Lama Lama people
Narwal (Coen), Far North Queensland, Queensland, Australia born 1950
Mitchan (Bush Rope)
Lockhart River, Queensland, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, synthetic polymer paint on canvas
Lockhart River is a remote community on the east coast of Cape York Peninsular in far north Queensland. It lies about 850 kilometres north of Cairns by road and has a fluctuating population of approximately 800 people. During the wet season (November to April), creeks and rivers flood and close the road into town from the highway, making it accessible only by air. Traditionally, Lockhart River, like many current Aboriginal settlements, began as a mission station: the population made up of a mix of various language groups forced together from the surrounding areas.
In remote communities, such as Lockhart River, the art centre is usually a hub of activity. It is an important space for different generations to gather, talk, make art and learn from one another, where culture is preserved. In 2003, I had the good fortune to work at the Lockhart River Art Centre while undertaking a traineeship through the Queensland Art Gallery.
At the time of my arrival, the art centre worked with some younger artists who were already established in the wider art market, both nationally and internationally, and a group of ‘Old Girls’, as they are fondly known. Rosella Namok, Fiona Omeenyo and Samantha Hobson, who were part of the Lockhart River Art Gang, were the main stars of Lockhart River. Their rise to prominence as talented artists was remarkably swift; although perhaps more extraordinary (at least at the time) was that these artists were all under 30 years old. Back then, this was considered rather unusual. Generally, Aboriginal artists (with the exception of urban–based artists) begin their practice later in life, as they do not receive cultural rights or authority to the stories they paint until they are older.
The Old Girls, on the other hand, have only very recently started to paint on canvas, despite having long been the backbone of their community. While I was there in 2003, they were the basket weavers and jewellery makers. Once or twice a week it was my job to drive them ‘out bush’ to collect materials, which would usually take up at least half a day as the Old Girls would tell many stories while we collected pandanus palm leaves and lawyer cane as well as various roots and plants for making dyes. These collecting expeditions are important in the community; not only are they fun social activities for the women and children but they also keep the people in country, which is always a drive away from town. The National Gallery of Australia has recently acquired two works by the Old Girls of Lockhart River. One by ‘Queenie’ Elizabeth Giblet and another by Doris Platt.
‘Queenie’ Elizabeth Giblet is a senior Umpila woman who was born at the ‘Old Site’, the original mission station before the Second World War. Her painting Pa’anamu (headbands) for Laura Festival 2008 assigns life and movement to traditional practices; she adopts a monochromatic colour scheme, allowing the movement created by the design to do the talking. The repetition is comparable to the intricate weaving techniques she uses for making dancewear—grass headbands, skirts and armbands—for community ceremonies. Giblet is the head dancewear weaver and is the only weaver who makes the mission-style pandanus baskets, which consist of a very different stitch to the region’s traditional puunya grass baskets. In Pa’anamu (headbands) for Laura Festival, the vibration of the stomping feet during a ceremony can almost be felt through the energetic zigzags covering Giblet’s canvas; each brushstroke informed by a lifetime of weaving.
Doris Platt is the only woman among the Old Girls that was not born at the Old Site, but she has been embraced by the community. She is a Lama Lama woman raised in Coen (four hours west of Lockhart River). She married a Lockhart River man and now resides permanently in the community. Elements such as weather and country are strongly depicted in Platt’s Mitchan (bush rope) 2008. Deep within the optical waves of colour are glimpses of the artist’s country, the swepting motion of the ocean, the lines left in the sand from the receding tides and of the ripples of light on the ocean at dusk.
These two works represent a contemporary response to the environment, culture and traditions of this isolated Aboriginal community. They express the realities of life in the community and the strong influences of traditional culture and values. The women have embraced and developed their own form of expression, transposing important aspects of themselves onto canvas and telling a whole new story with paint.
Following the vein of many Indigenous artists, these Old Girls started their artistic output later in life. Although Giblet is 70 years old and Platt is 59, they are just starting to emerge as painters; and their paintings not only underpin their status within the community but embody their zealous skills as artists. Although quietly spoken, these Old Girls are following the steps of their younger counterparts and are making their mark in the arts.
Both of these artists feature in the exhibition Emerging Elders at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, from 3 October 2009 to 14 June 2010.
in artonview, issue 59, spring 2009