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Roger Knox: Dancing Spirit

For my very first major portraiture prize entry I have been lucky enough to paint Roger Knox, and I want to share this man's inspirational story with you.

Roger is an Aboriginal musician known in Aboriginal communities across Australia as the “King of Koori Country”. It’s rumoured that every Aboriginal household in Australia owns one of his albums.

I first met Roger in his hometown of Toomelah, a remote, disadvantaged community on the Queensland border in 2006. Roger was leading a community meeting to identify the priorities of the small community, a project that would see government departments working in partnership with the residents on their most urgent needs. On that day, what struck me about Roger was his quiet tone of voice. The room hushed when he spoke, adult to child, each person leaning in to hear what he said – the quiet leader at the front of the room.

Since meeting Roger those 10 years ago, I have met him again many times since at festivals, community events and now through family at home. Across every setting, it is Roger’s essence of calm and spiritual depth that still strikes me.

Roger’s music is a mixture of Country Gospel and Aboriginal protest songs. He plays regularly at Aboriginal community events, and everywhere from jails to major Australian festivals. Roger's story is in part a shared history of Aboriginal Australia - his mother was taken to Cootamundra as part of the stolen generation, her cultural identity hidden from her, it was part miracle that she found her way back to her family. His father travelled where the work was, taking his large, young family with him between farms and railway towns. In more recent times Roger's home community of Toomelah has been impacted heavily by the compounded symptoms of intergenerational trauma while community leaders, including Roger, rally them to fight the good fight, time and again.

Roger himself has lived his life mostly on the road - touring with bands since his twenties - back when he was known as the Black Elvis, a young honey-voiced musician with looks to match. He is father to seven children, now grandfather to over 40 grandchildren with a steadily growing tally of great grand-children. Famously, he has also survived two plane crashes in one day while touring with Brian Young in the early 80s.

My painting of Roger is intended to convey his calm and spiritual depth amidst the community grief and trauma, values and triumph that he pays homage to through his music.

The stance he holds in the portrait will be very familiar to anyone who has watched him perform. It is what I think of as the pose he takes while centreing himself – waiting for his musical cue before the lyrics come in, or in between verses – he is an accomplished entertainer but no big showman – and this is his quiet stance of humility.

While painting Roger, the “dancing spirit” by his side emerged as part of the painting process in a quite unintentional way. Moreover, I didn’t notice until quite a long way into the painting, that the dancing spirit had developed its own shadow, a figure that appears to have its arms stretched up in celebration.

I feel that these unintentional elements add to the overall feeling of the piece. Roger’s unwavering calm next to an image that portrays the empowerment and uplifting effect that his music has in the communities he sings for.

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