Rover Thomas (c. 1926 – 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 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 assistent 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 narative 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 classifactory 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 meandering back to country. In the decade that followed, this ceremony was performed at regular intervals a turkey creek and adjacent communities. The Gurirr Gurirr, while asserting the enduring memory and knowledge of particular sites, was vital to the developement 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 supervided paddy jaminji in the production of these boards. The Gurirr Gurirr boards inspired thomas to experiment with paintings and other themes.
Thomas used the typical palette of the Kimberley in his painting. He mapped out the land and its stories in tones of deep red and brown ochre, which fill subtle organic forms. The distinctive characteristics 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 a 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: Queen 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 the 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.
1994: 'Roads Cross: The Paintings of Rover Thomas', National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Australia
1994: 'Rover Thomas', Utopia Art Sydney, Stanmore, Australia
Group Exhibitions, selection:
2019 Art New York, SmithDavidson Gallery, Miami, USA
2018 EXPO Chicago, SmithDavidson Gallery, Chicago, USA
2018 Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art from the Kaplan & Levi collection, Blanton Museum at the University of Texas at Austin, USA
2016: 2016 'Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia', Hardvard Art Museums, USA
2013-2014: 'Vivid Memories - An Aboriginal Art History', Musée d’Aquitaine, Bordeaux, France
2000: Nicholas Hall, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
2000: ‘From Appropriation to Appreciation: Indigenous influences and images in Australian Visual Art’, Flinders University Art Museum, Adelaide, Australia
1996: ‘Nangara: The Australian Aboriginal Art exhibition-Ebes Collection’, Stichting Sint-Jan, Brugges, Belgium
1996: ‘Abstraction: Signs, Marks, Symbols’, National Gallery of Victoria Melbourne, Australia
1995: ‘Stories: Eine Reise zu den grossen Dingen’, Touring: Sprengel Museum Hannover, Museum fur Volkerkunde Leipzig, Haus der Kulteren der Welt Berlin, Ludwig-Forum fur Internationale Kunst Aachen, Germany
1994: ‘Identities: Art from Australia’, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taipei, Taiwan
1994: ‘Power of the Land: Masterpieces of Aboriginal Art’, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia
1993: ‘Images of Power: Aboriginal Art of the Kimberley’, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia
1992: ‘Crossroads-Towards a New Reality: Aboriginal Art from Australia’, National Museums of Modern Art, Kyoto and Tokyo, Japan
1990: Venice Biennale: Australian Representative, with Trevor Nickolls, Venice, Italy
1990: ‘Contemporary Aboriginal Art 1990: From Australia’, Third Eye Centre, Glasgow and touring United Kingdom
1989: ‘On the Edge: five contemporary Aboriginal artists’, AGWA, Perth, Australia
1986: ‘The Third National Aboriginal Art Award Exhibition’, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin, Australia
Born in Yalda Soak on November 30th, 1925
Died in *unknown* on November 30th, 1997