Rover Thomas (Joolama)

<strong>Rover Thomas (Joolama)</strong><br/>Born c.1926, near Gunawaggi (Well 33) on the Canning Stock Route, Great Sandy Desert, Western Australia; died 1998<br/>Kukatja/Wangkajunga language speaker<br/><br/><i>Tokyo Crossroads</i> 1996<br/> Plate created 1995; editioned 1996-7<br/>Four-colour etching, sugarlift with aquatint, on Arches Vellin 300 gsm; zinc plate; re-aquatinted in black ink and reprinted in 1997 by Basil Hall as Crossroads (Millenium Portfolio), edn of 99 [D/97/113] Impression WP (workshop proof); edition of 20 [PM36]; signed l.r. <br/>49.5 x 49 cm [image]; 80 x 60 cm [paper]<br/>Collaborator/printer: Leon Stainer<br/>Charles Darwin University Art Collection – NTU318 <br/>Image © the artist's estate and courtesy Warmun Art Centre, WA <br/>Gifted by the artist and NTU Print Workshop (now Northern Editions Printmaking Studio), 1996

Between 1994 and 1996, a number of senior East Kimberley artists, including the internationally acclaimed Rover Thomas, created their first limited edition prints as artists-in-residence at the former Northern Territory University. 

The NTU Print Workshop (now Northern Editions Printmaking Studio), co-founded by CDU’s VET Lecturer in Remote Area Printmaking, Leon Stainer, along with Darwin artists Franck Gohier and George Watts, hosted the Kimberley artists’ first three forays into printmaking at the Art School’s new purpose-built facility, opened in 1993. 

Tokyo Crossroads 1996 was to become one of the iconic images of a pioneering era in Indigenous printmaking in North Australia, one characterised by sweeping, large format lithographs and gritty, deeply-bitten etchings – ground-breaking and unsurpassed in their vitality and truth to the medium.  The prints created during this time, donated to the University Art Collection with the artists’ approval, today rank amongst its most historically significant and aesthetically powerful works of art.

According to Stainer, the creative impetus for Tokyo Crossroads 1996 was a conversation he had with Thomas (along with Tom Redston of Waringarri Arts), about a recent exhibition of the artist’s paintings in Tokyo.  Thomas reminisced about his trip to Japan; his “strongest memory” of its capital city was the heavy traffic flow.  The four diagonal panels, originally colour-proofed in cadmium yellow, fire-engine red and blue – later rendered in ochre equivalents in the final print proof – are thought to represent flashing traffic lights.  Stainer also recalls that Thomas had initially intended to include an image of a vehicle in each triangular panel, but changed his mind “grumpily” when fellow artists Queenie Mackenzie, and Rosie and Lily Karadada teased him about his “poor motor car”.  The deeply-etched diagonal cross symbolises the city’s intersecting roadways – but also the artist’s own life paths and spiritual journeys “from the [Great Sandy] Desert to the East Kimberley as a stockman, and then all over the world as one of Australia’s foremost Aboriginal artists”.   

A “distinguished interpreter of his heritage and culture” and leader of the East Kimberley contemporary Aboriginal art movement in the 1980s, Thomas (along with Trevor Nickolls) was the first Indigenous Australian artist to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale in 1990.  Among his many career accomplishments, he was also awarded the John McCaughey Prize, and a selection of his paintings were also the subject of a landmark solo exhibition, aptly titled Roads Cross, held at the National Gallery of Australia in 1994.  The Warmun Community paid tribute to Thomas in 1998, staging a public performance of the Gurirr Gurirr Ceremony in his memory during the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award in Darwin.  Tokyo Crossroads 1996, emblematic of the distilled, linear and abstract aesthetic of east Kimberley painting and printmaking, also reaffirms Thomas’s own unique, transposed vision and sense of identity as a contemporary Australian artist at the cross-roads of the world.  His first words of introduction to Mary Macha, who promoted the nascent art movement in the region during the 1980s, were unequivocal in their meaning and intent: “Rover Thomas: I want to paint”. 

Anita Angel
Curator, Charles Darwin University Art Collection
25 March 2009

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