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Juluma Rover Thomas (c. 1926–1998)

by Suzanne Spunner

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Yalda Soak by Rover Thomas (1995), refers to Thomas's birthplace near Well 33 on the Canning Stock Route

Yalda Soak by Rover Thomas (1995), refers to Thomas's birthplace near Well 33 on the Canning Stock Route

National Musuem of Australia, 2015.0038.0001

Juluma/Joolama Rover Thomas (c. 1926–1998), stockman, dreamer, and artist, was born around 1926 at Yalda soak near Kunawarriji/Gunawaggi, Well 33 on the Canning Stock Route (CSR) in the Great Sandy Desert, Western Australia, son of Marrbi Nabaljari, a Kukatja woman with connections to Kintore, and Wangkajunga man Bull Camel. His father, also known as Lanikan Thomas, with his mate Sundown, had guided the surveyor Alfred Canning through Wangkajunga Country in the early 1900s.

Around 1942, following his parents’ deaths, Rover was picked up by the legendary CSR drover Wally Dowling and taken to join family at Billiluna station, where he was initiated by Sturt Creek men. Leaving the desert in around 1950, he worked as a stockman on the great Kimberley cattle stations, including Ruby Plains, Bow River (Joowoorlinji), Rosewood, Lissadell, Bedford Downs, Argyle, and Texas Downs. On Bow River he took up with Clara—whose husband, Henry Wanambi, had been sent to the Derby Leprosarium (Bungarun)—and fathered a son, Lenny Henry (d. 1990). He married his second wife, Gija woman Rita Tilmari/Tinmaree, at Texas Downs and joined the Texas Mob, the Gija families living there under the protection of gardiya (white man) head stockman Jimmy Klein. The Texas Mob moved to Warmun/Warrmarn (Turkey Creek) in 1973. Their leader, Joonbany Bob Nyalcas, was married to Rita’s sister, Ruby Wagil. Rover and Rita’s daughter Jane was born in 1972 when they were living at Guda Guda (Nine Mile), outside Wyndham. In 1975 the family moved to Warmun. Rover was often away working at Noonkanbah building houses and Rita was increasingly unwell, so Jane was raised by Ruby and her second husband, Bob Yalunga, and was known as Jane Yalunga. Later Jane took the name Timaree/Tinmarie after her mother.

Rover spoke Kukatja, Wangkajunga, Luritja, some Miriwoong, some Gija, Kimberley Kriol and Aboriginal English, and, although he was taught to write his name to sign his paintings, he was illiterate. His Dreaming was mardian, the wild dog or dingo. He was known as Rover (or Roba in Kimberley Kriol) because his friends George Mung Mung, Jack Britten, and Queenie McKenzie thought that he went on too much about his wild dog Dreaming. Juluma, his skin name, was not a Kukatja, Wangkajunga, or even a Gija name; rather, it was a Miriwoong name. Such names were often used by Gija people living at Warmun; people in the East Kimberley translate skin names across language groups based on Law, but also intra-group marriage, sometimes ‘bending’ skin to fit extended family networks created following increased travel as a result of colonisation and the station times. His proper skin name was Joowoorroo/Juwurru, as inscribed on his headstone at Warmun.

Far from his own Country, Rover was accepted by Gija people because he was related to the Texas Mob, but he had no connection to their Country. In 1976, in the wake of Cyclone Tracy, everything changed. He was given a ceremony in a dream by the spirit of Yawayimya—his classificatory mother—who was killed in a car accident at Warmun. She named sites and incidents in her spirit journey back home in song verses.

By 1979 Rover had sufficiently worked up the ceremony, called the Goorirr Goorirr (Kurrirr-Kurrirr/Gurrir Gurrir/Krill Krill/Kuril Kuril), with Paddy Jaminji/Jambinji, the Gija ritual leader, and Songman Magany/Makany George Mung Mung, for it to be performed at a Kimberley Land Council meeting at Warmun, where it was accepted by the assembled Gija and Miriwoong. Using local ochres, Jaminji and other Gija men painted scenes from the ceremony on boards made from discarded materials—cardboard, packing cases, building offcuts—and these were carried across the dancers’ shoulders during the Goorirr Goorirr.

In 1981 the Perth-based art dealer Mary Macha, then working for Aboriginal Arts Australia, a government-funded company, was taken to Warmun by her local agent, Don McLeod, to see the painted boards, which the anthropologist Kim Akerman had told her about. She was very interested, but Jaminji was not interested in selling them. The next year Macha persuaded Jaminji to sell his artwork. She bought three sets of the Goorirr Goorirr boards, which she sold to the Anthropology Research Museum (later the Berndt Museum of Anthropology) at the University of Western Australia and to Alistair McAlpine, a private collector. Rover later reflected:

We got that corroboree now, biggest culture. I can go anywhere, take this corroboree, Krill Krill. I can go Perth, from there to Melbourne, anywhere, Darwin … From there right back to Turkey Creek … This for my corroboree that’s all, Turkey Creek one. (Thomas 1994, 22)

Although he was the dreamer and owner of the Goorirr Goorirr, Rover did not begin painting it himself until 1983. That year Macha became an independent art agent working from her home in Subiaco. She frequently brought Rover to Perth, either with Jaminji or by himself, to paint in a converted garage behind her house. Both when she was working for the government agency and after she became a private dealer, Macha worked with the Western Australian Museum and the Anthropology Research Museum to document the stories of the paintings she commissioned. Macha bought boards, as paintings were called in the Kimberley, from Rover and Jaminji and in 1984 she sold a series of their works to the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) and other collectors soon followed suit. The most influential were McAlpine and Robert Holmes à Court. In late 1984, barely a year after he began painting, Rover painted Bedford Downs Massacre. Macha tried to sell the work, and a cassette recording of the story as told by Rover, to the State Library of Western Australia and to the National Museum of Australia, Canberra, but they declined.

Rover’s painting mates were Paddy Jaminji, George Mung Mung, Hector Jandany, Jack Britten, and Freddie Timms and they painted at Warmun or at its outstation, Woorreranginy (Frog Hollow). In 1985 Waringarri Aboriginal Arts opened at Kununurra and Rover began painting for Joel Smoker, the art coordinator there, while continuing to paint for Macha. Soon after, Rover’s good friend Queenie McKenzie began painting too. She had saved Rover’s life when, as a young stockman, he was trampled by a horse. Rover first exhibited on the east coast in 1988 in a Waringarri group show in Sydney curated by Ace Bourke. In 1989, work he produced for Macha and Waringarri featured in On the Edge: Five Contemporary Aboriginal Artists, an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Western Australia curated by Michael O’Ferrall, and in Turkey Creek: Recent Work, a Waringarri group show at Deutscher Gertrude Street Gallery in Melbourne, curated by Vivien Anderson and Smoker. This seminal exhibition marked the beginning of the East Kimberley art movement; subsequently many of Rover’s works went into State gallery collections.

It did not take long for Rover to develop his highly original and intuitive style, comprising deceptively spare abstraction, where shapes outlined by white dots formed planar perspectives that unfolded into landscape profiles. His annotated maps of Country combined Dreaming stories, the ahistorical forever, and the historical. They often included markers of settlement such as roads and bridges and were executed in ground ochres of rich textural variations, creating a sublime, raku like surface. He returned to favourite subjects but rarely repeated himself. His work was popular and successful:

Send him to Perth, they bin find out. Oh! Really good … That’s what they bin put em name la me now … And so gardiya he like em me. I don’t know what for. (quoted in Kofod c. 1993) 

Rover painted for Mary Macha (1983–91) and for Waringarri (1986–96). He also painted for various individuals who worked in the Kimberley, in particular Duncan Kentish and Rimas Riauba. In 1990 he and fellow Aboriginal artist Trevor Nickolls represented Australia at the Venice Biennale in an exhibition curated by O’Ferrall. Nickolls idolised the old Kimberley stockman and mythologised him in a series of paintings. The attendant international exposure crowned Rover’s reputation, after which he would announce: ‘I am famous.’ Indeed, he was so famous that he featured in Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, where he said: ‘I am on top’ (quoted in Taylor 1990, 93). Renowned for his wicked charm and ready wit, he had introduced himself to Macha just as decisively: ‘Rover Thomas … I want to paint’ (quoted in Carrigan 2003, 49). Later, upon seeing work by the New York–based painter Mark Rothko at the NGA, he quipped: ‘That bugger paints like me’ (quoted in Caruana 2001, 41).

Hardly a prolific painter, Rover had painted for barely a decade when prices for his work soared and demand became insatiable, manifesting the perfect conditions for forgeries to surface. A large group of early East Kimberley works began appearing in 1993 that were purportedly made in 1979–85. Many became part of the Melbourne dealer Hank Ebes’s Nangara Collection. The second cluster arose in 1995. Kimberley Art, a gallery in Flinders Lane, Melbourne, brought Rover and Freddie Timms to Victoria for a two-week painting camp at Neil McLeod’s studio, providing a provenance story to which an unfeasibly large number of paintings were subsequently attached.

The last years of Rover’s life were hectic. He had suffered a stroke in September 1994 but was still able to participate in a Waringarri Aboriginal Arts’ print-making initiative in Darwin organised by Kevin Kelly. A cataract operation in July 1995 enabled him to ‘see his country … properly’ (Kelly 1995). Rover’s wife Rita died in August and, after her funeral, in September Kelly took him to Well 33, his birthplace. The resulting exhibition, Well 33, Revisited at William Mora Gallery, Melbourne, produced his last great series. He stopped painting in 1996 and was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Western Australia for his contribution to the arts in 1997. Long-term alcohol abuse contributed to the complete breakdown of his health; further strokes caused speech loss and confined him to a wheelchair. Having lived a full, hard life, essentially on his own terms, he died at Warmun on 11 April 1998, survived by his daughter Jane. A community-owned art centre opened at Warmun soon after his death and Jane later worked there.

Inspired by Rover’s work, the Western Australian government inaugurated the State Living Treasures Awards in 1998; however, as Rover had already died when the awards were announced, he was declared a Distinguished Artist. His painting Roads Meeting (1987) was adopted as the poster for the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation in 1999, becoming an icon of the reconciliation movement. All That Big Rain Coming from Top Side, which he painted in 1991 for Macha, sold at Sothebys to the NGA in 2001 for a record price.

Two retrospective exhibitions confirmed Rover’s reputation as a leading Kimberley artist and great Australian painter: Roads Cross (1994), held at the NGA, and Rover Thomas, I Want to Paint (2003), which toured nationally. In 2008, Pamela and Ivan Liberto were convicted of forging works attributed to Rover and gaoled. While the case proved to be an outlier and unconnected to the two main clusters of problematic works that had emerged earlier, the continued circulation of such works forms a regrettable and significant coda to the Rover Thomas story, making the work the artist produced for Macha and Waringarri Arts the most valued on the secondary market. In 2009, Gabriel Nodea, chairperson of Warmun Art Centre, painted a suite of works under the rubric ‘Warmun Dreamtime’ that saw Rover fully integrated into the Gija as a Dreamtime ancestor who founded Warmun.

 

Suzanne Spunner is of Anglo and Irish descent and grew up on Boonwurrung Country.

Select Bibliography

  • Akerman, Kim. ‘Rover Thomas: Tribute.’ Artlink 20, no. 1 (2000): 22–23
  • Carrigan, Belinda, ed. Rover Thomas: I Want to Paint. East Perth: Heytesbury Pty Ltd trading as Holmes à Court Gallery, 2003. Exhibition catalogue. Caruana, Wally. ‘Who’s That Bugger Who Paints Like Me?’ World of Antiques and Art, no. 62 (December–June 2001): 41–45
  • Kelly, Kevin. ‘Rover Thomas: Well 33 Revisited.’ In Well 33 Revisited. Melbourne: William Mora Gallery, 1995. Exhibition catalogue
  • Kofod, Frances. ‘Rover’s Life.’ Undated and unpaginated typescript, c. 1993. Artist’s File: Rover Thomas, Waringarri Aboriginal Arts, Kununurra, Waringarri Archives
  • Kofod, Frances, Eileen Bray, Rusty Peters, Joe Blythe, and Anna Crane. Gija Dictionary. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2022
  • Smoker, Joel. ‘Paintings from the Aboriginal Artists of Turkey Creek Western Australia.’ In Recent Work from Turkey Creek, compiled by V. Anderson. Fitzroy, WA: Deutscher Gertrude Street, 1989. Exhibition catalogue
  • Spunner, Suzanne. ‘Vindicating Rover Thomas.’ PhD thesis, University of Melbourne, 2012
  • Taylor, Paul. ‘Art in Venice, Ab-Originality.’ Interview (New York), June 1990, 93
  • Thomas, Rover. Roads Cross: The Paintings of Rover Thomas. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1994. Exhibition catalogue

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Suzanne Spunner, 'Thomas, Juluma Rover (c. 1926–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/thomas-juluma-rover-32000/text39486, accessed 16 April 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012

Yalda Soak by Rover Thomas (1995), refers to Thomas's birthplace near Well 33 on the Canning Stock Route

Yalda Soak by Rover Thomas (1995), refers to Thomas's birthplace near Well 33 on the Canning Stock Route

National Musuem of Australia, 2015.0038.0001

Life Summary [details]

Birth

c. 1926
Western Australia, Australia

Death

11 April, 1998 (aged ~ 72)
Warmun, Western Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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