Rover Thomas JULAMA Profile

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Rover Thomas JULAMA

Also Know As: Roba, Joolama

Born: 1926 – 1998

Active: 1978

Region: Kimberley, WA

Community: Turkey Creek (Warmun)

Outstation: Pumnu

Language: Kukatja, Wangkajung

AIAM Overall Ranking: 2

AIAM Market Ranking: 4 (2017)

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Artist Profile

Acclaimed as a cultural leader and the seminal figure in establishing the East Kimberley School, Rover Thomas is, according to almost every empirical measure, the most influential Aboriginal artist in the history of this movement. Yet, had he become an artist in his Walmatjarri-Kukaja traditional country, near Well 33 on the Canning Stock Route, his art would have doubtlessly developed along completely different lines, assuming he’d had the opportunity to paint at all. So remote was his birthplace that, had he not spent a lifetime of travel and finally settled in Gidja tribal country at Turkey Creek, hundreds of kilometers to the north, he would most likely have been drawn to the Warlayiriti artist’s cooperative at Balgo Hills when it was established in mid 1987. The Kukaja artists of Balgo Hills have much closer aesthetic ties to the Pintupi painters of Kintore and Kiwirrkurra in their use of representational symbols, such as circles, u-shapes and dotting drawn from low relief ceremonial ground sculpture than the Gija, whose primary influence is rock art and ceremonial body painting designs.

Although he occasionally included figurative elements and topographical profiles in his paintings, Rover’s work is more familiarly characterized by an aerial perspective in common with Central and Western desert art. His most contemplative and sombre works draw the viewer in to spacious planes of painterly applied and textured ochre. White or black dots serve only to create emphasis or to draw the eye along pathways of time and movement, following the forms of the land in which important events are encoded. In many of his works the predominant use of black conveys a startling, strangely emotional, intensity. Warm and earthy ochres, and a palpable sense of spirituality, invite the viewer on the one hand, to consider the unfolding of important events, while at the same time, purposefully sustain us in an ancient and timeless landscape.

Thomas began painting in his fifties, after spending forty years as a stockman. ‘I been all over, me,’ he said, when describing his intimate knowledge and involvement with the vast expanses of sparse desert and Kimberley terrain. He settled at Warmun in 1975, rather than returning to his own country deep in the desert, after political decisions caused large numbers of Aboriginal stockmen to be displaced from pastoral leases.

Cyclone Tracy had cataclysmically laid waste to Darwin the previous Christmas and many Aborigines saw it as a sign that their culture and traditions needed strengthening. A powerful dream, involving the spirit of Rover’s dead aunt, inspired him to create a song and dance cycle that evolved into the Krill Krill ceremony. The spirit described the details of a journey that she had undertaken after her death, in the company of other spirit beings. In Rover’s re-visitation of that dream he too saw the places and

the characters involved in the saga. At the end of the song cycle the traveling spirit looks from Wyndham, across the waters to the northeast, and witnesses the Rainbow Serpent’s vengeful destruction of the Territory capital.

The ceremonial reenactment of this dream took place for the first time in 1977 and was repeated at a number of locations in the East Kimberley region, in Arnhem Land, and further field through the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. During the ceremony painted boards, depicting the important sites and spirit beings, were carried on the shoulders of the participants. The

boards used in the early ceremonies were created by Rover’s uncle and mentor, Paddy Jaminji, who was assisted by Jacko Dolmyn, Paddy Mosquito, Rover, and others.

In 1980 the Warmun community was still small and populated by a core of older Gija people. Rover himself did not paint as an individual until 1981. There were very few private galleries that specialised in Aboriginal art at the time. The Federal Government’s marketing company, Traditional Aboriginal Arts (Aboriginal Arts Australia *), had galleries in most state capitals,

including Perth, where Mary Macha, who had been a project officer with the W.A. Native Welfare Department since 1971, ran the company gallery. Paddy Jaminji had been the only person carving artifacts for sale during Macha’s field trips to Warmun throughout the 1970’s. With assistance from Don McLeod, a field officer for the Department of Employment based in

Kununurra, Paddy’s artifacts, including carved owls and ochre decorated boomerangs, made their way to her down south where they could be sold.

In 1981 Mary Macha traveled to Turkey Creek with Mcleod on a field trip and saw Jaminji’s Krill Krill boards for the first time. These original boards, made only for the corroboree, were painted in earth pigments on housing debris, pieces of formica, wall panelling and wood from old packing cases. Despite originally refusing to sell boards to her, as they were used repeatedly in the

Krill Krill ceremony and the board was difficult to replace, Jaminji later sold three shipments of paintings to Macha after she agreed to send good boards for him to paint on in future. Another frequent visitor to the community, and purchaser of artworks, from that time onward was Neil McLeod ** who began working on the first of more than 60 natural history books. Macha, McLeod and others relied on assistance from the Turkey Creek administrator, Remus Rauba, in order to arrange communication with the artists in the absence of phones and for the shipment of paintings out of the community.

In 1983 Macha left Aboriginal Arts Australia frustrated at their insistence on centralised buying and accounting from its Sydney headquarters, and decided to become an independent agent and consultant, representing Rover Thomas, Paddy Jaminji and other Western Australian Aboriginal artists. She remembered fondly Rover emerging from of a crowd at Warmun during her previous visit and, announcing himself to her, stated ‘Rover Thomas, I want to paint’. As a now independent dealer she decided to

support Thomas and Jaminjii and brought them down to Perth in 1984 and on a number of subsequent occasions to paint at her home in Subiaco where she made her garage into a studio.

Rover’s lead was soon followed by others and sparked a spiritual and cultural revival within the community, gradually expanding its influence and establishing the distinctive East Kimberley painting style. Other than Macha, McLeod and, for a short time in the mid 1980’s Chips MacInolty at Mimi Arts and Crafts in Katherine, the emerging art developed without assistance. In 1986, following a report written by Joel Smoker, the Kimberley Law and Culture Centre established Waringarri Aboriginal Art in Kununurra and Goolarabooloo Arts in Broome to help market the art of the region. While his public profile and reputation grew and his work gained wider commercial exposure through Waringarri’s exhibitions, Rover, and other artists, including George Mung Mung and Jack Britten, painted works of art from the mid 1980’s for anyone who turned up in the community and could

be persuaded to part with their money. This included workers and advisers to the nascent Argyle Diamond Mine, government bureaucrats, casual visitors and dealers. Exhibitions organized by the Art Gallery of Western Australia and the National Gallery of Australia followed, and culminated in Rover’s selection as one of Australia’s two representatives at the Venice Biennale in 1990. These events, as well as his recognition on winning the John McCaughey prize, all increased his national and international prominence and generated the ever-growing number of agents and galleries who sought to represent him.

In 1995 Rover and members of his extended family traveled with Kevin Kelly, the manager of Warringari Arts, back to his birthplace on the Canning Stock Route, inspiring an impressive body of work. During the following year Peter Harrison of Kimberley Art Gallery and Neil McLeod took Rover Thomas and Freddy Timms to Melbourne. They lived with McLeod and painted daily in his studio in the Dandenongs. McLeod, a close friend and associate of Lin Onus, whose own studio was less than a  kilometer away, hosted Thomas and Timms providing the support they required to produce a large body of work. These works were sold through Kimberley Art in Melbourne, Utopia Art in Sydney, Fireworks Gallery in Brisbane, and a number of other outlets, as well as to a band of dealers and private collectors who gathered around the artists during their time working in this studio environment. Upon their return to Turkey Creek, with advice from Peter Harrison, Dave Rock, the Warmun administrator introduced a scale of payments for each artist to counter exploitative payments by dealers who would turn up at the pensioner unit to commission artists and purchase works. Coo-ee Aboriginal Art ran two printmaking workshops in the community in the late 1990’s and Rover Thomas, along with other important male and female artists including Queenie McKenzie and Jack Britten created acetates, plaster engravings, and linocut prints that were editioned by Studio One in Canberra during the following year. During the workshops many of their children made prints, while being mentored by the older artist’s. At the time the unfunded art centre was run by Maxine Taylor, who had been appointed by the Warmun Council. Referred to as Warmun Traditional Artists while under her management, it acted as the art centre in the community until 1998 when Kevin Kelly, instigated its incorporation. With a proper constitution and financial accountability, the growing art community at Turkey Creek was finally serviced by an ‘official’ art centre almost two decades after the first paintings were produced by artists who had already achieved international recognition.

In his final years Rover worked for all of these organizations and, after Maxine Taylor left Warmun, he often visited her and painted at her home in Wyndham, where she had first met him. At this stage of his life, he referred to Taylor fondly as Nyumun (auntie), just as he did to Macha, who he began working with 20 years earlier.

Rover Thomas died on April 11, 1998 and was posthumously awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Western Australia. The power of his work was reflected in the attention it commanded from the beginning of his 15-year career. Since first exhibiting in 1987 there has been a constant demand for his paintings, which are now represented in all major galleries

in Australia. He is recognized as the major figure in contemporary Australian Aboriginal art. His legacy is a substantial body of significant paintings that provide an enduring, unique, insight into the numinous landscape of the Kimberley region and the human relationships and events that have become part of its history.

*The Government marketing Company began under different names in different places and throughout its 16-year operations changed its name and identity several times eventually becoming Aboriginal Arts Australia.

**Neil McLeod and Don McLeod are not related



Ochres on Composition Board, Ochres on Linen and Canvas, Printmaking, Synthetic Polymer Paint on Linen and Canvas, Works on Paper



Barramundi (Daiwul) , Blue Tongue Lizard (Loomoogoo) , Cyclone Tracy, Goanna, Kangaroo, Krill Krill Narrative, Love Magic, Massacre Stories drawn from Oral History, Milky Way, Mook Mook Owl, Rain, Rainbow , Rainbow Serpent, Spinifex, Thunder , Two Men (Wati Kutjara), Wild Dog, Willy Willy



Bedford Downs (Jirrawal Country), Bow River , Canning Stock Route , Lake Gregory, Mount House, Ord River, Pompey’s Pillar , Punmu, Red Butt (Texas Downs), Ruby Plains, Well 33, Wolfe Creek Crater Region












Individual Exhibitions

1994 Roads Cross, The Paintings of Rover Thomas, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

1994 Rover Thomas, Utopia Art Sydney, Stanmore.


Group Exhibitions

1986 The Third National Aboriginal Art Award Exhibition, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin.

1987 Aboriginal Art from the Kimberley, Goolarabooloo Gallery, Broome.

1987 Art of the East Kimberley, Birrukmarri Gallery, Perth.

1987 Recent Aboriginal Art from Western Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

1988 ANCAAA and Boomalli, Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative, Sydney.

1988 Art from the Kimberley, Aboriginal Artists Gallery, Sydney.

1988 Innovative Aboriginal Art of Western Australia, University of Western Australia, Perth.

1988 Recent Aboriginal Painting, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

1988 Creating Australia: 200 Years of Art 1788-1988, International Cultural Corporation of Australia, Touring.

1988 Australian Art Post-1960, Deutscher Gallery, Brunswick.

1989 On the Edge, five contemporary Aboriginal artists, AGWA, Perth.

1989 Turkey Creek: Recent Work, Deutscher Gertrude Street, Melbourne.

1989 A Myriad of Dreaming: Twentieth Century Aboriginal Art, Westpac Gallery, Melbourne; Design Warehouse Sydney [through Lauraine Diggins Fine Art].

1989 Masterpiece Fine Art Gallery, Hobart.

1989 l’ete Australien a’ Montpellier, Musee Fabre Gallery, Montpellier, France.

1990 Contemporary Aboriginal Art 1990: From Australia, Third Eye Centre, Glasgow and touring UK.

1990 Anatjari Tjampitjinpa, Dini Campbell Tjampitjinpa and Rover Thomas, John Weber Gallery, New York, USA.

1990 The Seventh National Aboriginal Art Award Exhibition, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin.

1990 Venice Biennale: Australian Representative, with Trevor Nickolls.

1990 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, Art Gallery of South Australia.

1990 Balance 1990: views, visions, influences, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane.

1990 Contemporary Aboriginal Art from the Robert Holmes a Court Collection, Harvard University, University of Minnesota, Lake Oswego Center for the Arts, United States of America.

1990 L’ete Australian a Montpellier, Musee Fabre, France.

1990 Innovations in Aboriginal Art, Hogarth Galleries, Sydney.

1990 The Singing Earth, Chapman Gallery, Canberra.

1990 Abstraction, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.

1991 Aboriginal Art and Spirituality, High Court, Canberra.

1991 Flash Pictures, National Gallery of Australia.

1991 Walkabout in the Dreamtime, Virginia Miller Gallery, Miami, Florida, USA.

1992 Crossroads-Towards a New Reality, Aboriginal Art from Australia, National Museums of Modern Art, Kyoto and Tokyo.

1993 Trevor Nickolls and Paintings by Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Ginger Riley Manduwalawala and Rover Thomas, Hogarth Galleries, Sydney.

1993 The Tenth National Aboriginal Art Award Exhibition, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin.

1993 Images of Power, Aboriginal Art of the Kimberley, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

1993/4 ARATJARA, Art of the First Australians, Touring: Kunstammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf; Hayward Gallery, London; LouisianaMuseum, Humlebaek, Denmark

1994 Power of the Land, Masterpieces of Aboriginal Art, National Gallery of Victoria.

1994 Identities: Art from Australia, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taiwan, Wollongong City Gallery.

1994 Australian Heritage Commission National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award Exhibition, Old Parliament House, Canberra.

1994 This Land: A Celebration, Utopia Art Sydney, Stanmore.

1994 Yiribana, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.

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.

1995 The Twelfth National Aboriginal Art Award, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin 1994 Rover Thomas: An Artist from Turkey Creek, Hogarth Galleries Sydney.

1994 This land: A Celebration Utopia Art, Sydney.

1994 Power of the Land: Masterpieces of Aboriginal Art, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

1994 Roads Cross -The Paintings of Rover Thomas, National Gallery of Australia.

1994 Rover Thomas New Paintings, Utopia Art, Sydney.

1995 Rover Thomas -Well 33 Revisited, William Mora Galleries, Melbourne.

1995 Painting up the Country: Aboriginal art from the Kimberley WA, Cooee Aboriginal art, Sydney.

1995 The Festival of Darwin Art exhibition: Kimberley Printmakers.

1995 Offset and Intaglio. Fremantle Arts Centre, Fremantle.

1995 Made in the Kimberleys, Moores Building Fremantle.

1995 Northwest and Kimberley Artists, Durack Gallery, Kimberley Fine Art, Broome.

1995 Latest Landscapes, Utopia Art, Sydney.

1995 12th NATSI Art Award Museum & Art Gallery of NT, Darwin.

1995 Stories: Eine Reise zu den Grossen Dingen – Elf Kunstler der australischen Aborigines. Werke aus der sammlung Holmes a Court, Perth – Sprengel Museum,Hannover-Museum fur Volkerkunde zu leipzig – Haus der Kulturen der Welt, berlin – Ludwig Forum fur internationale Kunstt, Aachen.

1996 Figures in the Land, National gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

1996 Abstraction: Signs, Marks, Symbols National Gallery of Victoria Melbourne.

1996 ‘This is my country, this is me’ Seattle art museum ,Seattle USA.

1996 Contemporary Australian Abstraction, Niagara Galleries Melbourne.

1996 Flagging the Republic, Sherman galleries, New England regional Gallery, Touring.

1996 Nangara: The Australian Aboriginal Art exhibition-Ebes Collection Sichting Sint-Jan, Brugges, Belgium.

1996 Abstraction: Signs, Marks, Symbols National Gallery of Victoria Melbourne.

1996 ‘This is my country, this is me’ Seattle art museum ,Seattle USA.

1996 Contemporary Australian Abstraction, Niagara Galleries Melbourne.

1996 Flagging the Republic, Sherman galleries, New England regional Gallery, Touring.

1996 Nangara: The Australian Aboriginal Art exhibition-Ebes Collection Sichting Sint-Jan, Brugges, Belgium.

1997 Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Paintings, Songlines Aboriginal Art Gallery, Amsterdam, San Francisco.

1997 Imaging the Land National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

1999 Myer Gatner Collection USA.

2000 From Appropriation to Appreciation: Indigenous influences and images in Australian Visual Art. Flinders University Art Museum Adelaide.

2000 Images of the Land, Art Gallery of NSW Sydney.

2013 Landmarks and Law Grounds, Japingka Gallery, Fremantle


Caruana, W. 1993. Aboriginal Art. London. Thames and Hudson.

McCulloch, Susan. 1999. ‘Central and Western Desert’, Contemporary

Aboriginal Art. Australia. Allen and Unwin.Taylor, Luke. 1999. Painting the Land Story. Canberra. National Museum ofAustralia.Thomas, Rover. 1994. Roads Cross; The Paintings of Rover Thomas.

Canberra. National Gallery of Australia.Carrigan B. 2003. Rover Thomas, I want To Paint. Australia. Holmes a CourtGallery, Perth.Brodie, A. M (ed). . 1997. Stories: eleven aboriginal artists. Australia.

Craftsman House.A Publication of Rover (Julama) Thomas by Adrian Newstead – © 2015

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