Menzies Art Brands



Acclaimed as a cultural leader and the seminal figure in establishing the East Kimberley School, Rover Thomas holds a primary place in the history of the Aboriginal art movement. However, he did not begin painting until in his fifties, having spent forty years as a stockman, droving cattle between Queensland and the Kimberley coast.

Rover eventually settled at Warmun in 1973, the year before Cyclone Tracy laid waste to Darwin. On the morning of Christmas Eve 1974, the cyclone moved directly over Darwin with wind gusts reaching 240 kilometers per hour. Ninety percent of homes were destroyed or badly damaged, and over sixty-five lives were lost. Having witnessed decades of cultural disruption and social change, Kimberley elders believed that this event was a warning from Unggud, the ancestral Rainbow Serpent not to forego their culture, its ceremonies and beliefs.

The event marked an important moment in Thomass own life. In a dream, the spirit of his dead aunt described the details of a journey that she had undertaken after her death. At the end of this journey the traveling spirits had looked from Wyndham, across the waters to the northeast, and witnessed the Rainbow Serpents vengeful destruction of the Territory capital. Over the years following this dream Thomas, with help from his uncle Paddy Jaminji and other elders, created his own Balga (dances and songs invented for secular ceremonies), which evolved into what became known as the Krill Krill ceremony.

The ceremonial reenactment of this dream first took place in 1977 and it was repeated at a number of locations in the east Kimberley region, Arnhem Land, and further afield throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. During the ceremony painted boards, depicting the important sites and spirit beings, were carried on the shoulders of the participants. These boards evolved in to what is referred to today as the East Kimberley style. Rover collaborated on these early boards with Paddy Jaminji until 1981, after which he began to paint as an individual in his own right. The original boards, made only for the corroboree, were painted in earth pigments on housing debris, pieces of Formica, wall paneling and wood from old packing cases.

By 1983 Rover worked almost exclusively for Mary Macha who provided him with plywood boards on which to paint. Macha had been a project officer with the Western Australian Native Welfare Department since 1971. In 1981, she travelled to Turkey Creek on a field trip and saw Paddy Jaminjis (1912-1996) Krill Krill boards for the first time. These original boards, made only for the corroboree, were painted in earth pigments on housing debris, pieces of Formica, wall panelling and wood from old packing cases.

In 1983, frustrated at Aboriginal Arts Australias insistence on centralised operations, Macha resigned and set herself up as an independent dealer and consultant to support Thomas and Jaminjii. Macha paid for them to travel to Perth on several occasions to paint at her home in Subiaco where she made her garage into a studio. Rovers lead was soon followed by others and sparked a spiritual and cultural revival within the community, gradually expanding its influence and establishing the distinctive East Kimberley painting style.

After exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Western Australia and the National Gallery of Australia in the late 1980s, Rover Thomas was selected to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale in 1990. These events, as well his receipt of the John McCaughey prize (1990), increased his national and international prominence.

During the 1980s Rover Thomas created works for Waringarri Arts and also painted for a number of independent dealers, most importantly Neil McLeod. McLeod made over 38 collecting trips to the Kimberley between the late 1970s and the late 1990s often sitting with Rover and commissioning works in the field. In 1995, Thomas travelled to Melbourne where he created some sixty paintings with assistance from fellow Gidja artist, Freddy Timms (born 1946).

Rover Thomas is now considered the seminal figure and the most influential Aboriginal artist in the history of the East Kimberley art movement. His paintings occasionally include figurative elements and topographical profiles, though they are more familiarly categorised by their aerial perspective, in common with Central and Western Desert art. However, unlike the art of the desert painters, Rover eschews the use of the iconographic lexicon used by the original sand painters, and later by the artists most directly associated with Geoffrey Bardon at the genesis of the Papunya movement.

His most contemplative and somber works draw the viewer into spacious planes of painterly applied and textured ochre. White or black dots refer to the traditional method of delineating a ceremonial ground by the placement of uprooted balls of spinifex grass around its margins. These serve only to create emphasis or to draw the eye along pathways of time and movement, following the forms of the land in which important events are encoded. In many of Rovers works, the predominant use of black conveys a startling, strangely emotional intensity while warm and earthy ochres connect the viewer to an ancient and timeless landscape. Rover Thomass paintings appeal to the Western aesthetic due to their connection to minimalism. The artists works have often been compared to the works of Western abstractionists, most commonly Mark Rothko (1903-1970) however, they share a far greater affinity with those of Japanese Zen monks in which openness and line intertwine to suggest a sense of the spirit of a place.

This important work, Cyclone Tracy Willy Willy, was created during that extremely well documented visit. It is characterised by spacious planes of textured ochre. The prominent black path is a storm travelling from the east. It gains in strength as the willy willys join together to create a frightening wind tearing through the Great Sandy Desert. Concentric circles represent the artists camp where he was born. The white dots serve only to create emphasis or to draw the eye along pathways of time and movement, following the forms of the land. The painting is dynamic yet contemplative and somber. The predominant use of black conveys a startling, strangely emotional, intensity. The viewer observes the unfolding events whilst becoming immersed in an ancient and timeless landscape.

Rover Thomas died on April 11 1998 and was posthumously awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Western Australia. The power of his work is reflected in the attention it has commanded over his twenty year career. Since first exhibiting in 1987 there has been a constant demand for his paintings, which are now represented in all major galleries in Australia. He is recognised as one of the major figures in contemporary Australian Aboriginal Art. His legacy is a substantial body of significant paintings which provide an enduring, unique, insight into the spiritual landscape of the Kimberley region and the human relationships and events within it.

Adrian Newstead

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