Menzies Art Brands

ROVER THOMAS (JULAMA) Bungullgi 1989


Rover Thomas began painting in his fifties, after a lifetime working in the pastoral industry. He had been a drover, pushing cattle across the vast expanses of the Kimberley and northern Queensland, from Wyndham to Mount Isa and the Channel Country. I been all over, me, he would say, when describing his intimate knowledge of the vast expanses of sparse desert and Kimberley terrain he had traversed before settling with his Gidja mates at Warmun in 1975. Political decisions displaced large numbers of Aboriginal cattlemen from pastoral leases and in addition, Cyclone Tracy had cataclysmically laid waste to the city of Darwin the previous Christmas. These old Aborigines saw it as a sign that they should turn their activities toward strengthening their culture and traditions.

A powerful dream involving the spirit of his dead aunt inspired Rover to create a song and dance cycle that evolved into a ceremony, variously described as the Krill Krill or Gurrir Gurrir. The spirit described details of a journey that she had undertaken after her death, in the company of other spirit beings. In Rovers re-visitation of that dream, he too saw the places and the characters involved in the saga. At the end of the song cycle, the travelling spirit looks from Wyndham, across the waters to the northeast, and witnesses the Rainbow Serpents vengeful destruction of the Territory capital, Darwin.

The ceremonial enactment of this dream took place initially in 1977, and was repeated at a number of locations in the East Kimberley region in Arnhem Land, and further afield through 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. Rovers uncle and mentor, Paddy Jaminji, created the boards used in the early ceremonies. He was assisted by Jacko Dolmyn, Paddy Mosquito and others. In 1980 the Warmun community was still small and populated by a core of older Gija people. Rover himself did not paint as an individual until 1981. At this time there were very few private galleries that specialised in Aboriginal art. The Federal Governments marketing company, Aboriginal Arts Australia, had galleries in most state capitals, including Perth, where Mary Macha managed the companys gallery. 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 Jaminjis 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.

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 catagorised 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 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.

The present work, Bungullgi, was painted in 1989 and is a fine example of Rovers minimalist style. It maps the outlines of the hilly landscape near the Argyle Diamond Mine turn-off in the east Kimberley. Appearing like the big toe of a footprint, the rock at the top left is representative of a Dreamtime man who was said to have turned into rock after waiting too long for his dogs. This sparsely composed painting captures the essence of these hills. It employs the use of natural earth pigments to describe the winding cattle tracks and access routes to the Argyle Mine. The rich reds and browns were field-collected iron oxides, which Rover chose himself in order to render the composition. The use of pigments derived from the Kimberley soil imbues this, and other works of the period, with more than just the visual representation of the region, but imparts an authenticity that is literally drawn from the land itself.
Following exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Western Australia and the National Gallery of Australia, Rover Thomas was awarded the John McCaughey Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1990. Later that same year he was selected as one of Australias two representatives at the Venice Biennale.

Rover Thomas went on to create an important body of work through the 1990s and up until his death in 1998. Interestingly, many of these late career works were painted on a far larger scale than his earlier ethnographic boards and canvases. In this respect, they resonate strongly with the works of the contemporary Western painters with which Rover had been constantly compared. Thomas himself, however, was totally unaffected by the trappings of art-world fame. The old drovers inner life was replete with memories of a life spent in the saddle, across the wide-open spaces of Australias far north.

Brodie, A. M. (ed)., Stories: eleven aboriginal artists, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1997
Carrigan B., Rover Thomas, I Want To Paint, Holmes a Court Gallery, Perth, 2003
Caruana, W., Aboriginal Art, Thames and Hudson, London, 1993
McCulloch, S., Central and Western Desert, Contemporary Aboriginal Art, Allen and Unwin, Australia, 1999
Newstead, A., The Dealer is the Devil - an insiders history of the Aboriginal art trade, Brandl & Schlesinger, 2014
Taylor, L., 1999. Painting the Land Story, National Museum of Australia, Canberra
Thomas, R., Roads Cross: The Paintings of Rover Thomas, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1994\

Adrian Newstead

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