22 May 00 – 8 Aug 00
This exhibition pays tribute to the work of Rover Thomas and Queenie McKenzie, two major artists from Warmun community in the East Kimberley. The exhibition, drawn solely from the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, also features a major work that is currently being acquired, Rover Thomas’s Buragu country 1987.
The lives of Rover Thomas and Queenie McKenzie crossed over at various times particularly at Texas Downs Station where Rover worked as a stockman for nine years and Queenie worked as a station cook for forty years. One day at a mustering camp, Rover got thrown from his horse, which stepped on his head tearing off his scalp back to his ears. There was no doctor or nurse for hundreds of kilometres so Queenie took Rover back to the camp, sterilised a needle and sewed his scalp back on so well that later the doctors did not even need to restitch it.
Much later, during the mid 1970s, Rover Thomas and Queenie McKenzie moved to live at Warmun community where they both became outstanding artists, initially producing work for Mary Macha, the Manager of Aboriginal Traditional Arts, Perth and later for Waringarri Aboriginal Arts, Kununurra. Rover Thomas and Queenie McKenzie died in 1998 and are greatly missed as senior artists and cultural leaders in their community but they have left a remarkable legacy, having inspired many younger Gija men and women to follow in their footsteps.
As this exhibition shows, both artists work with earth pigments mixed with natural fixatives, giving the works a matte textured surface at one with the land of which they are part. In common with other Gija artists from Warmun, Queenie McKenzie depicts the hill and river country of the East Kimberley in lateral perspective so that each painting has a clear reading direction. The compositional field of her early works is often crowded, dense with rocky hills, boab trees, or people hunting and gathering. It echoes the rich topography of the East Kimberley, full of rocky protrusions, twisted hills and ample bottle trees.
By contrast, Rover Thomas flattens out country, stripping it to its bones and rendering it mainly in planar perspective. His work captures the flat, sparse expanses of desert terrain characteristic of Kukatja/Wangkajunga territory where he came from. He condenses complex mythological and topographical information into simple abstract elements, fusing the cosmic and the concrete on the surface of the canvas. Although coming from different perspectives, both Rover Thomas and Queenie McKenzie express their inner feeling for country which is painted from the inside, with the mind’s eye, and revealed in organic symbols as if through its bones.