Rosella Namok lives in Cairns, Queensland. She paints about her home near the Lockhart River, a twelve hour drive away. Many of her works feature the monsoon rain. She talks here about her life, her art and what she would like people to enjoy about her work.
So you grew up near Lockhart River?
Yes, all my life. My Mum is from up Torres Strait. She met up with my Dad in Lockhart. So we, my six siblings and I, grew up all our lives in Lockhart.
Now I’ve moved down to the city, Cairns. I miss a lot about being back home. When I paint in my studio I always feel for home. It’s where my Mum is back there as well as all my family.
Working in the studio keeps me nice and calm. It makes me think about home as well. That’s why I do a lot of painting about home.
Do you work off your memories or do you use photos?
It is just from my memories mostly. Wet season, dry season. It’s everywhere back home in the Cape. The river will rise. It’s all about nature and you are cut off.
It is very expensive going by plane so we drive there. I always go back home for school holidays and Christmas. I can stay longer with Mum and the family at Christmas. School holidays are always such a short time. I have to rush back to Cairns so the kids can go to school. Christmas is longer and I like that there’s more time with family. We can go fishing. We just have to make sure we get up there before the rains come.
What do you think about when you paint?
I think about Lockhart River and the things I do now in Cairns. I go fishing in Cairns as well. I’ve been adding a few titles of my paintings to refer to things I do around Cairns now. Mostly the paintings are about back home. I always think about home too because I haven’t seen my Mum for a long time.
Did she paint?
Yes, she paints but she got some back problems last year – so not so much at the moment.
Do you feel that you bring a little Queensland to us here when you bring your paintings for an exhibition?
Yes, I do I bring some of Queensland to other states. It’s the same when I travel overseas too. I am bringing Cairns, Queensland and even my community with me to the other side of the world.
Looking at these paintings, you feel like you are really there.
Yes, I always try and make it feel like you’re at the sea. You know when you are on the beach and you are looking out. The colours of the land, the sky and the water.
Tell me about night hunting?
I’ve loved fishing and camping for a long time. We go out on the boat. Night hunting is always popular for us. I would go out with my ex-partner and we’d take our kids. We’d show them a lot about our culture and the night hunting.
Sometimes we get good weather at night and sometimes we get bad weather. Sometimes we get stuck at night time hunting and we feel that stinging rain. It’s not a good feeling. We just sit in the boat and cover up with towels and feel that rain stinging.
Are stories important?
Yes, we try to teach our kids how to hunt. When they get the tucker, a big turtle or a dugong, we have to teach them how to cut it up ready for special ceremonies.
Girls can’t cut up the catch. They also can’t hold a spear in the boat. It’s a tradition that only the men do that. These things are taught in stories about the practical ways to hunt.
We saw some of you paintings used as a backdrop for the Houston Ballet. What did you think when you saw the ballet “The Rite of Spring” acted out in front of your paintings?
I was excited. Wow. I’ve never seen my work that huge before. I’ve only ever seen it like it is in this exhibition. At one part I got teary because I thought about my good friend old Geoff Barker. He passed away from a tumour, but he was a good friend and showed me a lot about the art world.
When I saw that background in Houston I was sitting with my youngest son. At the moment it first came up I was so shocked and surprised. At one part I pictured old Geoff and felt very emotional inside. He would have been really proud to see something like that. He was a work friend but he was a family friend too. He meant a lot to me. I lost my father years ago and he took me in and showed me the art world as a father would. This is why I got so emotional when I saw that painting up there.
Some of your paintings show the tidal marks in the sand.
Yes, they are marks in the sand. We get a lot of king tides up there and they are nice patterns.
What do you like best about your work as a painter?
I am learning about myself. I like the lifestyle as well. I like learning about painting and sharing about my community as well. I like putting it out there for everyone to see.
How do you like the look of your new exhibition at Japingka Gallery?
It looks amazing. You only see them in the studio when you do cataloguing. You put them out one at a time and take a photo. You don’t get to see them all together like this. It works really well. I’m happy with it.
You started painting in your teens, is it a lifetime thing for you?
Yes, it is. My youngest son is still in high school but he’ll finish soon. He’ll go his own way then. It will give me something to think about then.
So what is your routine like?
Well, I’m a house Mum. The kids go to school. As soon as they are off to school I go straight into the studio. I work from home. I’ve got a four door garage. I work by myself and I like to listen to music on the radio. I listen to the old songs of the eighties and sixties. It gets me rolling too when I listen to music. I live in a valley so I have mountain views both sides so it is nice and peaceful. I can focus more and think more.
Sometimes I get family down and they keep me busy. It’s harder to paint. I take them here and take them there. It’s been good to be with family. Then it’s good to get back into the studio. It’s nice and peaceful and quiet and I can listen up to a little bit of music. I can focus more on colours and trying out something different.
How do you choose your colours?
I sometimes look at the weather outside. So if it’s overcast I might work with those colours. Then tomorrow might be a nice sunny day – so I might do a nice set of colours. Then the afternoon too, when I see those colours of the sun going down.
On the plane coming here yesterday my son pointed out the sky colours to me and took a picture. There was a nice late afternoon sunset. He said, “Mum check that out. That looks good as a painting. That’s just beautiful.”
Do you think they will paint?
Well, my oldest son does a lot of black and white sketches. He can sketch anything. My other son used to be in the studio a lot when he was younger. Now he is all grown up does his own thing. They do visit me in the studio and see me working. They comment on what they like. If I do a nice background colour the boys might come in and say, “Mum you should put rain on that. That would be a good rain background.” I usually go with their suggestions.
What do you say to young artists just starting out?
If you paint it needs to come from the heart. Express things about where you grew up, what you love.
When I started, I was really young. I grew up in the community I never went anywhere to any cities, Sydney, Melbourne. Then my art took me everywhere, to all sorts of places.
When I first started I was into a lot of colour. I loved art, even at school. I couldn’t do proper drawings, like a turtle. I wanted to do a nice dugong. It always seemed to end up funny. The boys were always better at that so I thought I needed to try something different. I started to let my fingers flow more when I was painting. I use my fingers, a soft tool and sticks. The only time I use paint brushes is to sign my signature.
I use special sticks. I’ve got this bamboo patch near my house. I use bamboo sticks that I carve. The kids are always coming around and playing with my sticks and they break them in half. That’s why I started using the bamboo instead bush sticks. I file them down and smooth them along.
Do you have a special message to send to visitors to your exhibition?
I want you to enjoy it. I want you to be able to feel the seasonal nature of these paintings and enjoy them.
On opening night Rosella talked about some of the problems she has with her studio in the tropics. She explained that these occur when she lays her paintings out on the floor to dry. There can sometimes be visits from the neighbour’s cats, little green tree frogs or tiny black bush bees. The bees are particularly attracted to any areas of black in her paintings. Rosella also mentioned that she has even had a visit from a python. She said she was relieved to peep into the studio the next day and discover that the snake had moved on by itself.