Archives for category: Australia

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Thomas, J.E, (2006), “Humans in Winter”, Encaustic on paper

 

JE Thomas (2007), Invocation, 250 x 150 cm, oil on canvas

JE Thomas, 'Portent', 2002, 168 x 224cm

 

JE Thomas, “Portent”, 2002, oil on canvas, 168 x 224 cm

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J.E.Thomas. “Lament”, (2006), 160cm x 120cm, oil on canvas

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Judith Ryan wrote about the artist Rover Thomas in her 1993 catalogue essay for the National Gallery of Victoria exhibition of Aboriginal art: ‘As an artist Thomas is not locked inside language patterns or ritual structures of the Western Desert; he looks beyond them to another world of reality and enjoys the freedom to depict this expansively…’ (McCulloch S., 1999). Acquiring his own individual style, Thomas’ paintings are characteristic for their highly textured ochre surface, minimal imagery and sense of space. A restricted palette, in which black usually predominates, leaves an aesthetic impression of a highly resolved abstract painting. As an overview of Rover Thomas’ life, this essay will attempt to understand how he developed so fully as an artist at such a late stage of his life, and why his work had such an individual character.

During the early decades of the twentieth century the cattle industry was established in the Kimberley region of far northWestern Australia. The Indigenous people of the area lost all their land as European settlers took it for their cattle stations. These stations then used the Indigenous people as forced labour. Along with Europeans staking claim to these people’s lands, they expected them to acquire the knowledge, skills and attitudes that would make life easier for the settlers. However, it also suited the pastoralists to have a compliant workforce so the Aboriginal people were also left much to their own devices, allowing them to sustain the values and traditions of their tribal lives (Carrigan B., 2003). Rover Thomas Joolana was born into this new and relatively dependent relationship in an Aboriginal camp around 1926 near Well 33 on theCanning Stock Route. His birth was not officially recorded, but it is known that both his fathers (his actual father and the man who raised him) were Wangkajungka, his mother Kukaja. These are two adjacent language groups in theKimberley. Thomas never knew first hand the world his parents had known before white settlement, but still was able to understand the rules of Dreaming which continued to shape the local Indigenous world.

When he was about ten his mother died and he was moved to Billiluna Station, where he worked as a jackaroo and was initiated into traditional law by a man from Sturt Creek. Another Kimberley artist, Queenie McKenzie, told of how she sewed Thomas’ scalp back on after it was trodden on by a horse (McCulloch S.,1999). He then worked with a fencing contractor in Wyndham and later the Northern Territory. He eventually returned toWestern Australiawhere he worked as a stockman on the Bow River Station. Later, he worked at the Texas Downs Station for nine years and then Old Lissadell and Mabel Downs stations. He then returned to Texas Downs where he married his second wife. By the 1960s changes in popular views forced the government to introduce new pastoral laws which mandated equal pay for both Aboriginal and non- Aboriginal workers. Unfortunately this saw the majority of Aboriginal workers dismissed as they were no longer a source of cheap labour. They gravitated towards the towns of Fitzroy Crossing and Kununurra. In the eastern Kimberley a camp called Warmun was established by the Gija people at Turkey Creek, whose traditional lands surround Halls Creek to the south.

Back in 1974 when Thomas moved to Warmun, it was a small government reserve and a difficult place to live. It had few facilities and makeshift housing was all that was available. Only a few buildings had electricity and there was no running water. The social conditions were difficult as tensions increased with the expanding and diversified population. Turkey Creek was more of a refugee camp rather than a community; many felt excluded and longed to return to their country, and most were apprehensive of the encroachment of mineral and energy exploration. Fortunately, the prevailing government was interested in Aboriginal conditions and investment in community infrastructure began. A school was to be established, a community store constructed, houses built, a bore sunk, pipes and taps installed, electricity provided and pensions and welfare benefits became available, allowing basic needs to be met. It was to this paradoxical but burgeoning community that Rover Thomas moved to and it became the background for him ‘finding’ the Kurirr Kurirr, a ceremonial narrative dance cycle (Carrigan B., 2003).

Thomas’ story about how he became an artist is entwined with an event in 1974, in which one of his elderly female relatives was badly injured and died after a car accident near Turkey Creek. Her spirit visited him soon afterward and related to him Dreamtime stories and songs. Thomas shared these dreams with his community, who evolved a ceremonial song and dance cycle from them called Kurirr Kurirr (Genocchio B., 2008). The Kurirr Kurirr is an embodiment of the spirit of the old woman who died while being flown to Perth for medical treatment. The narrative sequence of the cycle follows her spirit back across her country; along the way encountering Dreamtime beings, as well as events from the historical past such as a particular massacre. The Rainbow Serpent predominates in Kurirr Kurirr, being associated with the swollen creek in which the accident happened, Cyclone Tracy, and the tidal whirlpool at Derby over which the old woman dies. The Rainbow serpent also underlies this cycle of work in a profound way by linking the region’s diverse language groups and giving them chains of communication and cooperation (Carrigan B., 2003).

As the Warmun community developed this song/dance cycle they travelled and performed it over much of the north of Western Australia, even into the Northern Territory. The most important part of the ceremony was the painted boards, left over from community building work and carried by the dancers. The first of these boards were painted by Thomas’ uncle Paddy Jaminji from the stories that Rover related to him. Jaminji was recognised as the artist of the community as he had been known for his wooden carvings and ochre patterning on boomerangs (Genocchio B., 2008). Mary Macha, a government art consultant was incredibly excited when she saw these boards for the first time: ‘Paddy showed it to me…More paintings were added and, of course they suffered in their travels… But they were powerful!’ (McCulloch S., 1999, p.118). Even though Jaminji was initially not interested in selling them to her, he eventually sold her two sets on condition that she brought him more boards.

However, Thomas perhaps became frustrated at his lack of recognition as ‘Dreamer’ of these paintings and strode up to Mary Macha a few years later and said: ‘Rover Thomas, I want to paint’ (Thomas R., 1994, p.49). At first, Thomas and Jaminji worked together on a level piece of ground then, when houses were built, they were able to paint on the concrete floor. An example of their first collaboration is The Spirits Jimpi and Marginta (1983), depicting the two devils that accompany the spirit of the old woman (McCulloch S., 1999). It was painted in thickly applied ochre pigments mixed with gum collected from the surrounding trees. Later the two artists began to paint on their own and, although these paintings by Thomas and Jaminji could appear to be a recently invented style through which it is hard to see continuity with earlier styles, the Australian National Gallery curator Wally Caruana states that the style is deeply rooted in the traditional pictorial conventions of the east Kimberley rock art. It is also associated with the patterns of body painting traditions (Thomas R., 1994).

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Paddy Jaminji and Rover Thomas

The spirits Jimpi and Manginta 1983

natural pigments on plywood

60.0 x 120.0 cm

National Gallery ofAustralia

Jaminji’s paintings show a careful and precise stippling of white clay dots delineating the different coloured forms in the work, whereas Thomas’ own work of 1983, such as The Dog and the Emu at Lake Gregory shows more impatience with the same method. Jaminji is also careful to compose the imagery of his paintings with a certain balanced symmetry while Thomas’ composition is quite haphazard. Most of  Thomas’ work of 1983 is also rough in execution, according to Mary Macha due to his use of bush gums that were mixed with his pigments. It resulted in a rough, loose textures finish that made it difficult for the overpainting of white dots to adhere to the ground. It was when he was introduced to the water-soluble gum of the Kurrajong tree that the artists of Kulumburu used, that he was able to achieve stability and the matt surface that he desired (Rover Thomas Joolama n.p.).

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The Dog and the Emu at Lake Gregory 1983

natural pigments on hardboard

46.0 x 61.5 cm

National Gallery ofAustralia

One of the most striking works of that year is Wungurr is the name for that Snake (1983). Two snakes, one charcoal black, the other yellow ochre are entwined forming a powerfully graphic presence on the orange-coloured raw plywood base. Again, Thomas has executed the white dot outlines quickly, with the outer dots of the black snake allowing the yellow snake to become part of the interior space. It is the embodiment of the Rainbow Serpent and depicts the junction at Turkey Creek where the woman had her accident (Thomas R., 1994). An extension to the story of this painting is Ngamarrin (The Snake near Turkey Creek) (1984). It depicts the Snake crawling over the hills, the darker areas representing burnt grass and shadows. Where the serpent shows its head, depicted in lighter ochre with a white dot for the eye, is the place where the car accident happened (Thomas R., 1994). There are three separate colours used in this painting, a large area of dark red-brown which is applied in differing layers of transparency, a lighter more orange ochre that provides a background, and a large central single area of charcoal black that represents the landscape. The painting also shows a more steadfast and persistent effort in its depiction of area, and is a precursor to the later more austere compositions.

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Ngamarrin (the Snake near Turkey Creek) 1984

natural pigments on plywood

90.0 x 180.0 cm

National Gallery ofAustralia

A good example of a more simplified composition is Bedford Downs Massacre (1985) which shows a complete break from figurative imagery to illustrate a narrative of an incident that occurred between European and Aboriginal peoples around 1924 in theEast Kimberley. The massacre at Bedford Downs relates to an incident in which, after the collection dray loads of wood by the Aboriginal workers, the manager of the station distributes poisoned rations of food to them. Along, along with the manager’s neighbours, they shoot the victims while they are incapacitated and writhing in agony. They then use the wood to cremate the dead (Thomas R., 1994). The pale ochre that is used in the three key spaces of the painting conveys a sinister image of ash on dark red ground and, along with its title, the starkness of the narrative.

Again, in 1986, he simplifies both his composition and palette further in Lake Argyle. Only two colours are used, charcoal and red ochre, to effectively show a topographical view of the dam on the OrdRiver. Again the pigments are laid on quickly, with the gum to add translucency, to create four simplified shapes outlined in white clay stippling. Thomas describes it as a place where a star fell during the Dreamtime. ‘The water, lake, go right down… my drawing, water go in there, he go all the way water. Long time ago, but still a hole there’ (Thomas R., 1994, p.58). This still relates to the Kurirr Kurirr cycle in which water, as a manifestation of the Rainbow Serpent, plays a role of transportation.

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Lake Argyle 1986

natural pigments on canvas

90.0 x 180.0 cm

National Gallery ofAustralia

Much of  Thomas’ work also relates to places that he has travelled through, and portrays both the intimacy and enjoyment he had through his connection with the landscape. The unusual painting Roads meeting (1987) shows a crossroads where a bitumen road and a dirt track meet. The two outstretched hands are supposed to represent the stop signs on the road. It is unusual because of its graphic, diagonally geometric representation and lack of organic shapes. The hands are similar to hand stencils found in rock art traditions, and seem to be reaching out to each other. It could be interpreted as a conceptual portrayal of the traditional, represented by the dirt track, and the modern, represented by the bitumen road, meeting and reaching out to each other. Thomas was quite individualistic within his community. He lived on his own outside the settlement and spent much of his time working inPerth at his main benefactor, Mary Macha’s, house (Carrigan B., 2008).

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Roads meeting 1987

natural pigments on canvas

90.0 x 180.0 cm

National Gallery ofAustralia

Thomas returned to the theme of the Bedford Downs massacre in 1988 with the painting Kananganja (Mount King). Here, the large main shape is representative ofMountKing, and the long, thin areas are where it casts its shadow. The small circle in the lower left corner represents the place where the bodies of the poison victims were burnt. Verse 15 of the Kurirr Kurirr Cycle describes how Thomas dreamed the event:

The shade from the hill comes over and talks in language: ‘munga lurrlungu’,

The Devil Devil and woman look around and see the shadow [spirits] of people killed long ago by Kartiya [white people].

They see where the bodies had been burned.

They make a song about those people.

                                                                                                Rover Thomas (Thomas, 1994, p. 26)

The painting, like the first Bedford Downs Massacre of 1985, is sombre in its choice of colours. There is little contrast between the tones of orange-yellow ochres chosen, except for the dark red circle where the bodies were burned.

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Kananganja (Mount King) 1988

natural pigments on canvas

90.0 x 180.0 cm

 National Gallery ofAustralia

Grugrugi: Owl 1989 is a return to full figurative representation and uses a more detailed motif of a previous painting in 1984, Ngarrangkani. The white ochre owls are depicted in a vertically reverse form of each other, yet are similar in most other respects. They are Dreamtime spirits, maybe the spirit of the woman, and bear a resemblance to the Wandjina figures through their large eyes and simplified noses and mouths. The eyes of the upright owl show red amongst the browns and pale yellow ochres of the rest of the painting.

Another massacre depicted as part of the Killing Times series is the Ruby Plains killing in which the owner and manager of the Ruby Plains Station come across some Aboriginal men butchering a stolen bullock. They shoot and decapitate the men and place their heads in a hollow tree. The men’s friends are alerted to where they are by the crows that gather over the dead bodies (Thomas R., 1994). Ruby Plains killing 2 (1990) shows the heads of the murdered people in the hollow of the tree trunk, as well as depicting the place where the murders happened through the use of a topographical plane. It shows the Ruby Plains Station as a circle in the upper part of the painting and the road to Balgo which extends in two ways from it. The longer black lines represent the creek which feeds into the OrdRiver then Lake Argyle (Thomas R., 1994). The depiction of such murders by Thomas seems to suggest that his intention was to create an historical record of the events which had never been officially recorded, other than by Aboriginal oral tradition.

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Ruby Plains killing 2 1990

natural pigments on canvas

90.0 x 110.0

National Gallery ofAustralia

In 1983 Thomas painted a very simple composition called The Rainbow Serpent destroyed Darwin which illustrated the movement of Cyclone Tracy. In Cyclone Tracy (1991) he painted a more elaborate version of these events. The black line rising from the bottom of the painting shows the starting place of the wind, then as the line turns and widens into a large space it shows the full force of the cyclone. The yellow ochre lines running into this large black area show more winds feeding the cyclone and the red ochre portrays the wind filled with red dust (Thomas R., 1994).

Looking across from Kununurra they see that Darwin has been flattened by the cyclone.

The Rainbow Serpent destroyed Darwin.

                                                                                                Verse 31 Kurirr Kurirr Cycle

                                                                                            Rover Thomas (Thomas, 1994, p.27)

The painting is significant in being able to successfully convey an effective impression of the crescendo of the cyclone. The black area swallows the yellow ochres like a large mouth. The blackness swallows everything in its path.

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Cyclone Tracy 1991

natural pigments on canvas

168.0 x 183.0 cm

National Gallery ofAustralia

 In 1991 Thomas went on to paint his birthplace on the Canning Stock Route and his father’s burial place, these became the subjects in which he was interested in the latter part of his life (Carrigan B., 2003:78). He painted the things that were important to him and were directly related to his own experiences Mary Macha relates that he was a traveller and did not constrict himself to painting ‘his own country’, saying in an interview: “Once, when he was painting down here, someone asked him, ‘is that your country?’ And he just laughed and said, ‘no I steal anybody’s country’” (Carrigan B., 2003, p.63).  After being the first Aboriginal artist, along with Trevor Nicholls, to represent Australia  at the Venice Biennale of 1990, Thomas received a major retrospective at the National Gallery of Australia in 1994. However, his health was failing and after 1995 he was only able to paint sporadically. Illness and failing eyesight were taking their toll when he died in 1998. His unique vision and style reflect his affinity and understanding of the landscape and events. Also, without being a part of any major international art movement, the power and the simplicity of his work cannot properly place his work in the realm of contemporary abstractionism, but reveals it as a visualization of transcendental thought.

Bibliography:

Ackerman, K. 1998, Rover Thomas- tribute  http://www.artlink.com.au/articles.cfm?id=1390 Retrieved: 4.1.09

Artists Biography- Rover Thomas Joolama c. 1926-1998 www.ngv.vic.gov.au/rover_queenie/rover.html   Retrieved: 4.1.09

www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/media/archives_2004/rover_thomas      Retrieved: 4.1.09

Carrigan, B. Ed. 2003, Rover Thomas- I want to paint, Heytesbury Pty Ltd T/ as the Holmes a Court Gallery,Perth

Gennochio, B. 2008, Dollar Dreaming- Inside the Aboriginal Art World, Hardie Grant Books,Melbourne

Mc Culloch, S., 1999, Contemporary Aboriginal Art: A guide to the rebirth of an ancient culture, Allen and Unwin,Sydney

Morphy, H, 1998.  Aboriginal Art, Phaidon Press,London

www.ngv.vic.gov.au/iwanttopaint     Retrieved: 4.1.09

Thomas, R. 1994, Roads Cross- The Paintings of Rover Thomas, The National Gallery ofAustralia,Canberra