Rosella Namok describes herself as a ‘modern artist’. Her painting engages traditional themes but she explores them in her own distinctive style, bearing the markers of a modern sensibility. The ‘culture and stories’ of which Namok paints revolve loosely around several narratives. They are stories of her social and physical or natural environment featuring events such as hunting and fishing expeditions, weather patterns of rain and wind, or the stories of Kapay and Kuyan, the two opposing moieties that govern marriage relations in Namok’s Ungkum community. These tribal moieties were brought together into one community under the governance of the Christian missions that were established in the Lockhart River area in 1920. Also apparent in Namok’s work are themes relating to traditional knowledge of country including kinship relations as well as tribal law in relation to the both the individual and their community. In fact, it was her wish to explore and establish her correct lineage, her ‘right place’ within the whole, that initially sparked much of the imagery that takes shape throughout the entire scope of Namok’s art.
She emerged as a member of the Lockhart River ‘Art Gang’ that burst onto the contemporary art scene in the late 1990’s. Its formation following upon a successful program developed to encourage education and employment in an area that is quite remote from the larger cities of Queensland’s far north. The initiative brought the community together in its concern to provide vocational and enterprising opportunities for their young people. Well managed funds, regular art excursions and a succession of visiting artist’s (including Guy Warren, Garry Shead, Adam Rish and cartoonist Michael Leunig) propelled some members of the popular art classes into the league of professional practise, with Namok emerging as a leading figure. Printmaking, under the guidance of Fran and Geoff Barker, played a significant role in Namok’s artistic development, the consequences of which can still be seen in her layered approach to the use of colour. An element of the unexpected intrudes as different layers have subtle effects on each other, refining inherent oppositions.
A fundamental theme in Namok’s work is ‘Difference’, which she explores through deceptively simple motifs. The everyday titles of her paintings tether the abstracted imagery to the figurative ‘real world’, with all of its tensions and disharmonies. This is best illustrated in works like Main Street 2005, in which a series of concentric rectangles, optical and irregular, create a composition of shifting spaces, which generates an uneasy disconcerting atmosphere. Namok is painting the grid of her streets viewed from an aerial perspective, imitating a traditional Indigenous technique, (conventional in the acrylic dot paintings of the Western Desert). Her move into the abstract however, allows her to evoke the intrigues and disfunctionality within a largely closed community; the kind of stories we might witness if we were to x-ray the suburb from above. In this, and other similar works, Namok depicts the literal grid of streets and simultaneously evokes a grid of emotions and relationships thereby intuitively bridging the figurative/abstract, traditional/modern diametric. In such a way her symbols can represent both figurative and abstract forms without having to demarcate between the two. Her paintings resolve at the point of experience. They are expressions of a way of life in Lockhart River where ancestral heritage is part of everyday life, and tradition finds form in the modern.
Namok talks about the value of just ‘yarning’, telling stories as a way of communicating life experience (Neales 2002: 12). Yarning has the power to evoke Dreaming narratives or may be about the events of ongoing life that hold some meaning to Namok herself or her community. In a series of paintings concerning the ‘old girls’, Namok pulls strong lines across nebulous drifts of colour. Her technique mirrors the way the women draw their fingers through the sand while passing on stories. Like all of Namok paintings, this series resonates with her sense of pragmatism, reflected in the subjects she chooses to paint as well as in the vigour and inventiveness with which she conveys them to the canvass. Each panel is different, just as different characters emerge within the group of yarning women, but a tonal and formal coherence holds the series together. Namok’s ‘rain paintings’ have been the most commercially successful strand of her work. In these, shifting scapes of water and land reflect the volatile nature of the tropical weather. During the wet season, sheets of drenching rain and annual floods close the roads for up to five months. The mood and activities of the community significantly alter.
And in her more recent works, Namok concentrates on a style of painting that involves building up layers of paint, wet on wet, over and over. Then, using a rubber thong or palette knife, she strips the layers back to reveal the shifting colours beneath. These works can be enigmatic or direct depending on serendipitous happenstance. It has been said that they evoke the feeling and effect of peering through a veiled window or doorway.
Since her first solo exhibition in 1999 at Sydney’s Hogarth Gallery Namok has risen to prominence to become almost a celebrity figure; for at twenty-three she was, anecdotally at least, the highest grossing Australian artist of her age. Over the last decade she has exhibited around the world, She continues to work consistently from her home in Lockhart River, and from a studio in Cairns where she now owns a home. Having smiled beatifically from the front cover of At Collector magazine and been included at such a tender age in its 50 Most Collectable artists, she has assumed a cult-like status with regular sell out shows at her galleries in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.