Rosella Namok: Rosella's Choice - Art Collector

Issue 21, July - September 2002

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Rosella Namok divides her art practice between western and Indigenous styles as she chooses. Rex Butler chronicles her meteoric rise and asks if Namok is among the first artists to be working after the “end” of Aboriginal art.

As usual, the artist’s own words are worth listening to. “My work is modern, but sometimes I paint about traditional Aboriginal culture and stories in my own style.” So says 23 year old indigenous artist Rosella Namok from Lockhart River, some 850kms north of Cairns. Namok is the best known of a mainly younger generation of artists – others include Samantha Hobson and Fiona Oomenyo – who, after receiving training at the local TAFE, began painting in the distinctive colourful style that soon brought the region attention in the contemporary Aboriginal art boom. The very first set of prints the community took down south was purchased by Betty Churcher of the National Gallery of Australia and Margo Neale, now of the National Museum of Australia. Namok herself recently won the 15th Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, and her work is collected not only by the National Gallery but by virtually every state institution as well. Buyers frequently snap up her works before opening at her invariably sold-out shows in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

But to return to Namok’s statement concerning her art – what is she trying to say there? Put simply, that she has a choice as to how she paints: that she can paint alternatively in either Western or indigenous styles. Now, in a conventional understanding of Aboriginal art, this is not how it is meant to be at all. We have no more sense of the great Aboriginal artists having a choice as to how to paint than the Renaissance Masters. It is rather a matter of following a tradition which gives the artist their identity and in which questions of innovation and self-expression do not arise. (It is something like this that underlies Tim Johnson’s comparison between the painters of Papunya and the Italian Renaissance: “Clifford Possum is obviously High Renaissance – the Leonardo figure of the movement”. For the point is that this analogy would not work if we went up to the present. We would not find, say, a Warhol amongst the Papunya artists.)

We might say, therefore, that Namok’s work is post-historical. It is post-historical precisely in the sense that philosopher Arthur Danto speaks of Western art as being post-historical: that “you can be an abstractionist in the morning, a photorealist in the afternoon and a minimalist in the evening”. And this is to say – for all of its provocativeness – that Namok is working after the “end” of Aboriginal art. It is to suggest that she is no longer simply within its tradition, but already has a certain distance onto it. That just as Danto speaks of a Western artist being able to decide whether to be an abstractionist or a photorealist, so Namok can decide whether to make Aboriginal art or not. And this is in turn to suggest that, even when Namok does decide to make Aboriginal art, this is already mediated by that ‘modern’ style she chooses at that moment not to make. In a sense, she could only attach herself to her Aboriginal heritage through this modern style. But what exactly does this mean? Is it to speak of the end of Aboriginal art or the possibility of a new beginning? And what is all this to say about Aboriginal art in general?

In order to answer these questions, let us turn to an early Namok work Moon… he was a man once (1999). It is a small black and white canvas depicting moonlight reflected on water. It is in truth terrible: kitsch, vulgar, sentimental, just the sort of thing a student might make at the end of a TAFE course in art. But what is it really telling us? If we can put it like this, what happens if we get ‘too close’ to indigenous work, what the Dreamings would look like if we translated them into Western terms. This is the vision they have of our relationship to the land. At least expressing it this way has the benefit of shaking us out of our all-too-easy identification with Aboriginal art, as though the attitude it embodies is something we Westerners can share. It prevents the New Age appropriation of it, as though we could align ourselves to nature in the same way. All this – for us Europeans – is impossible, merely a form of nostalgia, with its implicit patronisation of Aboriginal culture.

But perhaps – and this is the crucial point – this is even what these Dreamings look like to Namok herself. It is something like this effect of cloying ‘over closeness’ that the rest of her work tries to respond to, take a certain distance on. For let us look at the other half of Namok’s practice, its ‘indigenous’ side. What is it that we see there? The story for which Namok is best known is Kaapay and Kuyan, which speaks of the two different clans or moieties into which the peoples of Lockhart River are split. It is a story about the necessity of preventing inbreeding, of coming too close to what we might call the maternal body. As Namok says: “I asked the old people if I was right, if my partner and I were right. They say, yes, we’re right. My father was kuyan, my partner is kaapay. I was worried I might be wrong”. It is a Dreaming Namok represents by a number of boxes within boxes or a line winding around on itself delineating an empty core. And it is a motif repeated in various ways throughout all of the ‘traditional’ work Namok does: the buildings around Lockhart River in New Teachers (2001) and Our New Neighbours (2000), the more painterly version of the story in Kaapay and Kuyan Today (1999), the similar-looking marks indicating waves on the beach in Neap Tide: Fly Over (2001).

What connection can we make between the two halves of Namok’s practice? In what sense can we see both responding to the ‘end’ of Aboriginal art, attempting to think the possibility of tradition after this ‘end’? The answer to these questions is perhaps to be found in Gerard Wajcman’s remarkable The Object of the Century. In it, he claims that what the 20th century witnesses, with the gradual merger of the work of art and the commodity, is the increasing impossibility of aesthetic sublimation. To paraphrase Lacan’s famous definition, we are unable any more to elevate the object to the “dignity of the Thing”. We are unable to form a relationship between the work of art and what is ‘behind’ it, or to put it another way, we no longer have the sense that there is anything ‘behind’ the work of art. If in classical art this relationship is unquestioned, in modern art this relationship breaks down. That is, we no longer have the long-running problem of religious art, which is how to find a sufficiently beautiful object to stand in for this sacred space, but rather the opposite problem of how to keep this space open at all. And to this, argues Wajcman, modern art responds in either one of two ways. The first is to present the object itself outside of any place (this is the whole lineage of the readymade and the art that comes after it), as though to show negatively that place the object must occupy in order to be called art. The second is to present the empty place itself outside of any object (this is the whole tradition of abstraction, from Malevich’s Black Square to Rothko’s floating rectangles), as though to show by a purely formal marking what separates the object from its place. In both cases, it is not so much directly but only through its very absence or failure that aesthetic sublimation might once again be possible.

And is this not what we see in Namok? Is this not how she responds to the crisis of sublimation, which is the crisis of Aboriginal art? For what we might say we see in her work – it is something that affects all Aboriginal art after its commodification – is the Dreamings losing their power. They no longer stand ‘behind’ the work, guaranteeing its authenticity; or if we do see what stands ‘behind’ the work, it turns into kitsch. To this, Namok responds with either the readymade of an object out of place (Moon …) or the abstraction of a place without an object (the series based on Kaapay and Kuyan). Both might be seen as attempting to restore in a paradoxical form that minimal gap between the empty place and the element that fills it out. But if we can put it this way, this is not simply to assert once again something ‘behind’ the work, a Dreaming that it follows or translates. For look at perhaps the third type of Namok’s work, in which a layer of paint is scraped off to reveal, or a layer of paint is laid on top of, a beautiful series of background colours: Raining Down at Aangkum (2001), Out at Watchee (2001) and Stormy Day at Nundah (2001). Here the world is transfigured by something else – let us call it spirituality or even the Dreaming – but it is not to be got at directly, for it exists only beneath a veil. There is nothing behind this veil, not in the sense that there is no other dimension to the painting, but in the sense that if we took this veil away it would disappear. And the whole painting is this veil: it is able to hint at a place beyond while there is nothing ‘behind’ it. It is at once the veil and the beyond, the object and the Thing, desublimation and sublimation, and even the end of Aboriginal art and a new beginning. This, finally, is what this most recent generation of indigenous artists has to show us: that Aboriginal art is from the beginning not pre- but post-historical, and that it is with the very impossibility or exclusion of the Dreamings that this art begins.


In the few short years that Rosella Namok has been exhibiting, her work has attracted a huge and immediate interest from Australian collectors and the curators of private and public collections. In 1999, when Namok was nominated for inclusion in Australian Art Collector’s annual Australia’s 50 Most Collectable Artists issue, she was relatively unknown outside her native Queensland. The following year, after nation-wide exposure through solo and group exhibitions, her paintings could be had from her commercial galleries for between $650 and $5,000, while works on paper ranged from $250 to $450.

At such affordable prices, and with collector interest growing in her passionate style of abstract painting, prices quickly rose. In 2001, Namok’s near sell-out show at Sydney’s Hogarth Galleries saw her paintings ranging in price from $880 for 50 x 70cm paintings to a mid-range of around $3,750 for 80 x 120cm works. Larger pieces could be had for around $6,600 for a 180 x 120cm work up to $13, 200 for the 300 x 180cm paintings. As we went to press, prices for Namok’s July-August 2002 show at Hogarth Galleries had yet to be finalised, but a spokesperson for the gallery confirmed that prices for Namok’s work would likely rise again.

Namok’s work has also found favour with collectors overseas with works sold to buyers from the U.K. and the U.S. Major state galleries around the country have works by Namok including the Art Gallery of NSW, the Art Gallery of Western Australia, the Northern Territory University and major regional collections such as the Wollongong University and Cairns Regional Gallery.

Although Namok’s work has yet to be offered on the secondary market, it is clear that her prices are on an upward trajectory in step with the prices of other comparable contemporary painters. With a still-affordable top price of $13,200 – and a more typical range of $3,000 to $11,000 – now is the time to invest in Namok’s work.

Andrew Frost

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