Rover Thomas lived in a life full of transitions. He was born near Kunawarriji (Well 33) on the Canning Stock route in the Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia.
As a young Kukaja-Wangkajunga child he was nurtured in the bosom of one of Australia's harshest environments. In the Desert he played the games with other children that were the basis for the skills necessary for a successful life. Learning to read the tracks of insects and animals prepared him for his days as a hunter, as did games of speed and accuracy with rocks, sticks and small spears Playing 'house' in little wind breaks and spinifex shelters was but one way in which the socialisation process and the complicated networks of kin ties were established and absorbed. People, kin and non-kin, were recognised and differentiated not only in the corporal sense but also by their ephemeral traces, the tracks they left in the soft sand.
Rover had been living with the family of his mother's brother, Marrawarkanja Japaljarri. As a young lad he was picked up at Kulayi on the Canning Stock route by Aboriginal stockmen, his relatives returning home from a cattle drive to Wiluna. The stockmen took him north to Billiluna where the Head Stockman, his uncle Sam (Jam) Lee (Jungkura), took him under his wing. At Billiluna, Rover learnt both the trade of stockman and the ancient Laws of his people.
As Rover matured he continued to move ever north, to work on Argyle, Rosewood, Lissadell, Bedford Downs and Bow River stations. At Texas Downs he helped drive 1500 head of cattle to Manbulloo, then returned to Bow River station and married his first wife, Clara. After a year spent at Mabel Downs, Rover returned to Texas Downs for two years. Here he married Rita, his second wife. When the Texas camps closed down in 1972 the Thomas family made their way to the Turkey Creek Reserve.
It was at Turkey Creek (Warmun) that Rover experienced a series of spectral visitations that was not only to again change the course of his life, but also dramatically and irrevocably altered the non-Indigenous perception of the impact of Kimberley Indigenous art in the art history of the continent at the cusp of the third millennium.
After the tragic death of a classificatory mother in a motor vehicle accident in 1074, Rover experienced a series of dreams in which the spirit of the dead woman communicated to him the details of an ethereal odyssey in which she had participated. In the company of another female spirit, Rover's 'mother' had traversed much of the central and eastern Kimberley landscape. This epic journey included visiting many important sites, encounters with other juari (spirits) and culminated in the observation of the destruction of Darwin by Cyclone Tracy. His 'mother's' spirit aided and encouraged Rover to compose the song cycle known as the Kurirr Kurirr, a dramatic performance of song and dance.
Initially, Rover did not paint the dancing boards - depicting sites and spirits referred to in the song cycle - that were used in the original performances of the Kurirr Kurirr. These were created by a number of other elderly men including Paddy Jaminji, whose work was to capture the eye of a wider audience. The patronage of entrepreneur and dealer, Mary Macha saw Paddy achieve success in the wider art market, leading Rover to approach Macha and introduce himself with the words: 'Rover Thomas - I want to paint!'
Rover's rise to the ranks of Australia's most important artists has been well documented. His elevation has not only had a profound impact on the Indigenous art of the area in both social and economic terms but has forced non-Indigenous Australians to re-evaluate their own perspectives of the Australian landscape, its people and its history. Today, in the East Kimberley, new generations of Rover's countrymen continue to build upon the legacy of his work and inspiration.
- Dr Peter Elliot Collection, Sydney
- Hank Ebes Collection, Melbourne
- The Luczo Family Collection, USA
- Kaplan and Levi Collection, Seattle
- National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
- Shepparton Art Museum, Shepparton VIC
- Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
Awards and Recognition
2011 Top 50 Collectable Artists, Australian Art Collector Magazine
2003 Top 50 Collectable Artists, Australian Art Collector Magazine
2001 Top 50 Collectable Artists, Australian Art Collector Magazine
2000 Top 50 Collectable Artists, Australian Art Collector Magazine
Selected Group Exhibitions:
2021 Rover Thomas & Kimberley Ochre Painters, Japingka Gallery, Fremantle
2021 Voyage across Aboriginal Australia - Founders' Favourites, Fondation Burkhardt-Felder Arts et Culture, Moitiers, Switzerland
2021 Big Names Little Paintings, Cooee Art Gallery, Sydney
2020 Crossings, D'Lan Contemporary, Melbourne
2019 Tiempo de Sonar, Museo Nacional de las Culturas del Mundo, Mexico-City, in cooperation with Coo-ee Gallery, Sydney
2019 Reverence, D'Lan Davidson, Sydney
2019 Significant, D'Lan Contemporary, Melbourne
2016-2017 One Road: Aboriginal Art from Australia’s Deserts, Travelling Exhibition in Japan, curated by the National Museum of Australia, Canberra
2010-2013 Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route, Touring Exhibition, by the National Museum of Australia, Canberra
2010 Desert Country, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide
2006 Aboriginal Art, Art Gallery of Macquarie University, Sydney