Rover Thomas from Warmun (Turkey Creek): Georges Petitjean

SYDNEY- 8 March 2015

Rover Thomas (c1926 – 1998), one of Australia’s best known Indigenous painters, was responsible for a major movement in Australian art. He was born to a Wangkajunga father and a Kukatja mother around 1926 at Kunawarritji (Well 33) on the Canning Stock Route in north-western Australia. This route crosses both the Great Sandy and Gibson deserts, areas that would play an important role in Thomas’s life. At around the age of ten, Rover moved to Billiluna station where he started working soon after as a stockman. He subsequently worked as a stockman and assistant fencer at various stations in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, and finally settled permanently in the north-east Kimberley region, moving to Warmun (Turkey Creek) in 1975.

It was in this former government reserve that, in a sequence of dreams, the Gurirr Gurirr, a narrative dance cycle, was revealed to him. The catalyst for this revelation was a car accident on a flooded road to Warmun in 1974 in which an elderly woman – Rover’s classificatory mother – was seriously injured, later dying as a result. After her death, her spirit undertook the journey home, during which it encountered other spirits. As it travelled eastwards, the old woman’s spirit was reminded of recent historical events, including a massacre, and witnessed developing events (Cyclone Tracy). The local population interpreted the ravaging of Darwin by Cyclone Tracy as an act of retribution by the Rainbow Serpent against the decline of cultural practices. The Gurirr Gurirr follows the spirit’s meanderings back to country. In the decade that followed, this ceremony was performed at regular intervals at Turkey Creek and adjacent communities. The Gurirr Gurirr, while asserting the enduring memory and knowledge of particular sites, was vital to the development of painting at Warmun. Essential to these performances were painted boards, illustrating the narrative, which were carried across the shoulders. Rover Thomas, who did not paint until 1981/2, supervised Paddy Jaminji in the production of these boards. The Gurirr Gurirr boards inspired Thomas to experiment with paintings on other themes.

Thomas used the typical palette of the Kimberley in his paintings. He mapped out the land and its stories in tones of deep red and brown ochre, which fill subtle organic forms. The distinctive characteristic in Thomas’s paintings is two modes of representation that converge in one remarkable gestural style: while a planar view often depicts roads and flattened country surfaces, profile views describe Kimberley landscape features. His compositions are uncompromising. Thomas used his deeply personal vision to redefine the pictorial conventions of the region. Stylistic spareness in composition, however, belies the complexity of meaning in the picture. History, mythological knowledge and lived experience are simultaneously present in the narrative.

Rover Thomas pioneered the groundbreaking Warmun School, a form of depiction that was echoed in the work of many east Kimberley artists: Queenie McKenzie, Jack Britten, Hector Jandany, George Mung Mung, and the ‘second wave’ of east Kimberley painters, Rusty Peters, Freddie Timms and Paddy Bedford. By the time of his death in 1998, the Warmun style of painting had become iconic.

In 1990, Rover Thomas and Trevor Nicholls were the first Indigenous Australian artists to represent Australia at a Venice Biennale. Roads Cross, held at the National Gallery of Australia in 1994, was the first major retrospective of this artist’s work. His work was seen in several national and international exhibitions. Thomas himself travelled widely and went to Venice and New York. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Western Australia in 1997 in recognition of his contribution to the arts.