Naomi Hobson

“The hand that rocks the cradle, is the hand that rules the world”
William Ross Wallace, 1898

A Great-Grandchild caressing the hands of her Great-Grandmother, reveals a life journey of profound strength and resistance to the cruelty and burden of colonial history, a burden carried by generations and scarred on their bodies. As a Great-Grandchild traces and massages the welts and legacy of colonial cruelty on her Great Grandmother’s tiny frame and through this intimate journey of touch, traverses a landscape of valleys and crests interwoven with criss-crossing, intersecting lines – knows that it offers solace and love. The final chapter in the chronicle of harsh punishment and beatings her Great-Grandmother endured is replaced by a Great-Grandchild’s nurturing touch and a seasonal ritual of Wunkumanu “Grandmother’s time” where women once again become part of the land and sea and celebrate the responsibility of continuing tradition as women, from Great-Grandmother to Great-Grandchild, Grandmother to Grandchild, from Mother to child.

As a child of twelve, Naomi Hobson’s Great-Grandmother arrived in Coen, was forcibly removed from her country south of Coen, and was put to work as a house domestic in the reprehensible era of indentured servitude and European pastoral expansionism in Far North Queensland. Naomi’s Grandmother was born into these times under a pandanus tree on the Coen River, and grew up in a time where she too was subjected to humiliating and degrading violations against her and her kin.

Naomi’s Grandmother met her Grandfather when, in around, 1940 he was marched as a sixteen year old, into the colonial outpost of Coen, under the aegis of the infamous Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act (1897). The removal of Aboriginal Peoples from their homelands and incarceration on “Aboriginal reserves” was enacted by the Queensland Parliament to promote expansionist vested interests in the district. He was put to work in the stockyards of the pastoralists, who selected Aboriginal boys and men from a cattleyard where they were herded. The horror of our First Nations’ existence is a constant motif in the history of Australia, the relief is in the universal acts of humanity – love, compassion, understanding, kindness, caring, nurturing, and empathy.

Naomi’s grandparents Thomas Creek, a Kaanju man, and Joan Creek (née Port), an Ayapathau women, had a deep and abiding love for country and upheld the strength of language when it was fast disappearing around them. Thomas was the last Kaanju Elder, and a fluent speaker of the Kaanju language: “He could feel and walk his country with eyes closed and knew the rocks and grasses – each and every part of country.” Joan spoke her language and three others as well, including her husband’s language, and Wik.

Naomi recounts her grandparents story to highlight their strength, and through her art and love of country, also holds that strength . . . “That resistance, to keep going, to paint, is important for identity.”

This story is not a colonial era in a distant past, this is in living memory and the lived experience of First Nations Peoples in Far North Queensland. The memories are told and retold from generation to generation, from great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers to great-granchildren, grandmothers and grandfathers to grandchildren, from mothers and fathers to their children, and uncles, aunts and cousins and so on and so forth. A community remembers each generation and in each act of the present and the modern, recalls, through action and expression, that history and legacy. Naomi weaves these family stories through her art, all the while imbuing canvasses with the rich, tangible qualities of the country she draws upon in her paintings, ceramics, and photography.

As a child, Naomi recalls sitting high on her Father’s shoulders viewing her world from that height of cultural giants – a perspective that has fired her artistic endeavour, weaving and linking back and forwards, her personal family history and her community, a weave that holds and embodies memory and future, sadness, and anger with hope and vision. “Through art, I hold on to remembering people of the past, embracing the present and moment . . . I wanted to express all that and represent all that.”

Intuitive, organic, and free, with wide sweeping brushstrokes and vignettes detailed on her canvas, Naomi creates intricate layers of meaning and reference to a map of country that she knows and sees through her work. She invites us also to see the majestic depth and breadth of her ancestor’s country, from the rainforest and sea country to savannah country, its rivers teeming with wildlife and birdsong and resonating with the interplay of seasonal light. A smorgasbord of brushstroke, colour, movement, and light. A feast for the senses to be enveloped in the very landscape that brings forth this richness and vibrancy of life, from the changing rivers and sea through to the chronicle of her community. Writ large in its breathtaking bird’s-eye view of all that can be seen and experienced in that space – holding it in the rendered brushstroke to emanate from the canvas and envelop us in its heady wonderment.

Naomi sublimely described her verandah studio by the Coen River, “I have a full view of it from my back verandah where I paint. The Coen River is filled with river life – the sooty grunter we call thakula, meaning black bream, freshwater crayfish, wangiichi, jew fish thampa, and yangkamu, freshwater mussels, are plentiful in the river. The mob are always fishing and camping along the river, I see them all the time from my verandah hunting for the fish, bream, crayfish, and mussels, and sometimes the odd file snake, yiinchi, we eat. It’s a delicacy for us. The Coen River attracts many bird species as well. Parrots and cockatoos, the Cape York Olive Oriel is my favourite bird, I love painting to their calling, it’s reassuring, they take me home, keep me grounded. Sometimes the rare birds drop in . . . like the Yellow-billed Kingfisher, he’s pretty special, and the red Eclectus parrot, so pretty, and the Dollarbird when he comes by, he steals the attention. He’s a moment.”

She also keenly observes her community through her photographic series, and immerses the viewer in the world of her subject, far from the “gaze” that has been used to “other” First Nations Peoples and render them impotent, and void of agency, and power, and presence. Her 2018 Warrior without a Weapon series and 2019 Adolescent Wonderland series disrupt tired narratives of ethnographic and exotic othering from a dominant lens, and place the viewer in a two-dimensional world where the subject conveys the presence and strength of the men, women and children from their world – you become engaged and entranced by this juxtaposition of the figures in a landscape and curious about that dimensional world you are asked to step into and experience. As Naomi stated, “My art is educating about First Nations . . . [my] photographs [express] how they feel, [how] each person is unique and special, I wish that for all . . . I’ve focused on the young people, to show support and love for my young people. Adolescence is a crucial time when identity is being challenged . . . It’s important to express freely, and there is no fear when you’re free. I wanted to capture their energy, expressions, their individuality, and I love to support them to be themselves in a positive light.”

Her ceramics are imbued with the memories of her Grandparents as she shapes the clay into forms reflecting country, intricate and resonating with significance. Naomi highlighted that, “Clay is a spiritual connection – markings for ceremony and ritual, representing our stories: shovel-nosed shark, saltwater crocodile, birds, that we’re connected to spiritually.” Her Grandfather always said to her, “Never forget where you come from . . . our culture is to be shared – dance, story, song, lifestyle, and identity.”

Naomi is prolific in output, painting from her Cairns or Coen studios. Represented in Melbourne by Vivien Anderson Gallery and Arthouse in Sydney, she has exhibited nationally and internationally. In December this year she will be exhibiting in the U.K with two exhibitions in London: Adolescent Wonderland opening at the Horniman Museum and Gardens, and a solo exhibition at the JGM Gallery.

“It’s about celebrating heritage, and my work is about that and centred around my feelings and my memories. I live on my country; I am passionate about that and memories of country. My work is always evolving, because I live in the bush and I am seeing it up close, the work is detailed. Country is moving and growing – the lines are about me and my journey; and in taking you through those changes – country, rivers, estuaries on the sea, country always evolving – more people will get to know and understand our work, and our identity in the world, and to appreciate the work, our ancient knowledge . . . and us.”

In balancing her art and commitments for her country in her roles as Chairperson of the Southern Kaanju Native Title body and a board member for the Joint Management with Queensland Parks, focussing on the land business of her clan estates, Naomi is passionate about seeing the establishment of an art centre in her community in Coen. She is currently in discussions with the Queensland Government to support the community in developing the establishment of an art centre as a vital resource, to preserve culture and honour the history of the people, and provide a future for younger generations to celebrate their identity and agency in the modern world; and to share the country and language of their ancestors.

Indeed, “The hand that rocks the cradle, is the hand that rules the world,” where the caress of hands from Great-Grandmother to Great-Grandchild, from Grandmother to Grandchild, and of holding those hands in each other’s tightly, gently, and fiercely with pride and love, with a deep abiding and enduring belief in the very essence of one’s existence – passes knowledge from one generation to the next – not only to survive and endure, but to thrive and rise.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 63 

Adolescent Wonderland
Horniman Museum and Garden, London 
8 December 2023 – 8 December 2024 

JGM Gallery, London
29 November 2023 – 10 February 2024 

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