One of the most popular paintings in the Crossing Cultures exhibition, judging by the comments I heard and the number of people standing with their phones and cameras pointed at it, was Samantha Hobson’s beautiful canvas, Wave Break at Night (2003). At both the Hood Museum and the Toledo Museum, the painting hung in proximity to Rosella Namok’s Blue Water Hole (2003), and I’d like to take some time today to talk about the two of them, and to take a plunge into what may be deeper meanings that stand to unsettle the immediate appeal of these works.
The modern community of Lockhart River is comprised of a diverse collection of approximately 850 people from the Wuthathi, Kuuku Ya’u, Uutaalnganu, Umpila, and Kaanju clans who were brought together at Orchid Point in the 1920s through the efforts of the Anglican Church Mission. Dispersed and told to go bush during the Second World War, these people were once more assembled in the 1950s and ultimately relocated at the present location near Quintel Beach. As with many other government and mission sponsored settlements, friction developed among the various clans living on country traditionally belonging to others. Removal from the coastal areas and islands caused more unhappiness. Sally Butler describes recent history in her publication Our Way: contemporary Aboriginal art from Lockhart River (University of Queensland Press, 2007).
The township of Lockhart River is located 2 kilometres inland from Quintel Beach, one of the many white sandy beaches that run along the coast of Lloyd Bay. Traditional homelands of Sandbeach country incorporate the islands and sea that run parallel to these shores, spreading inland to the easterly slopes of the coastal ranges. Most of the population of approximately 850 live in the township of Lockhart River, although many kinship groups have camps or outstations located on their traditional lands…. These outstations and camps are extremely important to the community today. The Lockhart River Community Plan 2004-2008 lists the people’s first priority as ‘getting back to country’, an initiative involving the development of facilities on these outstations and improving access to them by road and sea. A number of native title claims and other tenure resolution processes relating to these traditional homelands are currently in place.
The priority of ‘getting back to country’ inspires much of the contemporary art, and expressions of country are often means of establishing or affirming traditional connections to one’s homelands (Butler, p. 17).
Elsewhere in this chapter of Our Way, Butler reproduces a conversation she had with a number of the Lockhart River artists in which they talk about “getting back to country” and reconnecting with the “old way.” The beaches are a favored site in these stories, as the younger generation strolls the shoreline or camps at night around a fire to listen to the older people tell stories handed down from the days before the missionaries arrived, when language was still strong and the sense of place uncorrupted.
This, then, is part of the background to these two paintings by members of the original Lockhart River Art Gang that hung in Crossing Cultures and are now part of the permanent collection of the Hood Museum of Art.
The proximate subject of Rosella Namok’s work is a waterhole called Blue Water, a place to which she frequently returns in her paintings. Blue Water Hole is wonderfully multivalent in its imagery. Although centered on the image of the water hole itself, the painting suggests in its background a blueness that encompasses sky, sea, and even the beach itself in its varied hues and textures. The long vertical lines that transect the surface of the painting evoke rain falling on the beach (as in Soft Morning Rain, 2004, see Butler, p. 38) and the mangroves that line the shore (see Claudie Mangroves, 2004, Butler, p. 96). But most of all they evoke those soft times upon the beach, the whispered conversations with aunties as they speak of the old days, a respite and relief from modern times, a moment of peace in country with ancient associations. We could be looking back through time almost as much as upon a moment in time.
Samantha Hobson’s Wave Break at Night is quite another matter altogether, although it partakes in some degree of that sense of escape to the silence of the beach that pervades Namok’s painting. In the wall text that accompanied the display of this work at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Museum in November of 2003, Hobson stated “This painting is about the waves coming in and breaking on the beach…you can see it on a full moon…to make those white bubbles. Looks really good.” In a conversation we had during the weekend they spent at the exhibition in Charlottesville that year, Hobson spoke about how she relished the chance to get away to the beach at night, away from the noise of the township proper and to spend quiet time in the hut she had built on the shore.
Based on the reactions of audiences during the exhibition of the painting in Crossing Cultures this past year, the pleasure Hobson expresses comes through clearly. The beauty of the foamy waves breaking on the beach, the hint of sunrise suggested by the crimson illumination of sky and sea and beach immediately transport viewers into a vision of a kind of tropical paradise (notice how, as in Namok’s painting, all three elements are presented as a continuum, perhaps even as a single phenomenon). Even the dense, shiny, clotted surface of the paint has the effect of suggesting a luxuriant humidity that makes the illusion all the more enticing.
But there is another story lurking in this painting, and it is not as pretty as the surface suggests. Hobson has been a great chronicler of the stress and violence that exists in the township of Lockhart River, starting with a series known collectively as Stressed Out. The eponymous canvas (1999, Butler, p. 99) from this group of works features a hangman’s noose. The composition of what Butler calls the “pinnacle” of this series, the NGV’s Bust ‘Im Up (2000, Butler, p. 100) deploys paired splashes of black that invert the white wave crests of Wave Break at Night. It shows the ferocity of violence much the way that the raging bush fires of the paintings Hobson created at around the same time. It also reflects a violence in the natural world that parallels the drunken Friday night domestic violence of Bust ‘Im Up. Smass ‘Im, from 2001 (Butler, p.120) uses the same iconic device, a flare of black splattered across the canvas that evokes a blood spill.
“Poetry begins in trivial metaphors, pretty metaphors, “grace” metaphors, and goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have. Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another.” So said the American poet Robert Frost in a speech delivered at Amherst College in 1931. I’ve always felt that his statement applied to the arts generally. Indeed, if you accept a broad definition of “poetry” based in its Greek root ποιεῖν, “to make,” it is a small step to Plutarch’s assertion that “painting is silent poetry.”
Hobson may well be saying one thing and meaning another in Wave Break at Night. The peace of the beach, the solace of the sound of waves breaking is surely present. But behind the beach, back in town, lies the violence that the sea represents an escape from. Seen in this light, the painting takes on the colors of bruising, the harsh blue-red of broken blood vessels.
We are accustomed to the thought that the surface of Aboriginal paintings reveals only part of the story contained in them. In work stemming from the traditional practices of the desert or from the clan patterns of Yolngu, we know that another, deeper meaning lies concealed. I would say that this manner of painting reflects a habit of thinking as well as an aesthetic tradition. And I submit that such a habit of thinking informs the paintings of the Lockhart River Art Gang, even though we tend to think of them as springing from a society and an artistic tradition whose links to the past are not obvious. To quote Stephen Gilchrist again, there are registers of knowledge in Aboriginal painting, and those registers sing to us across the beaches of the Lockhart River settlement.