Adolescent Wonderland

by Marcia Langton AO

A person in a rabbit suit sits on the edge of a tinny, face resting on his or her fist, perhaps contemplatively or perhaps sadly. The rabbit suit is white with a blue jacket. The tinny is blue. This photo media image is a study in contrasts: the bright white of the rabbit suit and blue boat is in the foreground. A leaf-strewn riverbank, Pandanus trees, large palm leaves spread out under a large tree and perhaps a distant house in the background are presented as a background in black and white. This image could hardly be said to represent a normative view of life in a remote Australian town with a majority Aboriginal population. So what is going on here?


I had to find out.


In a small post frontier town in central Cape York Peninsula in far north Queensland, Naomi Hobson became an artist depicting her world with vibrant colour in images that are an intimate yet candid vision of her community, culture, history and place. She works in several media and her accomplishment with photo media is evident in the ‘Adolescent Wonderland’ body of works. Her cultural roots are deep and span the homelands of the first peoples with ancient affiliations to this country. She said to me when I asked about her ancestry,

I come from the Southern Kaantju people, my mother is Southern Kaantju and my father is Kuuku Ya’u from Lockhart and Umpila on the east coast. I grew up in Coen in Cape York, I spent all of my childhood there, my adolescent years, and I’m still there living on country. I live on the Coen River, that’s where my grandparents, my mother’s mother, was born on the Coen River, right at the back of where I live in Coen on the riverbanks.

The township of Coen was created as an entrepôt for the invaders and their vigilantes at the end of the visible frontier wars. Many who came were miners, drawn by the discovery of gold on the Palmer River. Frank Hann discovered gold in the region and he was followed by James Venture Mulligan who opened up the Upper Palmer River and its tributaries to the influx of hundreds of miners who arrived in 1874. Some still say to this day that the Palmer River ran red with blood. At least one of the massacres is well-documented and reported, as this excerpt from the online history project, Colonial Frontier Massacres in Australia, 1788–1930 testifies:

In October 1873 government mining engineer McMillan and Cooktown police magistrate St George set off from Cooktown with a party of 90 miners and 18 others including Black tracker Jerry, an unknown number of native police troopers and 31 horses on the track to the Palmer River gold field. En route, they killed between 80 and 150 Gugu-Warra in a lagoon on the road to the Palmer River (Bottoms, 2013, pp 117-119).

It was a brutal frontier; white settlers and their vigilantes killed an unknown number of Bama (Aboriginal people of Cape York) living in the region and the Chinese people who arrived to dig for gold in repeated attacks that resulted in a death toll estimated in the tens of thousands. This history is never far from mind in the region as the descendants of both the colonisers and the colonised live alongside each other in an uneasy society. As Naomi points out, she herself is part of that history:

So the stores you see in Coen today, the general stores, the pub and the butchers shop, all the old shops in Coen were built by the settlers when they built the township up. So there’s a lot of information about the settler families and their little empires. They created some success out of this, and they’ve put their young children off to school and they’ve become educated. And so I guess in my photograph I’m kinda searching for something in relation to time, referencing the past; it’s a feeling as if there was no history before the settlers built Coen. A lot of the sweat came from my grandfathers, all their labour and knowledge of the country … My grandmother and all her cousins, they worked in the kitchen and cooked for them and she looked after their babies, they helped to grow their kids up, so there’s that part of history that isn’t really told.”

Yet, the depiction of Aboriginal people as primitives whose time on this earth could be shortened with a well-armed force remains a powerful trope in Queensland society. Naomi Hobson presents an alternative view of her world through her art, using photo media to make a new visual account of life among Aboriginal families in an extremely remote place. Adolescent Wonderland, a series of photographic images of life in her community might seem at first to be a view through a looking glass, verging on fantastical and hypermodern. In this body of work, three of four series of her works, all depicting life in Coen, are presented. These works are imbued with Hobson’s hard-edged but fascinating social observations and with a sense of light and time that is unique to her cultural interpretation of life in her home environment in central Cape York in far north Queensland.

Interrogating Hobson about these digital images for their empirical and cultural meanings proved to be a profoundly moving discovery of an artist and the inspiration for her innovative use of photography to reveal deeper truths. In each work, people, place, landscape, and everyday life are intertwined with serendipity, and above all, an evident love of her community and its people. She busts the easy categories of Aboriginal art, categories that have unfairly become the subject of many tropes, such as ‘dot dot art’ and the persistent audience desire for primitivism. She uses the latest digital camera, she explained during an interview, ‘and the photographs are printed on rag paper,’ in high resolution at a studio in Sydney, High Res Digital. There the retouching and adjustments are made according to Naomi’s specifications in relation to tone, density, sharpness, and overall structure. The pigments used in the printing are high quality and on rag art paper the ‘inherent beauty’ emerges. These materials and techniques enable better, bigger, cleaner, longer lasting prints than were possible in the darkroom.

In the history of Aboriginal use of photo media, Tracy Moffatt, Ricky Maynard, Michael Riley (dec), Brenda L. Croft, Brook Andrew, r e a, Darren Siwes, and Michael Cook, amongst others, have adopted this technology of photography, digitisation and print to present works imbued with personal, historical, political and psychological statements that defy the stereotypical categories of Indigenous art in Australia. The grasp of light, colour, and space in these works points to the role of technological advances in media so readily grasped by Aboriginal artists. Hobson, and the Aboriginal artists who preceded her, notably Moffatt and Andrew, saw the future and drew on the past exploiting the power of photo media to ‘bind with space and time to form and inform new, explicitly light-based structures and experiences,’ as Jai McKenzie ([2014], 2020) has pointed out. The medium has enhanced the ability of artists to create dialogues of subjects, history, context using the magic of light and their own insight and connection.

Hobson brings a fresh perspective, a uniquely familial and hyper-localised gaze on lives and settings that are rarely seen. Her works resonate with deeply affectionate observations of her home life in a small town, and the children, men and women she has known all her life in Coen. The heady world of global art, artists visually referencing artists and art movements, may be present here but as an under-current in her first-hand representation of life and history in Coen. After interviewing Hobson, I understood how the works portray her deep and very immediate relationships with her subjects and the locations where she captured them. The history of these encounters and how Hobson understands that history are aspects of these works that demonstrate her deft ability to mediate present-day life and the historical burden in a country that has been scathed by frontier violence and the long struggle for justice her forebears waged.

What struck me about this entire collection is that it provides a powerful counterpoint to the historical practice of ethnographic photographs of Aboriginal people, ranging from Tindale’s pseudo-scientific portraits with phrenological devices arranged against the subjects’ heads for the purpose of measure to the exotic studio shots of Aboriginal men, women and children in posed shots and wearing little but animal furs. The anthropological photos were made according to a colonising logic of depicting ‘the primitive’ while the empirical forces expropriated their land and resources. They served as tools for the pseudo-science of racial classification and typologies to justify the incarceration and enslavement of non white peoples globally. In Australia, indentured labour practices that were different from slavery only in slight legal ways caught thousands of Indigenous Australians in the trap of forced labour in the grazing and agricultural industries. Children became domestic servants, many subject to abuse, during the years of the ‘assimilation’ policies of enforced removal of thousands of Aboriginal children from their families resulted. The happiness of the children in Hobson’s works stands in stark contrast to this terrible history.

Hobson investigated the photographic works of Donald Thomson after obtaining copies from the Thomson descendants. Donald Thomson photographed Lamalama and neighbouring people not far from present-day Coen on the coastline of eastern Cape York in 1928 and 1932 to 1933. His images have been a source of inspiration as artists and filmmakers like Hobson, David Gulpilil, Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr (who directed Ten Canoes) found as they searched for images of ancestral people and their ways of life. Thomson’s fine silver gelatin and glass photographs show extraordinary detail of people going about their lives a century ago, in places where the colonists had not then reached.

In Hobson’s work there is no direct use of the colonial imagery. Hers is an approach to portraiture that rejects the salacious colonial gaze. Hobson brings her subjects to life, capturing the joy, the extraordinary and the mundane of their lives set against the black and white backgrounds which she intends as a representation of a dark past, redolent with memories of the frontier told by her elders. Photography has enabled Hobson to capture her reality while burdened by the conflict of history and the tropes of the ‘savage’ and the shallow demands for Aboriginal art to reference designs solely from the precolonial past. Hobson has broken from old ideas of modernity and postmodernity in an age of digitisation and cyber communications, a matter much discussed by intellectuals of media and change. (see for instance, Dawes 2019)

Photo media in some ways provides an opportunity to wage a cerebral visual war against colonial racism. Hobson has captured the subjects who populate her world living rich lives, ringing with humanity and affection, and in doing so she too speaks back against the photography of colonial scientism that degraded the ancestors of the very people in her community.

In another work, ‘Girlfriends’, two little girls are presented in beautiful dresses. Hobson explained when I asked her about their sartorial,

They were on their way to church on Wednesday evening. We have church services up in Coen once a month on Wednesday evening, and so capturing them coming from their home, you know, playing in the grass on their way to church … it reminded me of when I was growing up in the community … when you see the young people and what they’re wearing, a lot of it’s got to do with the situation, that moment becomes an occasion, like dressing up for a church service. So those two young girls, I caught them on their way to a church service.”

I think the kids look fabulous, it looks like a New York designer’s been at them and dressed them up.

I think that’s got a lot to do with Coen being a proud community and happier families where children are being looked after. The children really like being seen like that, and to me it shows we’ve come a long way and they’re owning it. I’m responding to a stereotype of how we’re portrayed and how Black people are perceived in the world today. I feel my connections to these kids and the connections my grand-parents have to the kids. It shows the love and respect of family that we have in the communities, that was never acknowledged in the past and I don’t think its acknowledged today either.”

The love of colour in the community is an attribute that Hobson captures very deliberately, drawing out the meaning, especially the robust self-expression of her subjects using colourful clothing and objects:

I’ve kept the young people in their full colour so the attention is on them. I mean it is about that, it is about them. I think that childhood and our adolescent years are really the most memorable ones and I highlight that, and show how unique our young people are … It’s about how they’re feeling as well … it explores their inherent energy and individuality and gives a sense of life in the bush in Cape York.”

Hobson deliberately differentiates this attribute of the use of colour and sartorial splendour in her community from the anthropological history of dour images of people newly colonised and captured in images purposed for colonial surveillance.

There’s a lot of photographs out there that show our mob in grass skirts and painted up, and that happens too, there is that in the community, but it’s not us every day … in the photographs, you can see that this is us being present in time. Making a moment a memorable one. We like to have fun, we dress up and we celebrate a lifestyle up here in the bush. This is our young people, they bring a sense of humour and individuality to the community, this is what attracted me towards them, it’s that light.”

The grey backgrounds reference the history of the people in Coen and the region and stand as a contrast to the joy of youth and beauty of everyday life in this small town. Again, Hobson shows deliberation and love for the children in this visual manoeuvre:

It was about highlighting the young people, how far they’ve come, who they are as young people from the area, but also reflecting on what their elders and their ancestors went through. That’s not acknowledged enough.”

Making place and its meanings a key strategy in her work derives from her training in Coen during several community-driven projects to adopt computer and digitisation technology to preserve cultural heritage and the traditional affiliations with ancestral estates. `Hobson joined these community initiatives in 2000, learning multimedia approaches to improve literacy and education outcomes, repatriating archives from collecting institutions, anthropologists and linguists to ensure that the local peoples were well-armed in maintaining their cultures, languages and affiliations to country. She joined other local people keen to acquire the skills to record the oral histories and cultures of their elders and transform archives and oral histories into school curricula that were immediately taught in the local school. Hobson noted that

It was working with the elders that created that opportunity, we designed a digital community recording project through the school using technology, … we were picking up from where the old anthropologists left off. We wanted to document our elders and our stories and the community life.”

I asked about the place-people relationship so evident in the bright colours and the grey backgrounds.

The backgrounds are greyed to give a sense of time and history, and I’ve kept young people in full colour to give living proof of authentic life today and will forever re-assure them of their value.”

Her love of country, its ancient cultural meanings and the riches of the biodiversity of region, was an inspiration too. She also worked with the Aboriginal ranger program whose members were applying their Indigenous land management approaches and traditional ecological knowledge to biodiversity preservation.

We were going out using, really good quality equipment, graphic designing and capturing and telling our stories through this new medium, through technology and so it sort of flourished from there, everyone liked that it was, someone from the community documenting their stories because over time, it was always the white anthropologists coming in, working with an elder. But now, well now they see me with the camera and they’re open to sharing stories from today, like the young people, that’s how it all came about, as a response to those days.”

Reclaiming the records of anthropologists to enrich her own and her community’s understanding of its past has involved years of research and investigation. Her family and community are supportive and proud of her work: ‘Oh they love it, you know, their country, I mean, through my art they can see it. They know we’re being exposed in the light that we want to be seen in.’ Her work has paralleled the return of land to its rightful traditional owners in the region and provided a visual record of the repossession of land and rights. She has repatriated, or perhaps, rematriated, the material of anthropologists such as Donald Thompson, Ursula McConnell, Peter Sutton, and explorers such as Logan Jack, as well as historical records. She has sought out descendants to ensure she has garnered as much as possible to restitute the proper Bama names to places and people in historical photographs. She has also painted representations of places to underscore the importance of reclaiming land and place names. The dynamism in Hobson’s work reflects how she works and the life of her community.

I’m an Aunty, or a sister, or a second cousin. Our connections are strong, they came about through deep time, through culture. My approach is casual, it’s thoughtful; I care about them, they’re my family … we always are talking. The camera is just there, it’s capturing our conversation … sooner or later they take ownership of the situation to let their voice be heard. There’s that, but … what they’re wearing is actually them. That’s what they wear on that day, and usually the days are in line with a function that’s happening in the community, like there might be a 21st birthday party or there might be a graduation that’s happening or some sort of ceremony, like a tombstone opening … it’s usually a special time in the community when I capture those photographs, when there’s something going on.”

Hobson interweaves culture and life and art not just because she is obsessively productive but also because she is bound up with her homeland and its people recording the happenings as the native artist/scholar to serve the greater good. The work entitled ‘Good Sisters’ is a case in point.

So again it’s showing that nurture and love from an elder sister to a younger sister, and it’s capturing that playfulness that I see in my community, you see a lot of that in community from the older siblings to the younger siblings displaying affection, expressing joy in a playful and caring way for each other, family’s are close and that’s what is highlighted here; how important family is to us. One of them is wearing a little mask. There’s a lot of that too, we’re story tellers and sometimes we like to go into character. This is something that the rest of the country should know … we have a sense of humour and our kids are very comical. They like to make each other laugh … that’s highlighted through the photographs. You know, it’s that humour of adolescence.”

Going to church, partying, puffy pink jackets, bright lipstick, fishing boats, cars bicycles, all feature in Hobson’s images because they were there. They are the accoutrements of this small community of 350 people who send their children to boarding schools down south because there is no secondary school, are proud of their success in litigating to have their land returned, who care for their country and its people, and who love colour. Hobson is their visual archivist extraordinaire.