Rover Thomas’s experience of growing up in the Kimberley was common to that of most Aboriginal people of the area and adjacent deserts, but his impact on the region, and on Australian art, is immeasurable.
Europeans colonised the region late in the nineteenth century, to mine gold, dive for pearls and raise cattle. Relationships between the Indigenous inhabitants and the new settlers were uneven and in many cases conflicts ensued, usually over newly introduced livestock which polluted freshwater sources and drove away the game on which Aboriginal people relied as their main source of protein. Eventually, most local Aboriginal people took to working for the settler ranch owners. These circumstances had at least one positive outcome: people could maintain connections with their ancestral lands where they were able to conduct ceremonies and continue traditional practices and retain language, although they were paid a pittance for their considerable contribution.
When he was a lad, Thomas was taken from his home in the Great Sandy Desert, north along the Canning Stock Route, to work on cattle stations in the eastern Kimberley, where he spent some 40 years as a stockman and fencer. However by the late 1960s and early 1970s, a number of social and cultural upheavals occurred across the Kimberley: cattle-station owners dismissed hundreds of Aboriginal workers who moved to the fringes of white townships where they established camps, and ceremonial life was on the wane. Then on Christmas Eve 1974, Cyclone Tracy destroyed Darwin. The city was regarded by Aboriginal people of the Kimberley as the centre of European culture and, as cyclones, rain and storms are usually associated with ancestral Rainbow Serpents, elders interpreted the event as the ancestors warning Aboriginal people to reinvigorate their cultural practices.
Consequently a number of ceremonies were performed for a lay public in an act of cultural affirmation. By 1975 Thomas had settled at Warmun and here he had a dream visitation by the spirit of an aunt who had died as a result of injuries sustained in a car crash on a road flooded by Cyclone Tracy. The woman was being flown to hospital in Perth but she died when the aeroplane was above Broome in the western Kimberley. From here her spirit travelled across the Kimberley, visiting sacred and historical sites along the way until she reached her home in the east where she witnessed the Rainbow Serpent destroying Darwin. The narrative became the basis for the Kurirr Kurirr ceremony that the spirit of Thomas’s aunt had revealed to him.
By tradition, Thomas did not paint any of the early boards carried by performers in the Kurirr Kurirr—this responsibility fell to his uncle, Paddy Jaminji, who was the first of the Kurirr Kurirr painters. Between them, these two artists were the leading figures in the establishment of the modern East Kimberley painting movement, which is now known worldwide.
The paintings made for the Kurirr Kurirr were usually composed of a few basic shapes, as their meanings would be elaborated in the ceremony. Paintings related to the narrative of the cyclone but not made for use in ceremony tend to be more complex: the original icon for Cyclone Tracy over Darwin approximates a simple bold U-shape; however Thomas’s large canvas, Cyclone Tracy 1991, painted separately to the ceremony, displays a further articulation of the shape of the cyclone and the winds carrying the dust and sand that feed into it.
As the East Kimberley painting movement gained momentum, artists tackled subjects beyond those associated with the Kurirr Kurirr. Episodes from the modern history of the region, little known beyond its boundaries, are a common theme. Thomas painted several works about massacres of Aboriginal people in the eastern Kimberley that occurred until the 1920s. A discussion between the artist and curators at the National Gallery in 1990 led to Thomas creating a series of works about three major incidents, including the Texas Downs killings of the early 1910s. One hid under the bullock’s hide 1991 relates to an armed attack on a group of Aboriginal men who had stolen and were butchering several bullocks: one man escaped the shooting party by hiding inside the carcass of one of the cattle.
Nonetheless, Rover Thomas had a fond nostalgia for Texas Downs. All that big rain coming from topside 1991 depicts a waterfall on the station. Thomas and his co-workers would seek relief from the long, hot and humid days of hard mustering in the wet season to ‘holiday’ at this waterfall, where the caves in the cliff face provided shelter. The place is also the site of a tragedy. Thomas tells of an occasion when a group of people sought refuge from a violent thunderstorm in one of the caves at the waterfall. A bolt of lighting struck the cave and the roof collapsed, killing everyone.
The upper half of the painting shows channels of water running to the cliff’s edge and then falling down the side of the hill. In the lower section, the brushy application of the yellow pigment combined with the varying density of paint produce a sense of light shining through the cascading torrents of water. The work is an outstanding example of Thomas’s intuitive, painterly skill—a master’s touch.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Franchesca Cubillo and Wally Caruana (eds) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art: collection highlights National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010