by Myles Russell-Cook

Now in its sixth year, the NGV X MECCA partnership supports women in the arts and enables new acquisitions by Australian women artists to enter the NGV Collection. This year, a series of photographs and a major new painting by Southern Kaantju/Umpila artist Naomi Hobson joined the NGV Collection, made possible with funds donated by MECCA founder and Co-CEO Jo Horgan and MECCA Brands.

Naomi Hobson is a Southern Kaantju/Umpila woman based in Coen on the Cape York Peninsula. Hobson is known for her gestural paintings and intimate photographic works that document life within her Community. Hobson uses both the camera and the canvas to explore her cultural identity, her connection to Country and her love for her Community. Her work is filled with customary Kaantju and Umpila stories, as well as references to pop culture and current events.

Since first exhibiting in 2012 at the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, Hobson has focused her practice across a wide range of media, and now works as a full-time artist. From 2013 onwards, Hobson has had a number of solo presentations of her work around Australia, as well as internationally. She is the true definition of an interdisciplinary artist, with her practice encompassing a variety of media; in particular, painting, ceramics and photography.

Hobson’s formative paintings were characterised by flat blocks of colour and linear designs repeated to form flat, colour field compositions. In recent years, her paintings have increased in visual complexity, now filled with intertwined, curving lines, rich textures and layers of vibrant colours. She uses the creative freedom of painting as an emotional outlet to explore all aspects of the landscape, from the smallest grains of sand found along a riverbed, to the tangled limbs of glossy ghost gums after rain. She is inspired by spending time out on Country. For Hobson, it is this that grounds her, as she says:

Growing up in Coen in North Queensland’s remote Cape York Peninsula, I felt like I had it all. In a material sense I had nothing, but I had a vast country passed down to me through more than a thousand generations that gave me the power to imagine anything. It also gave me the freedom to create things, to make toys from sticks and leaves and make string from grass and vines. I would roam around with my grandparents at our favourite fishing holes or visiting places to keep them warm with our spirit. On these trips, I would find the interesting and obscure patterns and shapes in nature.

Traditionally Hobson’s family have been active in Indigenous land rights and reform movements in Cape York. Throughout Cape York, traditional owners, the Umpila, Kaantju, LamaLama, Ayapathu, Wik Mungkan and Olkola peoples, have always maintained a strong connection to Country, despite a difficult history post-European arrival. Hobson uses her art to continue this tradition of political and social engagement.

The painting acquired with the support of MECCA is titled Deeper, 2020, and was inspired by Hobson’s observations of colour in the media throughout 2020. Hobson has always connected colours with places and stories. The year of 2020 was defined (among other things) by the COVID-19 pandemic, the global Black/Blak Lives Matter movements and protests in Australia demanding action on Aboriginal deaths in custody.

Hobson observed how during this time, the colour red was everywhere. Symbolically red is highly potent and has been used throughout history by myriad artists to represent strong emotional states. Life, blood, war, courage, anger, love, death. Hobson was so moved by the events of 2020 that she introduced this high-keyed red into her painting, as an intuitive expression of intensity and emotion. As Hobson explains:

I don’t approach painting with deep complex thoughts or over-think a topic. I don’t try to be magically clever or anything. I will paint when something clear pops up in my mind: I just have to get it down, I have to recreate it. I won’t stop until I’m finished, which means I can’t plan my painting like a nine-to-five job or like a diary. But I can be woken in the middle of the night with a colour or when I’m on a long road trip, or I can be sitting at a place in my Country and that place will come to me as a colour.

In addition to the painting Deeper, an important new body of photographs produced by Hobson in 2021 are also new acquisitions to the NGV Collection. The series, titled January First, 2021, takes its name from an annual new year’s ceremony called Auwa, where people in Coen apply flour or white clay on one another’s faces as a way of celebrating the renewal that comes with the new year. In before times, people in Coen would use ochre to rub their faces, but today many people use household flour. The new year is something that people look forward to, with men and women participating as a way of celebrating and strengthening their relationships as kin.

Each photograph shows both the domestic interiors, as well as the private lives of Hobson’s kin. Abundant with love, and full of cultural significance, Hobson and her models generously invite the viewer into their homes. Each of the subjects have been titled with an archetypal name, such as the God Father, the Promised One, the Grandfather, and the Great Grandmother. Hobson uses photography as a way of celebrating and documenting this ceremony that is at the same time both ancient and contemporary. As Hobson says:

January First is raw; it’s real! These photographs are us; my people, who we are as First Nation people, celebrating this day; today, a past evolved, celebrating a custom related to new beginnings. In my language, we call this ritual ‘Auwa’ – this confers the letting go of inhibitions between people and forming new beginnings and relationships; a practice for harmony; how to live as a community always moving forward. Every person in my photographs has their own story to tell because many of us came from a place where Black people never had this opportunity to tell our real stories, on our terms. Nobody can tell our story better than ourselves.

Hobson’s photography pushes the boundaries of contemporary Indigenous art. She reclaims the camera, a tool that has historically been used against Indigenous people by colonisers to document and catalogue, and instead uses it to tell real stories that otherwise do not get told, or have not been told. Through photography Hobson shows the people of Coen as fun, playful and proud, while also emphasising their strong commitment to culture and ceremony.

Encountering Hobson’s work is to experience beautifully rendered imagery with signature lush colours. Whether through ceramics, photography or painting, Hobson takes us on a journey of her Country and family, filled with stories about culture and her life. She constantly redefines her work and is motivated by creation, always ready and waiting to imagine the next interpretation of these stories. Through art, Hobson expresses powerful creative freedoms in her entirely unique way.