Naomi Hobson: Adolescent Wonderland

Naomi Hobson's "Adolescent Wonderland" – a series of photographs celebrating First Nations young people in the artist's community of Coen, on Kaantju land – opened at Cement Fondu just as her show of paintings, "Grounded in Nature," was in its final week down the hill at Arthouse Gallery. Each exhibition individually, and the occasion of their overlap, speaks to the vibrancy and generosity of Hobson's approach to artmaking.

In Girlfriends, 2022, two young women stand shoulder-to-shoulder on a track running through a field of lush vegetation. They gaze directly into the camera. Their even eye levels pierce through the print paper, operating as the puncturing moment of affective connection between the viewer and the subjects of the image. Under the brims of wide sun hats, the two women’s faces are accompanied by a surprising, almost uncanny third: a small figurine of a bird, perched on the hand of the left-most woman, has its one visible eye shining flatly out of its “feathered” body. The figures are set within the rich Country of the Kaantju people, Hobson’s matrilineal family, the textures of which will be familiar to fans of her well-known and celebrated paintings.  The scene is, on the one hand, totally familiar: it is full of bits and pieces of everyday clothing and objects of play, and pictures a quiet, easeful intimacy between its subjects. On the other hand, though, the ordinariness of life in Hobson’s community is shown as totally wondrous: the women and their bird, distinct amongst the greyscale tones of their landscape, are shown in vibrant colour. 

Hobson’s wonderland is lovingly and meticulously exhibited at Cement Fondu, with thoughtful curatorial decisions led by Dennis Golding, the organisation’s First Nations Curator-Producer. The show represents a newly-commissioned body of work extending Hobson’s Adolescent Wonderland series into its third and final iteration, after its successful exhibition in 2019’s Tarnanthi at the Art Gallery of South Australia, and the acquisition of earlier components by the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art. A book bringing together all the iterations of Adolescent Wonderland is currently in production, set for release later on during the exhibition at Cement Fondu. The photographs, and an exuberant video work set to music written and performed by Colin Kepple, are set within a series of murals by Noni Cragg and Natalie Naksila, which borrow figures from Hobson’s paintings and place them at large scale on the walls of the gallery space.

These murals are essential, I think, to the success of the exhibition’s world-building and the carrying-through of its celebratory tone. They also deftly expand on the connections between Hobson’s painting and photographic practices, placing her inter-media vocabularies in conversation with each other. This conversation incorporates the voices of many young members of Hobson’s community, whose self-determination, self-description, pride, play, and care for one another shine through the images. It weaves these voices together, too, with the ancestral and familial knowledges which inform the original iconography of Hobson’s painting. We might think of the installation of these works, then, as creating a kind of multi-vocal first person – a voice capable of holding both individuality and community in its range.

Hobson’s work across diverse media is exciting, and is not even totally captured by the painting-photography dyad that structures her concurrent exhibitions in Sydney; speaking with Hobson some weeks before Adolescent Wonderland opened at Cement Fondu, she mentioned to me that she has also been exploring new ground in ceramic practice. Nor is her artistic work limited to the solitary studio practice which we tend to imagine for artists so prolific (and especially painters, I think). Hobson is working with members of her community towards the establishment of an arts centre in Coen – a project she and her partner spoke passionately about at the opening of her Arthouse show. 

I hope that projects such as Hobson’s will receive their due support in the coming years, as we are promised a reinvigorated approach to arts policy by a new government. It was assuring to see Tony Burke present at the opening of Adolescent Wonderland, giving a speech emphasising a “First Nations first” strategy in arts policy. Hobson’s work is an electric example of First Nations excellence, and of the importance of elevating the voices of an emerging generation of young people in and beyond the arts. 

Adolescent Wonderland 
11 June – 31 July 
Cement Fondu, Sydney

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