Level 3, Twentieth Century Australian Art (Gallery 13)
Rover Thomas was born in about 1926 at Gunawaggi near Well 33 on the Canning Stock Route in the Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia. He was of the Wangkajunga people on his father’s side, and Kukatja from his mother’s people. From an East Kimberley perspective, he belonged to the Joolama subsection or skin group. From the age of ten until he settled at the Aboriginal community called Warmun near Turkey Creek, Rover Thomas ‘grew up’ in his tribal culture, moving with his family to various pastoral stations, later to work as a stockman in the Kimberley and the Northern Territory. In the 1940s while living at Billiluna Station in the south Kimberley he was fully initiated into traditional lore.
As with many contemporary Aboriginal artists, Rover Thomas started to paint quite late in his life. Mary Màcha, who was based in the Kimberley as a field officer for the Department of Employment in the early 1980s, was influential in raising public awareness of this newly emerging art from the Kimberley, through her role in sourcing and marketing artifacts from the region. Rover, having observed the success that Paddy Jaminji enjoyed as an artist at this time, introduced himself to Màcha; ‘Rover Thomas: I want to paint.’ This marked the beginning of a comparatively brief but intense creative period that would establish him as one of Australia’s finest painters, in his lifetime.
His early paintings were on boards made with his uncle Paddy Jaminji and produced for use in the Kurirr Kurirr ceremony, which was ‘given’ to Rover in a dream following the death of a female relative. The ceremony took the form of a series of dances with many song verses that traced the woman’s spirit journey from the time of her death, which occurred over a whirlpool off the coast of Derby to the place of her birth near Turkey Creek. While traditional mythology and storytelling play an important role in the paintings of Rover Thomas, he saw the landscape as both a physical location and spiritual site.
The barramundi is a recurrent subject in Aboriginal art, and in several of Thomas’s paintings the Barramundi Dreaming is represented in terms of traditional mythology and its direct association with a topographical site.Bedford Downs Massacre and Camp at Mistake Creek are just two of a series of paintings based on the ‘Killing times’, which feature massacre sites from the early settlement of the Kimberley. While these images describe actual events of cultural and social importance as remembered and passed down in oral history; they are at the same time, superb planer constructions of colour and form as in the dominant, central black shape and contrasting ‘country’ of Lake Paruku.
Mary Màcha once observed; Rover had an intense awareness of the land, and a special affinity with pigments; always preferring the pigments to be found for him, rather than obtaining them for himself. The bush gums he initially collected and used with the natural pigments and charcoal were inherently unstable, resulting in rough, loose textured surfaces that often had a slight sheen. This surface made for poor adhesion of elements of over painting, such as the white dots, which over time would break down or lift off. When he was later introduced to a virtually colourless water-soluble gum from the Kurrajong tree, a method common to the Aboriginal people at Kalumburu, he was able to achieve more stable surfaces and importantly, to maintain the matt finish of the natural pigments that he desired.
Rover Thomas was first and foremost a great painter. He loved to paint. His paintings are a form of visual language where stories of ‘country’, present and past, are a counterpoint to his direct observation of the landscape and identifiable locations, as in the painting Railway Bridge, Katherine. His is a unique vision and style that while reflecting aspects of East Kimberley rock art and ceremonial body paintings owes little to other well known forms of Aboriginal art. The deceptively simple yet powerful imagery of his paintings unequivocally stamps his work as a form of sophisticated, modernist abstraction of universal appeal.