Cairns Technical and Further Education (TAFE) system in combination with workshops that brought prominent indigenous and non-indigenous artists (for example, the potter Thancoupie and the sculptor Mike Nichols, respectively) to the community for workshops. Thus, the works were from the first visually distinct from the familiar traditions of dot-painting and rarrk. Echoes of the Quinkan rock art tradition and the graphic works of Torres Strait Islanders can be discerned in the Lockhart styles, but for the most part the prints and paintings that introduced the community to the outside world seemed unprecedented in the Aboriginal tradition. When the Art Gang moved beyond regional exhibitions, their work was often taken up by gallerists like Andrew Baker in Brisbane and Bill Nuttall in Melbourne, who represented a mixture of indigenous and non-indigenous artists. And finally, while the group identity fostered by the tag “Lockhart River Art Gang” helped to create name recognition in the media, the styles of the various members were distinct enough to allow for an appeal to a variety of sensibilities among collectors, galleries, and museums.

Butler treats each of these themes and more in the three chapters that comprise the text of the catalog. The first, “Sandbeach Country” opens with the transcript of an interview, or “yarning” as the Lockhart women like to call it, between Butler and Namok, Omeenyo, and Samantha Hobson. It is an inspired introduction as it allows the reader to absorb the idiom of the artists themselves as they talk about their relation to their country, their families, the development of their art, their careers, and their aspirations for the future. The interview sets a tone that allows Butler’s scholarly and historical essays to develop in context. The remainder of this first chapter describes the physical environment that plays such a large role in the pictorial strategy of all the artists and charts the history of contact with outsiders that proves equally crucial to the story of the Lockhart River community in the twentieth century and the success of the Art Gang in the twenty-first.

The book’s second chapter, “The Art Gang,” offers a close-up view of the community through the plans for a Curriculum for Community Development begun in 1994 and designed to provide training for employment to the youth and a basis for economic development in Lockhart River. The strategy for this program was broad-based, with the visual arts being only one aspect. It aimed to developed cottage industries and ecotourism, among other pragmatic initiatives like office work, cattle ranching, and teaching and health care for the community. As the program in the arts developed, it included not just instruction in techniques of art production like printmaking and painting. Students learned to order supplies for the art centre to develop numeracy skills as well as to develop self-reliance in their artistic production. As part of the “exhibition” module, they were taken on an expedition to the Cairns TAFE, where they learned about red dots and the protocols for opening nights–including how to dress for the event with a $100 stipend for the purchase of an appropriate wardrobe.

Through much of the curriculum’s first five years, the artistic production focused on printmaking, and one of the delights of the exhibition is the generous selection of work from these years, not just by the soon-to-be famous Rosella Namok and Silas Hobson, but by many of the other original twenty-four members of the Art Gang. The graphic work ofSammy ClarmontEvelyn Sandy, and Terry Platt delights the eye in ways quite different from the more familiar works of the superstars, and it’s wonderful to see so many examples reproduced here. Butler chronicles the dedicated work of teacher Fiona Manderson and the first administrators of the Lockhart River Art & Cultural Centre, Geoff and Fran Barker, as they build an exhibition program that takes the work of the fledgling artists from the community store to Cairns in 1997 and, a year later, to Brisbane and to the National Indigenous Art of Place Award in Canberra. Also in 1998, individual artists began to emerge from the collective with the inclusion of works by Rosella Namok and Sammy Clarmont in the 15th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. (Rosella’s entry, a screenprint entitled Leaving the Country was selected for inclusion in the catalog produced for that year’s Telstra Award show, alongside works on paper by Judy Watson, Lofty Bardayal, Brenda Croft, and Peter Datjin.)

Based on what appears in the catalog, it seems that 1999 was the year that the Art Gang made the dramatic transition to painting in acrylics on canvas. A year later their work was included in survey shows across Australia, including major exhibitions at the Queensland Art Gallery, the South Australian Museum, and the National Gallery of Australia. In 2001, Sue Ryan and Greg Adams arrived to take charge of the Art Centre and set about a program of international exhibitions for the Gang that took them, among other places, to the United States (where we had the opportunity to meet them at The University of Virginia’s Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Museum in 2003).

The final chapter of Butler’s catalog is given over to an examination of the five major painters from the Art Gang who have achieved solo exhibitions. Butler aims, quite successfully, to present the defining qualities of each artist’s work. Attempting to draw out individual identities from the collective of the Gang, she examines Namok’s concerns with community and identity, Omeenyo’s interpretations of generational links and traditional stories, and the emotional states rendered to stunning effect in the different series that Samantha Hobson has undertaken over the years. The analysis of Silas Hobson’s use of the Hero Cult and the crocodile ancestor I’wai is illuminating, though I feel it shortchanges the full scope of his imaginative explorations of story and iconography. Her treatment of the political implications of Adrian King’s gentle, naive landscape paintings of the Lockhart community and Wenlock River outstation far to the south of the homelands of most of other Art Gang members help to put his stylistic distance from the other members of the Art Gang into perspective. Her analysis is particularly good in showing how these thematic concerns find expression in the painterly qualities that distinguish each artist’s work, offering a link between style and subject that is little commented on in reviews of the Art Gang’s career. Although in her attempt to highlight the individuality of artists too often subsumed under the rubric of the Gang she overlooks some of the stylistic elements that unite them–the quality of fluidity that characterizes the major paintings of the Art Gang’s stars and the luxurious glossy surfaces of deeply layered paint, for instance–Butler’s insights refresh one’s appreciation of the work.

Taken together with the opulent pages of color illustrations that form a coda to each chapter, the essays in Our Way provide a coherent history of art from the Lockhart River region. Butler begins with the land and the community, moves on to a lucid story of the development of the school program and the art movement, and ends with the emergence of the brilliant careers of the individual artists who have gained international reputations. At a time when issues of education of economic progress occupy the nation’s newspapers, Butler documents a model of education that appears to have succeeded remarkably well in melding generations, locating strength in tradition, and moving towards an integration with the larger Australian economy. 

Perhaps because this exhibition is meant to be a deserved celebration of that achievement, Butler gives short shrift to the darker side of the community’s story, and has little to say about the history of violence and youth suicide that has plagued Lockhart River. I don’t mean to call down a shower of cold rain on the celebration, but I do think that glossing over these troubles in some way does a disservice to the art, particularly blunting the emotional impact of Samantha Hobson’s achievement, which Butler discusses briefly but does not explore at great depth. The specter of violence informs almost all of Hobson’s work: most obvious in the Bust ‘im Up and Stressed Out paintings, it is manifest also in the great landscapes of fire. It even finds a negative presence in the canvases that depict night seascapes, painted from a beach house that represents for the artist an escape from the pressures of the township of Lockhart River. A similar emotional darkness pervades many of Rosella Namok’s paintings, and the spirits in of Silas Hobson’s early paintings more than hint at malevolence in the atmosphere. 

The achievement of Our Way: Contemporary Aboriginal Art from Lockhart River is twofold. As its subtitle suggests, it delineates how this art is both contemporary and Aboriginal, and the genius of the catalog essays is to chart the means by which these two strains in art, in culture, and in society can be successfully interwoven. But even more, Our Way makes it obvious that this important retrospective of the work Lockhart River Art Gang is overdue. And that is a remarkable statement to make about a body of work that is really only ten years old. Since I first became aware of the work from Lockhart River, I have heard critics who would suggest that the Art Gang is a flash in the pan, the fluke of youth, or a successful, if calculated, marketing maneuver. The evolution displayed in this exhibition makes it clear that the work represents a solid and important artistic achievement. The strength and inventiveness of Lockhart River is proudly on display here, and should be the occasion for great rejoicing.

We meet the Lockhart River Gang at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Museum in Noember, 2003. Gang members, l. to r. Samantha Hobson, Rosella Namok, Fiona Omeenyo, and Silas Hobson in front of Namok’s Blue Water Hole.

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One Response to Lockhart River Way

  1. Pingback: The Bruise Beneath the Skin | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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