Rover Thomas (Joolama)
Kukatja/Wangkajunga c.1926–1998

The National Gallery of Victoria has recently acquired through the Felton Bequest Yunurr (Spring Creek), 1991, by Rover Thomas, an acknowledged leader of the Warmun School of Painting in the East Kimberley. It represents Yunurr (Fourteen Mile Creek, near Spring Creek junction) in Gija country on the northern part of Texas Downs Station where Thomas worked for many years as a stockman mustering cattle, a long way to the north-east of his birth country at Kunawarritji in the Great Sandy Desert. In common with much of his painting practice, Thomas has dipped into the repertory of particular places from other people’s countries stored in his visual imagination, and has created a memorable crystallisation of a site that was part of his working life.

In the centre of the work, Thomas conceptualises Red Fire, or Kilfoyle Hill, as a rounded rectangular shape bearing loose yellow dotting that stands out on a black ground. The red-ochre angular section in the bottom left corner indicates the road for cars near the hill. This work is far more than a straightforward depiction of landscape; rather, it evokes a place where ancestral and recent histories overlap. The country bears the marks of the ngarrangkani beings who created it and of the people who inhabited it.

According to documentation compiled by anthropologist Patricia Vinnicombe with Queenie McKenzie in 1995–96, the site of Yunurr is marked by a long hill where the ancestral snake travelled in the ngarrangkani (Dreaming) and made a spring by urinating. The rocks here are very tough, causing people’s feet and horses’ hooves to get sore. Steep hills called Wapngarriny, Jawurruk, Tharrkayi and Mapngarirr grow in Spring Creek country. The cattle can’t climb in these places. Yunurr is also a site where an Aboriginal man was killed by white men.

Yunurr is number three of ten works in The Texas Downs Collection, painted between 1988 and 1992, to document one of Thomas’s favourite places, a station where he worked among some of his closest classificatory relatives and companions. The painting comes from a period when the artist has refined his technique, mixing ochres with a solution of resin from the Kurrajong tree and water, resulting in a smooth, non-gritty paint layer. It follows Thomas’s earlier works on plywood or composition board that show his somewhat tentative experiments with a range of natural binders which often resulted in a fugitive paint layer, shiny resinous sections bearing cracks, and crusty white ochre dots. Yunurr, by contrast, demonstrates Thomas’s careful binding of the ochres and absolute assurance with the brush. The stained surface, matte and tonal rather than grainy in texture, is characteristic of Thomas’s subtle use of pigment and natural fixative. The ochres are sparingly applied and soak right into the canvas, resulting in a smooth surface, with subtle tonal effects but without visible texture or brushmarks.

Yunurr displays the characteristic features of Thomas’s art: the intuitive, oblique composition, the definition of shapes by lines of dots, a lightness of touch in the application of paint. Also abstract and conceptual, it is palpable and concrete, grounded in the artist’s acute powers of observation and special affinity with natural ochre pigments and vegetal fixatives.

Judith Ryan, Senior Curator, Indigenous Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2011).