Courier Mail
Kathleen Noonan
September 29, 2006 11:00pm

From the Courier Mail:

We’re out the back of Andrew Baker’s art gallery in Brisbane’s Bowen Hills, in a room where the real deals are done.
It’s chock-a-block with paintings. But this morning all eyes are on the large canvases stacked like thin, precious pancakes in the middle.

Brisbane art collectors Bill and Jan Wheatley are here to look at the painting they purchased at an exhibition launch the night before. Not because they are worried they had one too many glasses of champagne and threw the chequebook around a little too wildly. They are back just to see it.

“It’s beautiful,” says Jan, looking at a dramatic contemporary canvas of deep blue with a frothy-white streak of breaking waves.

“To be honest,” says Bill, “I can’t really describe it. I just see her work and have almost a physical reaction to the work. It’s instinctive. I see it and fall in love with it. It’s really not to do with investment.”

Works in this exhibition are priced between $3500 and $22,000 and the Wheatleys’ large purchase would have to be in the middle of that range. And this is for an emerging artist.

So, who is this artist the Wheatleys and a growing number of collectors are enchanted by? What’s the lure?

Samantha Hobson, 25, is a mother of three from Cape York who, when she’s not painting, likes to fish.

Even on dry land, the fisherwoman in Hobson reels you in. Her paintings look colourful enough in the brochure. But it’s not until you are in a room with them that the free-flowing intensity becomes evident. Softly, softly, the artworks draw you in, until you look a moment too long into their depths. Then bang, you are hooked.

On one wall at the gallery, there is a shimmering fiery-orange depiction of raging bushfires. On another, in a distinct change of style, paintings of older women yarning, and clans. Upstairs, a stunning group depicts the awe-inspiring occurrence of coral spawn phosphorescence, pouring into the water like champagne bubbles. These works, like a north Queensland sea breeze sweeping through the gallery, look like the product of some ridiculously easy talent.

But the Samantha Hobson story is not as easy as that. Few things concerning Aboriginal Australia are.

This is a story of her prodigious talent. It is also a story of her broken jaw and battered body and the external factors that threatened to derail her career and the inner strength it takes to keep painting.

Here’s a hint of what she’s up against: When I look around her exhibition and comment on the maturity of the work, Fran Barker, a white woman who perhaps knows Hobson’s work best, having nurtured her talent since she was 16, says: “Why wouldn’t she be mature? Samantha is 25. But that is middle-aged in Lockhart River terms. The life expectancy for males who live here is 42 years. And in those 25 years she’s lived through so much, seen so much.”

Quiet, shy Hobson is one of the more complex artists of the Lockhart River Art Gang, a group of young and energetic Aborigines whose works now appear in every major Australian public gallery.

When Hobson was 16, her cousin Rosella Namok, today the face of Lockhart’s small but hugely talented art community, suggested she go down to the community’s art centre, founded by Fran Barker and her husband Geoff. “She just started to muck around with paint, and she had something,” says Geoff.

In three decades, the Australian Aboriginal art movement has grown into a multimillion-dollar-a-year international industry. Hobson has had international success with her contemporary works in group exhibitions in Austria, Germany, England, France and the US.

But success does not ensure longevity. It is all too easy to be derailed as a female Aboriginal artist in Australia, let alone one living in Lockhart River.

The tiny township, 850km north of Cairns on the eastern edge of Cape York, should be God’s own country for artists “ the north Queensland sunshine grabs every colour in the rainforest, low mountain ranges, sandy beaches and deep sea, and illuminates it like a light box. Yet Lockhart, for all its beauty, has the problems of many remote Aboriginal communities “ alcohol abuse, domestic violence, not enough jobs, babies for girls too young, too many suicides.

Despite strong female role models “ her grandmother Dorothy is a respected elder “ Hobson was not immune to problems. With three young daughters by her early 20s, she encountered domestic violence, suffering broken bones, including her jaw.

“I took it for so long, then I needed to get away. It was hard,” she says softly.

Hobson’s best-known work Bust ‘im up, held in the collection of National Gallery of Victoria, is rarely off display. This remarkable large-scale painting, composed of furiously flung primary colours on a white background, contains the thinly veiled outline of a battered woman. Hobson tells how the red paint represents blood and blue, bruises.

Recently, she left her land to move to Cairns for stability. She rented a house and made a home with her mother Bella for support and youngest daughter, Jordan, 18 months. “That was a brave thing for someone brought up in a community where you never even talked to a stranger,” says Geoff Barker.

Her other daughters, Brooke, 9, and Shauna, 4, remain in Lockhart River where her grandmother and her ex-partner and family live. “They come to me in school holidays. I miss them.”

Finally, after a long creative drought due to the emotional and physical turmoil in her life, she started to work in her Cairns back shed.

Her trademark style comes from working in primary colours and using her hands. She works on two paintings at a time, smoothing several colours on wet canvas and allowing them to run and merge. Over the top she applies varnish. In just two months, Hobson had a collection ready.

Back at the gallery Andrew Baker is explaining its appeal: “It shows the beauty and terror of tropical north Queensland,” he says. “I think the diversity of the collection is what sets it aside. This is Samantha’s finest work so far.”

I look round the back room and then the gallery for Hobson. But she is not there. Like a wisp of smoke, the slim-hipped Hobson had slipped away from all the arty talk and dealing.

The Samantha Hobson Land To Sea exhibition, Andrew Baker’s Gallery, Brookes St, Bowen Hills, runs until next Saturday.


Artist: samantha hobson

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