Return to Queensland's Top End: Lockhart River Arts Centre

Rebecca carrying pandanus leaves. Courtesy Lockhart River Arts Centre
Rebecca carrying pandanus leaves. Courtesy Lockhart River Arts Centre

Driving into Lockhart River for the first time I felt completely overwhelmed. The roadside was littered with old prams and other rejected objects, herds of mangy dogs ran in small packs and in the middle of it all were the kids, playing and checking us out. The prams were a real spinner; there were just so many compared to the other bits of junk lying around, except for the packs of mangy dogs! I had never seen anything like it in my life, but that was the story with a lot of things I encountered up there.

In January of 2003 I started an art worker’s traineeship through the Queensland Art Gallery’s Story Place exhibition project. Ten Indigenous traineeships had been offered as part of a two-year program through the Gallery. Some of the appointments were to be based in the Cape York and Far North Queensland area and the others were working at the Gallery in Brisbane. In late 2002 my mother, who was living just north of the Lockhart River community, saw the position advertised at the local store, and sent it down to me.

I flew back to Lockhart River after learning I had been accepted as a trainee in early December of 2002. Everyone appeared to remember me and looked forward to me working there. After a brief week-long induction course in Brisbane I began my first day in Lockhart. It seemed like every artist in town came to the Art Centre to check me out. The first question was “Are you Aboriginal?”, to which I confirmed that I was a Worimi girl from the Port Stephens area in New South Wales. Rosella, Samantha, Fiona and all the girls were there that first day. I remember how excited I felt. It was great to work with these important artists and after a short time stronger friendships developed between us.

The Art Centre was my first stop. As I walked up the wooden ramp I got curious stares and shy smiles from the artists who were working on the verandah. As I entered the front door, I was literally blown right back out again. I was confronted with an explosion of colour, which I was to learn, were Samantha Hobson’s brightly coloured canvases, part of her Bust’im Up series. Samantha’s strong compositions bravely commented on social issues as well as spiritual observations on the environment. She is a courageous young woman to comment on domestic violence, suicide and abuse in the community. Awestruck, I slowly ventured into the different rooms and contemplated all of the works.

Fiona Omeenyo’s work deals directly with family connections, kinship and spirituality and draws on stories handed down to her. She uses a scraping technique in her paintings which I was to learn was an adaptation of drawing in the sand which was traditionally how elders told their stories to the younger members of the community. Rosella Namok also used this technique, although she tended to use her fingers instead of other instruments to scrape through the paint. Rosella had a more subtle use of colour different from Samantha’s flamboyant canvases. Rosella’s work appeared very gentle and calm to me, yet complex as I was to learn later. The main concept of her work concentrates on Kaapay and Kuyan, which are the two halves of society for her Ungkum people. Kaapay and Kuyan is an ancestral belief that controls marriage and relationships.

She has stated: “Everything is divided two ways: people, land, story places, plants and animals – they belong one way or other way, it’s important you know which way – Kaapay and Kuyan.” The Art Centre had been broken into the night before I arrived and the place was buzzing. I met Sue Ryan, the Art Centre Manager for the first time. She was racing around trying to straighten up the place in between dealing with tourists, serious customers and artists.

Lockhart River is on the east coast of the Cape York peninsula, about 800 km north from Cairns, the nearest city. The present town was established in 1967 and is actually built about 16 km north of the river’s estuary. Originally an Anglican mission of the same name was established in 1924 some 60 km to the south-east. The town currently has about 800 people, a general store, a canteen, a health clinic and a police station.

In 1995 Fiona Manderson, the art teacher at Lockhart River State School, gathered a group of young people interested in learning art. The group gave itself the name of the “Art Gang”; the same way that railway camps call themselves the “Rail Gang”. From the start, a wide range of artforms were taken up. The oldest student was 25-years old and the youngest only 13.The program was a co-operative effort with Cairns TAFE, which offered a Certificate in Visual Arts through the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander faculty, for those completing the course. In 1997 Cairns Regional Gallery hosted an exhibition of their work and a retail display was mounted in the Skytrans office in Cairns. The Art Gang now hold major exhibitions all over Australia as well as internationally.

The thing that I loved and was really special was that we usually stayed close to the artists as they worked. They used to tell us the stories of the paintings. One experience with Fiona Omeenyo that I’ll always remember was when she was doing a painting called Many Generations. She was painting about the generations of her family who were watching over her and her family today – they would appear as upside-down figures in the painting to represent that they had passed on. She would paint a line that would touch all the figures, keeping them connected, through life and death. That was a really special moment for me.

The artists were supplied with the canvas and would choose the paints they wanted to use from the Art Centre. The finished artwork was stored at the Centre for sale either directly to visiting tourists or through exhibitions organised with southern institutions or commercial galleries. Except for the weavers the artists were paid only when the work was sold.

Senior members of the community – Dorothy Short, Maria Butcher and Elizabeth “Queenie” Giblet – were our three main weavers. They made pandanus and puunya (grass) baskets, as well as jewellery and traditional dance costumes for the children. The Centre always purchased their woven items and a lot of these sold locally. At least once a week, I used to take them not far out of town to spend a few hours collecting the raw materials. They were some of the best times for me being there, having the women show me the materials they used and telling me stories of the environment and their knowledge of it, their language, and their family histories relating to the settlement. For me it was an intense time, being a Koori girl I had never really got into my Aboriginal heritage. These trips with the Old Girls will stay with me forever.

Although I was only in the community for eighteen months or so, Lockhart River will always hold a special place in my heart. Living and working in one of the most remote and inaccessible areas of Australia was one of the most important times of my life. Living in remoteness you experience extreme highs, like you’ve never had in your life, but also extreme lows sometimes being so far away from everything you’ve ever known. It was a period of my life where I learnt a lot about myself, their culture and my culture. I have made some special life-long friendships with people in a place that I thought never existed. It did open my mind. I have made a trip up there since my leaving. It was really good to go back and see everyone again. And when I got there it felt like I hadn’t even left.

Queenie Giblet, Chantelle and Dorothy Short collecting lawyer cane. Courtesy Lockhart River Arts Centre
Queenie Giblet, Chantelle Woods and Dorothy Short collecting lawywer cane. Courtesy Lockhart River Arts Centre