When I put up this photo of me at Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia standing next to Rover Thomas’s “Cyclone Tracy” on my Facebook page, I wrote that if I could have any painting in the world, this is the one I would choose. What a response of perplexed and dismayed objection I received! The reaction reminded me of the kind of responses I used to get from some people about a Jackson Pollock or other abstract painting–from “you can have it” to “can I choose a different one?” While my statement may have been a bit of hyperbole–aesthetically, I probably would prefer an Emily Kngwarreye to gaze upon for the rest of my days, and it would be near sacrilege and certainly disrespectful to remove Rover’s landmark painting from its native land–for me, the work has such power as an unprecedented record of a historic artistic moment that I am always overcome with tingling emotion whenever I see it. Here’s what Wally Caruana, then Curator of Aboriginal Art at the National Gallery of Australia, wrote about it:
When he was a lad, Thomas was taken from his home in the Great Sandy Desert, north along the Canning Stock Route, to work on cattle stations in the eastern Kimberley, where he spent some 40 years as a stockman and fencer. However by the late 1960s and early 1970s, a number of social and cultural upheavals occurred across the Kimberley: cattle-station owners dismissed hundreds of Aboriginal workers who moved to the fringes of white townships where they established camps, and ceremonial life was on the wane. Then on Christmas Eve 1974, Cyclone Tracy destroyed Darwin. The city was regarded by Aboriginal people of the Kimberley as the centre of European culture and, as cyclones, rain and storms are usually associated with ancestral Rainbow Serpents, elders interpreted the event as the ancestors warning Aboriginal people to reinvigorate their cultural practices.
Consequently a number of ceremonies were performed for a lay public in an act of cultural affirmation. By 1975 Thomas had settled at Warmun and here he had a dream visitation by the spirit of an aunt who had died as a result of injuries sustained in a car crash on a road flooded by Cyclone Tracy. The woman was being flown to hospital in Perth but she died when the aeroplane was above Broome in the western Kimberley. From here her spirit travelled across the Kimberley, visiting sacred and historical sites along the way until she reached her home in the east where she witnessed the Rainbow Serpent destroying Darwin. The narrative became the basis for the Kurirr Kurirr ceremony that the spirit of Thomas’s aunt had revealed to him.
By tradition, Thomas did not paint any of the early boards carried by performers in the Kurirr Kurirr—this responsibility fell to his uncle, Paddy Jaminji, who was the first of the Kurirr Kurirr painters. Between them, these two artists were the leading figures in the establishment of the modern East Kimberley painting movement, which is now known worldwide.
The paintings made for the Kurirr Kurirr were usually composed of a few basic shapes, as their meanings would be elaborated in the ceremony. Paintings related to the narrative of the cyclone but not made for use in ceremony tend to be more complex: the original icon for Cyclone Tracy over Darwin approximates a simple bold U-shape; however Thomas’s large canvas, Cyclone Tracy 1991, painted separately to the ceremony, displays a further articulation of the shape of the cyclone and the winds carrying the dust and sand that feed into it.
This piece, then, was the result of Rover Thomas’s epiphany about the meaning of Cyclone Tracy to his people: that they needed to return to their traditions and ceremonies. In creating this work, Thomas, along with a few others, began an entire stylistic direction now associated with the Kimberley region’s Aboriginal groups. He went on to paint whole series of canvases delineating aspects of his land and its ceremonies. He was revered by his people, and became one of the leading figures in the creation of Aboriginal art as–to paraphrase the late Robert Hughes–the last great modern art movement.
My favorite story about Thomas involves my ANU colleague and grand man of Australian art history Sasha Grishin. One time he had the privilege to accompany Rover Thomas while he was given a tour of the NGA. The artist was by this time quite frail and in a wheelchair. When he came to Mark Rothko’s work, Thomas stopped and examined it for a while; then he said to Sasha, “that white fella paint like me, but he don’t know how to use black.”
I hope this helps people understand why Rover Thomas’s work, and especially his “Cyclone Tracy” speaks to me so strongly. It is the visual manifestation of a spiritual experience, with immense significance stemming from a devastating recent event in the lives of all Australians. Thomas’s intuitive expression of the disaster and its meaning for him and his people is, to my mind, simply magisterial .