World of Dreamings
Traditional and modern art of Australia

An exhibition held at the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg | 2 February - 9 April 2000

English | Selected works | Pусский | 0тобранные работы



Partners and sponsors


  • Dr Brian Kennedy, Director, National Gallery of Australia
Chapter 1
  • An introduction to Aboriginal art by Susan Jenkins and Carly Lane
Chapter 2A | B
  • The Aboriginal Memorial We have survived, by Djon Mundine
  • The Aboriginal Memorial 1987-88 A description
Chapter 3
  • John Mawurndjul The resonating land by Luke Taylor
Chapter 4
  • All the world The paintings of Nym Bandak by Kim Barber
Chapter 5
  • 'Who's that bugger who paints like me?' Rover Thomas by Wally Caruana
Chapter 6
  • The enigma of Emily Kngwarray by Jenny Green
Chapter 7
  • High art and religious intensity. A brief history of Wik sculpture by Peter Sutton
Chapter 8
  • Laced flour and tin boxes The art of Fiona Foley by Avril Quaill
Chapter 9
  • The memory theatre of Tracey Moffat by Gael Newton

Artists' biographies



Further reading on Aboriginal art

Authors' biographies



Rover Thomas: 'Who's that bugger who paints like me?'

 The sense of astonishment in the words was palpable. These were uttered by Rover Thomas upon seeing for the first time, and quite unexpectedly, Mark Rothko's 1957 #20, 1957. The common Eurocentric view of Aboriginal art often applied to Thomas' paintings, and to those by Emily Kam Kngwarray's (see essay by Jenny Green), was balanced, for once, by an Aboriginal-centric perception of Western art.

It was 1990, a few weeks before Thomas was due to leave Australia for Venice where he and Trevor Nickolls were to represent Australia at the Biennale, the first Aboriginal artists to do so. Thomas had travelled the length and breadth of the eastern Kimberley and he had been to the cities of Perth and Darwin. Venice was to be his first venture outside the country. His friend and agent, Mary Macha, had suggested he visit the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra for a few days to experience a large museum full of art from many cultures, in preparation for his Italian experience.

For a traditional man raised on cattle stations, Venice was a long way from Gunawaggi or Well 33 on the Canning Stock Route in the Great Sandy Desert where Thomas was born in 1926. He was raised by two fathers, Lanikan Thomas and Sundown, both of the Wangkajunga people. His mother was Ngakuyipa or Nita, a Kukatja woman. Thomas' origins are firmly rooted in the desert. At the age of 10 he and his family moved to Billiluna Station in the Kimberley where, as was usual at the time, he began work as a stockman. During the 1940s he was initiated into traditional law.

After some time working in the Northern Territory building the fences which run for kilometres around cattle stations, Thomas returned to the Kimberley to work as a stockman on various cattle stations, including Texas Downs where he spent many years.

Thomas' experience of growing up in the region was common to the vast majority of Aboriginal people of the Kimberley and adjacent areas. Europeans settled in the region late in the nineteenth century, first to mine gold and then to raise cattle, and after many years of conflict, Aborigines were forced to work for the recently arrived station owners. The men worked as stockmen, the women mostly as servants in the house, but for little or no wages, simply shelter, blankets, flour, tea, sugar and tobacco. Despite these circumstances, many Aboriginal people kept the connection with their ancestral lands, where they were able to conduct ceremonies and continue traditional beliefs. For those who had been displaced, such as Thomas' family, the extended kinship network allowed them to be adopted into the local indigenous social systems.

In 1967 a federal law acknowledged for the first time that Aboriginal people were to be recognised as citizens of Australia. Soon after, the granting of wages equal to those of white workers, combined with falling prices for beef on the world market, saw Aboriginal pastoral workers expelled from many cattle stations in the Kimberley and forced to live in camps on the fringes of white towns. It was under these circumstances that Thomas moved to Warmun on the edge of the township of Turkey Creek in 1975.

Only months earlier, on Christmas eve, 1974, Cyclone Tracy flattened the city of Darwin with the loss of 50 lives. Darwin is widely regarded by Aborigines of the north and north western parts of the country as the capital of European culture in the region. Against a background of decades of cultural disruption and social change, Aboriginal elders across the Kimberley interpreted the cyclone as a manifestation of the ancestral Rainbow Serpent (Wungurr or Unggud) who had destroyed Darwin as a warning to all Aborigines, young and old, not to forego their culture and its ceremonies and beliefs: to keep their culture strong.

Some time after the event Thomas received a revelation through the spirit of a classificatory mother who had died as a result of injuries incurred in car crash on a road flooded by the rains of Wungurr's cyclone near Turkey Creek. The woman passed away as she was being flown by the Royal Flying Doctor Service for emergency treatment in Perth, just as the aeroplane was flying above a whirlpool in King Sound on the western Kimberley coast. The whirlpool is said to be the home of another ancestral Rainbow Serpent, Juntarkal.

Sometime later, the spirit of the dead woman revealed to Thomas her journey across the Kimberley back to her home near Turkey Creek where she had witnessed Wungurr's destruction of Darwin. The spirit of the woman endowed Thomas with the songs, dances and images for a new public ritual performance (generically known as palga) called the Krill Krill.

As a result of the destruction of Darwin, of Wungurr's warning, many ceremonies across the Kimberley were performed in public to demonstrate to non-indigenous Australians the continued viability of Aboriginal culture in the area. Many of these ceremonies featured constructions of various materials such as lengths of hair string or coloured wool threaded over wooden frameworks, as well as painted boards which were carried by dancers across their shoulders.

As is customary in Aboriginal ceremonies, the owner of the designs instructs others in the painting of images for use in the ceremonies. Thomas himself did not commence painting the boards until about 1980. The Krill Krill was performed on several occasions before audiences which included non-indigenous Australians who expressed interest in the painted boards which were often discarded after use, again as is customary. This interest eventually led artists to sell their Krill Krill paintings. Interest in eastern Kimberley paintings began to mount and, while the Krill Krill provided the major theme for the painters, in time artists began to depict country and create images independent of the ceremony. The songs and choreography of the ceremony provided the context for the accompanying Krill Krill paintings. Thus, for example, the image of the cyclone over Darwin used in the ceremony, such as the Rainbow Serpent destroyed Darwin painted on board by Thomas in 1983, is stark and minimal. Eight years later, a painting on canvas of the same subject (Cyclone Tracy1991) but not used in the ceremony, is elaborated to set the visual context for the theme (Plate X); here the black shape of the cyclone gathering intensity over Darwin is surrounded by images of dust-carrying winds feeding the cyclone.

Wungurr's assault on Darwin was the culmination of a century of white encroachment on Aboriginal land. Aboriginal people were subjugated - not without resistance - as the land was taken over for mining, raising cattle and later farming. The modern history of the Kimberley is marked by several significant events. Amongst these were the confrontations between white and black, often resulting in massacres of Aborigines, the forced migrations of peoples, and the flooding of vast areas of country. Thomas' work re-interprets this history from the indigenous perspective - unlike the official history found in school books.

The modern history of the Kimberley is fresh in the minds of those of Thomas' generation; they have either lived through it or learned it from their forebears. The massacres of Aboriginal people, for example, which commenced in the late nineteenth century continued until about 1925, a year before Thomas' birth. The killings were often the result of disputes over land and cattle. The newly introduced beasts polluted the fresh water sources on which Aboriginal people depended for their livelihoods, often resulting in depletion of native fauna and erosion of the soil. Furthermore, in the absence of native animals to be hunted for meat, cattle were considered a valuable substitute. Thus Aboriginal people found every reason to kill cattle, much to the anger of the cattle farmers.

The massacres have provided the subject for several series of paintings by Thomas. In his canvases the landscape is the witness of the atrocities, bearing the marks of history. The series of three paintings in the exhibition document a massacre at Texas Downs station. Thomas relates the episode where the owner of the station came across a group of Aboriginal people butchering some of his cattle at a place called Horseshoe Creek. He shot a number of people, the rest ran off to a camp at Mistake Creek (where another massacre occurred in 1915). One man escaped by hiding in the carcass of one of the cows (plate X). A woman who had little experience of white people or their machines found one bullet and gave it to the station-owner who cold-bloodedly shot her through the head (plate X).

Thomas' work also contextualises the history of colonialism within the ambit of the ancestral past; the environmental and social upheavals caused by agricultural development and mining are situated within an overarching ancestrally ordained system. Development may have scarred the land but in Thomas' view, the spiritual forces of the ancestral beings remain in the earth. In the 1960s the Australian government embarked on a plan to turn the eastern Kimberley into the market garden of the north west. The Ord River was dammed to create the vast Lake Argyle, which provided irrigation for fields of cotton crops and, later, tropical fruits and vegetables. People were removed from their ancestral lands and sacred sites were inundated. The dam site, however, is where a star fell to earth in the ancestral past or Narungani.

Yeah, that dam, Ord River dam, that's it there. Lake one there, water go in ... he got no corroboree [ceremony] for this one. Star bin [been] fall long time. Dreamtime y'know. Star bin fall here, Dreamtime. Big hole there. The water, lake, go right down. No corroboree because Kartiya [white people] bin made dam. But big story where star bin fall ... oh yeah, but [in] my drawing, water go in there, he go all the way water. Long time ago, but still a hole there. Lake, lake, Argyle lake.

In the 1970s, diamonds were discovered on Lissadell station - another place where Thomas had worked. This is a site of great religious importance where in the ancestral past an emu called Lundari carried a barramundi in its beak and dropped it to the ground. Thomas' Barramundi Dreaming 1989 (plate X), shows three hills in plan view. The central of these contains white dots representing the scales (or fat) of the fish. In the development of this diamond mine, the mine owners were made aware of the spiritual significance of the site. As a result they entered into direct negotiations with the traditional Aboriginal land owners and reached a mutually satisfactory agreement on the development of the mine with a share of profits going to the local community.

On a personal note, in 1995 Thomas visited the country of his birth, for the first time in 40 years; the arduous trip through the Great Sandy Desert to Gunawaggi provided Thomas with the inspiration to paint ancestral subjects connected with this country. Among these works is Night sky 1995, which takes an 'inverted' view of the constellations. The image is based on the bright shining moon and the stars of the Southern Cross reflected in the life-sustaining fresh water of a rock hole, close to Gunawaggi.

In indigenous cultural terms, the Kimberley is a composite of language groups, social systems, spiritual beliefs and artistic practices, compounded by the forced migrations of peoples both within the region and from adjacent areas. The social and cultural mixture is reflected in styles of painting and drawing with connections to the art of the desert peoples of the south and south east, and to that of the peoples around Wadeye to the east (see essay on Nym Bandak by Kim Barber).

Thomas' graphic style owes much to the traditions of the eastern Kimberley and the influence of desert. Shapes are described by lines of dots as found in body painting techniques both in the Kimberley and in the western deserts. The tactile nature of the painted surfaces, ranging from areas of wash to those of great visual texture, are also reminiscent of the effects of body painting and rock art. However, unlike most desert paintings which are usually composed of conventional sets of symbols, Thomas' imagery is more intuitive and free flowing.

So, what did Thomas recognise in Rothko's painting? The composition and even the combinations of colour are, on occasion, at least superficially similar to those in several of Thomas' works such as Lulumalulu at Mount House 1983 and Kulunbun Hill 1992. In contrast to Rothko's elimination of gesture, the surfaces of Thomas works retain the evidence of mark making. And whereas Rothko dispensed with line, in Thomas' work the line is essential. Perhaps Thomas reacted to the 'radical simplification' of imagery that is common to both artists' work, and the proportions of the divisions of the canvas, while apparently symmetrical in Rothko's work, are equally unpredictable. In each case, these elements add up to an expression of an 'immediate conviction of an enormous will'.

However, if Rothko's paintings mirror the human form, then Thomas' are firmly embedded in the landscape. And if Rothko's paintings encode a secret or personal narrative, then Thomas's abound with public narratives. One of Thomas' most enduring images is Roads meeting 1987 (plate X). Potentially an image of reconciliation, of the artist's belief that both black and white can live in harmony, the image of the black line symbolising a bitumen road crossing the red line of an ancestral path suggests an inescapable reality; the mixture of peoples sharing the same lands in the contemporary world. The need for artists to express the human condition may have moved Thomas to comment on 'that bugger' Rothko's painting, more so than the apparent formal similarities in his work.

Wally Caruana


La Biennale de Venezia, XLIV esposizione internazionale d'arte, (general catalogue), Italy: Edizioni Biennale, 1990.

O'Ferrall, Michael, Venice Biennale, Australian artists: Rover Thomas - Trevor Nickolls, Perth: Art Gallery of Western Australia, 1990.

Serota, Nicholas, et al, Mark Rothko, London: Tate Gallery Publishing, 1999.

Thomas, Rover, et al, Roads Cross: The paintings of Rover Thomas, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1994.