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Cooper, Revel Ronald (1934–1983)

by Sylvia Kleinert

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Revel Ronald Cooper (1934?-1983), artist, was born of Nyungar descent, probably in 1934, at Katanning, Western Australia. As a young boy Revel was declared a ward of the state and placed in the Carrolup Native Settlement (from 1948 Marribank farm school). Amid conditions of poverty and degradation, in 1945 the school headmaster, Noel White, and his wife, Lily, established educational programs in art and music. Art produced by Carrolup children, including Revel, was widely exhibited: at Boans Ltd department store, Perth (1947); at Mysore, India (1949); and, through the auspices of a visiting Englishwoman, Florence Rutter, in New Zealand, Britain and the Netherlands (1950). Revel’s work appeared in Child Artists of the Australian Bush (1952), written by (Dame) Mary Durack Miller in association with Rutter.

The Whites intended that the training provided at Carrolup would serve a vocational role and Cooper was employed for a short period by J. Gibbney & Son Pty Ltd, commercial artists, Perth. When Marribank closed in 1951 he worked locally as a farm labourer and as a railway fettler. In November 1952 he was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. Cooper subsequently served several prison sentences in Western Australia and Victoria. Nevertheless he succeeded in forging a career as an artist. In the mid-1950s he was employed briefly at Bill Onus’s Aboriginal Enterprise Novelties, and he became a role model for the young aspiring artist Lin Onus and a formative influence on later generations of Nyungar artists.

With help from an art collector, James Davidson, and the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League, Cooper exhibited regularly during the 1960s in Victoria and elsewhere, gaining recognition for his landscapes and corroboree scenes. In a review in the Melbourne communist weekly, the Guardian, of 28 March 1963, Noel Counihan spoke of Cooper’s `strongly original artistic talent’. Working from Fremantle Prison, Cooper undertook several commissions, among them illustrations for the second edition of Mary Durack’s book Yagan of the Bibbulmun (1976), and images of the stations of the cross for the Sacred Heart Church, Mount Barker, Western Australia. With emerging Aboriginal self-determination he assumed a new cultural voice. While in gaol at Geelong, Victoria, he wrote an article, `To Regain Our Pride’, for the July-September 1968 issue of the Aboriginal Quarterly. In an interview for a documentary, `The Broken Covenant’, broadcast posthumously by Australian Broadcasting Corporation television on 1 September 1983, he recalled his experience of discrimination and injustice and, in a passionate affirmation of his Aboriginality, attacked the materialism of a `white’, `machine’ world.

Cooper was of medium height with a slim build, a broad smile and an open, friendly disposition. His struggle with alcoholism and his itinerancy contributed to both the achievements and the tragedy of his life. About April 1983 he died from the effects of head injuries received when he was attacked with a heavy instrument. His body was found on 28 December 1985 at Buxton, after Matthew DeCarteret confessed to the murder. He was buried on 30 January 1987 in the Catholic section of the Fawkner cemetery. Cooper is regarded as a leading figure of a distinctive Nyungar landscape tradition that is the heritage of Carrolup. His work is represented in the Berndt Museum of Anthropology (University of Western Australia), the Art Gallery of Western Australia, and Fremantle Prison, Fremantle Hospital and Holmes à Court collections.

Select Bibliography

  • J. E. Stanton, Nyungar Landscapes (1992)
  • S. Kleinert, `Aboriginal Landscapes’, in G. Levitus (ed), Lying about the Landscape (1997)
  • S. Kleinert and M. Neale (eds), The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture (2000)
  • West Australian, 27 Nov 1952, p 12, 29 Nov 1952, p 7
  • Age (Melbourne), 14 Nov 1985, p 21
  • private information.

Citation details

Sylvia Kleinert, 'Cooper, Revel Ronald (1934–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/cooper-revel-ronald-12354/text22195, accessed 26 September 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012

Life Summary [details]

Birth

1934
Katanning, Western Australia, Australia

Death

1983
Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation