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The Spiritual Perspective of Aboriginal Painter Rover Thomas

by Nevill Drury

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Nilah Marudji (Rovers Country)1996
Natural Earth Pigments on Canvas
120 x 120 cm

Rover Thomas [1926-1998] is widely regarded as one of the greatest contemporary Aboriginal painters. Represented in the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of Western Australia and the Holmes a'Court Collection, he was chosen to represent Australia in the Venice Biennale in 1990 ( together with urban Aboriginal artist Trevor Nickolls ) and also featured prominently in the international 'Aratjara' exhibition of Aboriginal art shown in Dusseldorf and London in 1993. A major retrospective exhibition of his paintings - 'Roads Cross' - was held at the National Gallery of Australia in 1994. 

The ochre paintings of Rover Thomas occupy a special place in contemporary Aboriginal painting. Despite their apparent simplicity, Thomas's work captures the essence of the East Kimberley landscape in both a topographical and spiritual sense. While incorporating in his works specific references to river beds, dirt tracks, local valleys, hills and cattle station homesteads, the paintings are usually underpinned with spiritual values - throughout his painting career Thomas has depicted aspects of the landscape that are imbued with profound mythological significance.                                           

The Kimberley region is located in the northern part of Western Australia. This rugged and spectacular area - which encompasses some 422,000 square kilometres - is still comparatively inaccessible. The west and north are bound by sea, while the central Kimberley is characterised by high, flat, sandstone plateaus and deep ravines. The eastern edge is demarcated by the Ord River, while in the south lie the seemingly endless undulating sandhills of the Great Sandy Desert.

The northwest and central Kimberley is the land of the Wandjina spirit beings - mysterious ancestral figures from time immemorial that can be found in many locations inscribed on rock faces - but in the East Kimberley, around Warmun (Turkey Creek) the balga or public ceremonies have given rise to a more recent tradition of ochre painting. The rectangular boards used in the ceremonies are painted in earth pigments and depict ancestral beings or sites of spiritual significance, and the local artists have now transposed these themes to large works on board, paper and canvas. Many of the artists at Warmun are Gija people and include such painters as Jack Britten, Hector Jandany and Henry Wambiny - and the late Queenie McKenzie . Like Rover Thomas they paint in ochres but, as art curator Judith Ryan has observed, their crowded imagery, subdivisions and serpentine lines make a strong contrast to the paintings of Rover Thomas, which are flatter, more 'minimalist' and stripped of surface detail. In Thomas's work dots and ritual markings are less important - dots being used primarily to delineate topographical features of the landscape.          

Rover Thomas was born in 1926 at Gunawaggi - Well 33 on the Canning Stock Route in the Great Sandy Desert - and was brought up by two Wangkajunga men, Lanikan Thomas and Sundown. His mother was a Kukatja woman called Ngukuyipa, or Nita, and consequently Thomas spoke both Kukatja and Wangkajunga languages. He belonged to the Julama skin group, and although he was not Gija himself, like the other Warmun artists he often painted the Gija country. When he was ten years old Thomas moved with his family to Billiluna Station on Sturt Creek and here he trained to be a jackaroo. Later he worked as a stockman on several other cattle stations in the Kimberley - at Bow River, Texas Downs, Lissadell and Mabel Downs - and he also worked for a time as a fencing contractor in Wyndham. It was at Texas Downs Station that he met his second wife, Rita - a Gija woman.

Thomas had grown up in an Aboriginal community which had only recently established regular contact with white Australians - usually sheep or cattle farmers or people involved in the mining industry. When Thomas first worked as a stockman it was customary for the Aboriginal workers to speak to the white station managers in a type of English/Aboriginal creole (kriol). Stockmen like Rover Thomas were culturally isolated on the stations but nevertheless it was at Billiluna Station, some time during the period of the Second World War, that he received his initiation into traditional tribal law. Fortunately, Aboriginal workers were still able to perform their ceremonial practices despite the constrictions of working on the cattle stations.

During the mid-1970s a large number of Aboriginal workers were unjustly displaced from the cattle industry following an 'equal pay and conditions' ruling, and this resulted in considerable financial hardship for these workers - a consequence that had not been intended by the government. Rover Thomas was one of those affected, and early in 1975 he came with his family to live in Warmun, close to Turkey Creek. At the time Warmun was a recently created township and it is still a comparatively small community. White-trunked river gums line the nearby river and the town itself consists of scattered houses located along dusty roads. Dry grassy plains surround the town and in the distance the horizon takes in purple-yellow hills which merge with the vast blue sky. It is a remote and under-populated region - these days the east Kimberley shows few signs of human habitation except for the occasional petrol station or abandoned church and the rumbling of passing trucks and semi-trailers. Warmun had been home to Rover Thomas and his family since the time of the 'relocation'. Most of his surviving relatives live in various communities along the Fitzroy Valley and in the desert around Kintore, but others live in the Northern Territory. As an artist Thomas was not restricted by tribal law to only depicting the sites relating to his mother's or father's 'countries'. He travelled extensively in the desert regions beyond Turkey Creek and painted his Dreamings from all of these places.

The art of Rover Thomas has its beginnings in a visionary dream sequence which occurred in 1975, soon after the death of a female relative. Just prior to Christmas, 1974, a Kija Wula woman who was Rover Thomas's 'classificatory mother', was involved in a car accident at Wungkul, near Turkey Creek airstrip. The vehicle was travelling between Halls Creek and Dunham River Station and overturned on a flooded stretch of road. The injured woman was taken to Wyndham by road and was then flown by the Royal Flying Doctor Service to Perth, but she died as the plane flew across the western Kimberley coastline. It was later revealed to Rover Thomas that she had died as the plane flew over the Tawurrkurima/Jintripul whirlpool near the coast of Derby - this whirlpool being the home of the Rainbow Serpent Juntarkal. Juntarkal is one of several Rainbow Snakes that are thought to enrich the lands of the Kimberley with their vital life-force.

The following year Rover Thomas received a number of visitations from the spirit of this deceased woman. During these visionary encounters - which took place while he was asleep - Thomas was given details of the Krill Krill ceremony which describes the journey of the deceased woman's spirit back to her conception site - from the whirlpool near the Derby coast back to Turkey Creek and then north to Kununurra. Thomas recalls how the spirit came :

That old woman bin passed away right there ... couldn't make it to Perth...only the spirit bin come all the way down to me, Turkey Creek... him bin ask me "What d'you like, Wonga ? You want that Jarakul ? "I'm bin say "That Krill Krill now"...(Wonga and Jarakul are different ceremonial dance-forms).

In 1975 Thomas and his uncle, Paddy Tjamintji, introduced the Krill Krill song and dance cycles to the Warmun community.  These dances utilised small spirit paintings which, in the beginning, were produced by Paddy Tjamintji. However, in 1981 Rover Thomas began to produce his own interpretations of the song cycle and he went on to develop an extensive body of works which encompassed both specific mythic imagery and depictions of the Kimberley landscape.

The earliest works consisted for the most part of black graphic images set against a red background but the later works had a more developed ochre palette of reds, sepias, yellows and black, with landscape forms delineated in white dots - and shown either in profile or from an aerial perspective. Thomas's ochre paintings were produced on canvas and paper utilising earth-ochres and vegetable gum, and despite their apparent simplicity they included specific individual references to roads, river beds, hills, valleys, plains and dry lake beds.

Nevertheless, Thomas was primarily concerned with the inherent spirituality of the landscape. To this extent, his paintings are both literal and metaphysical - the compositions depicting specific physical locations while also being vitally concerned with the essentially spiritual associations that provide these locations with their most profound significance. As one commentator has observed, for Thomas the landscape was embued with mythological power - his painting was an act of homage to this power. Through his painting process, Thomas was 'consciously re-tracing not only his own intimate knowledge of hill, valley, homestead, dry creek bed and swollen rivers. In his mind and in his canvases, he [was], simultaneously, re-living a personal and group history. This mind-set [tied]  him to places and a time that extended beyond the recent past, into a mythological dimension that lives in every animal and physical feature of the Kimberley landscape.'  Roads and river beds were painted in black pigments; hills, valleys, plains and dry lake beds were rendered in reds, yellows and black.

The Krill Krill paintings marked a major development in Thomas' career as an artist and the Krill Krill songs themselves were rich in mythic imagery and topographical detail. In the song verses we learn that the woman's spirit is accompanied by a 'devil devil' ( another spirit ) called Jimpi who takes her to her Dreaming country where she is shown the legendary 'half-kangaroo' being that once inhabited this land. She also encounters the spirits of dead Aborigines slain in earlier times by white settlers. Later she visits a crocodile hole inhabited by a Rainbow Serpent, and subsequently encounters the legendary Pangkali (a bat) and Lumuku (a blue-tongued lizard). After visiting Bow River bridge she comes to Wangkul, where she had her accident, and finds a snake. Near Wyndham she meets another devil, Manginta, who becomes her new spirit-guide as Jimpi departs. The two spirit beings meet the Dreaming Kangaroo at Nine Mile and create a song about it. Then, after passing through the hills on Carlton and Ivanhoe Stations, they come to Kununurra Bridge and eventually look across to Darwin. Here they see that Darwin has been destroyed by the Rainbow Serpent Wungurr (otherwise known as Cyclone Tracy).

Thomas produced images of several spirit-beings featured in this cycle, including a dramatic depiction of Wungurr, portraits of Jimpi and Manginta, and a painting of the Dreaming Kangaroo at Nine Mile. He also made ochre paintings of the terrain around Turkey Creek

(Number 3 Bore - Kalumpiwarra/ Ngulalinji), Clara Springs (Lurinjipungu), and Bedford Downs (Kananganja) - and a painting of the cyclone engulfing Darwin.

Thomas also produced several major paintings relating to Aboriginal massacres in the Turkey Creek region. Although the dates of the various incidents are not known with certainty, they took place early in the 20th century. All were reprisals by whites against Aboriginal people in an area within 150 kilometres of Turkey Creek and the traumatic nature of these incidents was recorded in oral Aboriginal tradition. Descendants of the survivors still recall in detail the brutality of these times. At Ruby Plains, south of Halls Creek, four Aboriginal men were slain and decapitated by the station owner and manager as a reprisal for butchering a bullock, and at Texas Downs a similar event occurred - several Aborigines were shot because they had killed some cattle.  And at Bedford Downs, probably around 1924, Aborigines at the camp were given food rations poisoned with strychnine. A number of white station workers then shot and killed the Aborigines as they were writhing in agony from the effects of the poison. These massacres were undoubtedly driven by racial prejudice -  the Aborigines had slain the cattle because they were destroying their traditional food sources and disrupting their relationship with the land.

Rover Thomas recorded the sites of these massacres in a number of 'Killing Times' paintings. These works - mostly painted between 1988 and 1991 - are deeply moving and among his most impressive large-scale compositions. It is ironic, though, that works of such extraordinary beauty could arise from such tragedy. Thomas's paintings record the locations of the massacres and incorporate within their dot-delineations the sites where the Aborigines were slain and their bodies dismembered or burnt, where bullocks were butchered, and where wood was gathered. Tracks, roads and creeks - even the paths taken by the station owners - are also an intrinsic part of the design. What is truly extraordinary is that a timeless, universal quality arises in these works which seems to transcend the tragedies themselves : it is also a great tribute to the descendants of the victims that they are able to recall these grim events without moral outrage or vengefulness towards present-day white Australians. These were tragedies in the past, they say ; these were killings that happened 'in them days...'  

Rover Thomas continued to produce ochre paintings of exquisite beauty up until his death on 12 April 1998. With his passing Australia lost one of its greatest Aboriginal artists - perhaps the greatest of all time.

Further images by Rover Thomas can be found on the Internet and in major publications on Australian Aboriginal art. This article first appeared as a chapter in Fire and Shadow: Spirituality in Contemporary Australian Painting by Nevill Drury and Anna Voigt (HarperCollins, Melbourne 1999)

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