Rover Julama Thomas was born in the year 1926 in an area of north-western Australia which the Aborigine people call ‘Walmatjarri-Kukaja’ country, which is situated south of the Kimberley (Brody, 1997). In actual fact Rover was born and raised on the famous Canning Stock Route, and his life was intertwined around the famous landmarks that represent this cattle stockman’spath – such as Halls Creek and Wiluna. Having been born and raised in the desert, it was natural that Rover would lead a life of a drover; herding the white man’s cattle in such an inhospitable countryside from the Kimberley coast to the eastern extremities of the Northern Territory. After working as a stock drover for a number of years, Rover moved his family to a place called Turkey Creek, which is situated in the Kimberley Ranges area. It was here, in 1975, that Rover first discovered his artistic talents by composing a series of Aboriginal traditional songs that recounted images of sacred ceremonial sites that he had recently dreamt about. A relative of Rover’s, who had heard, and was deeply moved by, his songs started to commence painting images of Rover’s songs on spare pieces of old painting boards and plywood.After seeing his relatives’ paintings, Rover himself started to paint, and by this time it was the early 1980s. After painting for some timeon old painting boards, debris left from old houses, old sections of Formica, panels retrieved from old decrepit walls, and wood from packing cases, Rover started to use canvas and this was the start of the considerable interest in him and his art work. As the interest in his work increased, so did his devotion to painting. His themes, whilst narrow at first, were broadened to express the countryside that he knew so well – the Canning Stock route and the Kimberley area, along with Aboriginal mythical events and history. Rover’s paintings eventually became formally known as the ‘East Kimberley style’.
Ernie Dingo was also born (1956) in rural Western Australia, at a remote Aboriginal commune called Bullardoo Station which is approximately 500 kilometres north of Perth. Ernie originates from the Yamatji people of the Murchison province of Western Australia, which is south of Geraldton near Port Hedland.Being part of a large, wholesome family was a blessing according to Ernie (McCallum 1998), “There was always laughter, dancing and singing when I was growing up, and along with my brothers and sisters we all became very close”(McCallum 1998). Ernie is the second child of nine in his family. It was while Ernie was enrolled and studying at Geraldton High School that he was first introduced to the arts and it was at school that he found his love, and passion, for dancing, acting in plays and musicals. He even tried his hand at Shakespeare. It was also at school that Ernie realised he had a passion, and talent, for playing basketball – he played in the local team and was considered one of the better performers in that team. On the advice of a team-mate, Ernie moved to Perth and he continued his passion for basketball and was eventually selected and played in the state league first division for the East Perth Eagles (McCallum 1998). But basketball wasn’t the reason for moving to Perth – it was to pursue his dream of becoming an actor and performing. Having enrolled and completed his acting classes, Ernie applied for and tried his hand at all sorts of acting endeavours, but found out to his disappointment that he was told that he ‘was just not suitable for the role/ part’ on numerous occasions (McCallum 1998). At the same time he began a professional career in the Middar Aboriginal Dance Theatre in 1978, but he received his first acting big break when he was cast in a role that was received with acclaim in Bruce Beresford’s The Fringe Dwellers. The film depicted the life of Aboriginals that live on the outside of white society, and Ernie’s performance received critical acclaim. Not long afterwards in the 1980s Ernie was cast in the mini-series about the Cowra Breakout which was the story of the biggest prison breakout in the world to date. This was his first foray into television and he has been on the small screen ever since then. A distinct contrast can be viewed between the early lives of both Ernie Dingo and Rover Thomas. Whilst both were born in rural Western Australia, to large families, Rover was quite content to pursue his work as a stockman drover and live in one of the harshest landscapes in Australia. It was only by chance that he became an artist and this only occurred well into his life too. By contrast Ernie was drawn to the arts from an early age and once at school he made a deliberate and premeditated move to live in the big city of Perth and pursue his dream of acting and performing.
As previously written, Rover only started painting on spare pieces ofplywood and board when he was well passed fifty years of age (Coppel2011, 94-97), and as a result he eventually found fame quite later on into his life. Despite the subsequent fame and fortune that he received, Rover was a desert man at heart and he was content to live and paint in the East Kimberley’s rather than move to Perth and present his works at art galleries and associated social functions. From 1975 until 1981 Rover painted solely on these original boards using colours based on earth shades. Rover was originally discovered by Mary Macha, who was then working for Aboriginal Arts Australia, and it was she who immediately recognised the immense quality of artwork that Rover had produced to date. Rover reluctantly agreed to sell a few of his initial art pieces to Macha on the proviso that she provide him with further boards with which to paint on. Shortly after this exchange, Macha resigned from Aboriginal Arts Australia to work as an independent art agent and consultant, and one of her first priorities was to convince Rover to come to Perth and continue his painting – which she successfully did by converting her garage into an art studio that Rover used to ply his trade. As an agent with influential industry contacts, Macha was able to, in time, provide Rover’s work the right exposure, to the right people, and thus his profile steadily grew over time as he sold more and more of his paintings (Coppel 2011, 94-97). Along with other Indigenous artists that she was representing at the time, she organised exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Western Australia and the National Gallery of Australia where Rover’s standing as an eminent Indigenous artist increased even further. What followed shortly was Rover’s prized selection to be one of Australia’s two representatives at the Venice Biennale in 1990. Rover’s national and international prominence was further enhanced when he was awarded the John McCaughey art prize, and up until his death in 1998, Rover established himself as one of Australia’s most important artists and his paintings evoked a greater appreciation of Aboriginal art.Rover had a natural gift by using black shapes and lines that characterised his Aboriginal art ad paintings. To produce a sense of depth in his work he used layers of semitransparent paint that eventually resulted in indigenous symbols of striking poise and position on the canvas (Taylor and Coleman 2011, 1519–1529). Rover’s style eventually became more fluid as compared to his earlier endeavours from the 1980s, and towards the latter part of his life and career he produced more sombre historical and political scenes depicting the mass murders of Aborigines by white cattle owners from yesteryear.The traditional Aboriginal earth colours of brown, black, yellowish brown,along with speckled white, all featured in Rover’s works – drawing thoughtful reactions from viewers and critiques alike. In many of his works the principal use of black conveyed a strong,expressive intensity that was astounding for first time viewers (Coppel 2011, 94-97). Art agents would purposely take note of first time dealers reviewing Rover’s works at the various galleries and exhibitions that were organised to demonstrate his work and almost all of the dealers experienced a spiritual experience viewing the ancient and timeless landscapes (Kalina 2007, 91-99). Rover was never one to conduct long and informative conversations about his art work, and art dealers and brokers quickly came to realise that this was not going to change. At one of his earliest exhibitions, when he was asked to explain the reasoning behind one of his most striking pieces at the time, Rover replied: “I am Rover Thomas, and I like to paint” (Taylor and Coleman 2011, 1519–1529). Contrast Rover’s reaction to conversations and making small talk about his own work with Ernie Dingo. Ernie has had a long and distinguished career as a presenter and actor in television and film, and therefore has been performing in the public’s eye for quite some time now. After commencing his film career in the 1980s, Ernie appeared frequently on screen throughout the 1990s. One of his major motion picture triumphs was being cast in a major supporting role in the international comedy hit Crocodile Dundee II, back in 1988. Other movie roles that he appeared in were in the 1989 comedy Capuccino, starred in the 1991 Wim Wenders film Until the End of the World. In 1993 he starred in Blackfellas and in 1996 he had the lead role in Dead Heart. After a period of time he featured mainly in television shows in various roles, but in 2010 he returned to the large screen with a role in the Aboriginal musical Bran. But whilst Ernie’s career on television and film has been successful, unfortunately his personal life had been mired by controversy off it. This is in complete contrast to Rover who shunned any controversy, discord or conflict – preferring instead to express his feelings and any frustrations he felt via his artwork. Only a few short years ago, Ernie said some contentious statements expressing his anger and frustration about the “Considerable hypocrisy when it comes to white people who lecture Aborigines about alcohol and alcohol consumption” (Blundell 2009). “The wide public need to know is, who are the people giving access to Aborigine people … who are the white people selling the alcohol? It is not black people,” Ernie said. “Indigenous people do not have a problem. The problem we have is that we cannot say ‘no’ to you blokes, to white people … ‘no’ is not a part of our cultural heritage or background.” “There is more prevalence of whites with alcohol and more white alcoholics than there are black people in this country, so please don’t come at us with restrictions and Aboriginal laws about alcohol.” “It upsets me considerably. I’m passionate about the fact that people talk – journalists talk – about Aboriginal people with our drinking problem. We don’t have a drinking problem at all.” “[The] Aboriginal drinking problem is white people selling to them” (Blundell 2009). Further controversy followed Ernie when the Western Australian Police Force opened an investigation into child abuse, and specifically a report of child abuse by Ernie Dingo. Allegedly Ernie had apparently cuffed and verbally harassed an 11-year old boy at a local Primary School – this action was followed by making further abusive comments about the same boy while speaking at a pre-arranged school assembly not long afterwards. After denying the claims as spurious, the police charges were eventually dropped but only after numerous mediation sessions were conducted and were eventually successful to resolve the issue between the two parties (Guest 2011). There have also been media reports about Ernie’s supposedly open marriage with his wife Sally, and alleged paternity suits have been made against Ernie, as a result of infidelity, resulting in the births of two children by two different mothers (Guest 2011). So we have contrasting Indigenous personalities with which to compare both Ernie and Rover. Throughout his career, Rover has continually shunned the limelight, was extremely introverted by nature, and was rather restrictive in discussions about all facets of his artwork. Yet Ernie is seen by the public to be gregarious in nature, sometimes outspoken, and controversially so, about his personal Indigenous beliefs. And he has had a few brushes with law authorities to date as well.
Whilst possessing contrasting personalities, both Ernie and Rover were active in assisting and teaching other Indigenous people to find and pursue their artistic talents. Later in his life, Rover helped to establish the East Kimberley School, where he encouraged both young and old Aborigine artists to paint. He used monies that he had earned from the sales of his paintings to assist with the running of the school (Nowra 1997, 58). Not only did Rover assist with the school, but he was celebrated as a cultural leader and a seminal figure for all Indigenous people in the Kimberley region. Shortly after his death in April 1998, Rover was awarded (posthumously) an honorary doctorate from the University of Western Australia (Nowra 1997, 52).Similarly Ernie is a supporter, both financially and spiritually, of The Foundation, which is a series of Indigenous health programs based in the Northern Territory, targeted to assist Indigenous people who have fallen on hard times.He has also promoted the Generation One “Hand Across Australia” which was a promotion for Indigenous equality (McCallum 1998).In recognition of his service to the performing arts, Ernie was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1990.
Indigenous artists have been very successful in their chosen fields, they have provided the necessary foundation by establishing Indigenous legacies in order to assist their own Aboriginal people, and they are both popular figures with both white and black people alike. The starkest difference that I have found by researching these two individuals was that Rover’s talents only came to prominence when he finished working as a cattle drover. Western Australian State government legislation introduced in 1968 (Brody 1997) resulted in large numbers of Aboriginal workers losing their jobs, and Rover was one of these made unemployed. Only by losing his job, and travelling to Turkey Creek, did he stumble upon painting and art – and only then after dreaming about ceremonial scenes and sites when asleep. In stark contrast Ernie actively and passionately pursued his artistic path, moving along distance away from his friends and family to study and train the arts in Perth in order to fulfil and realise his dreams of performing and acting. Regardless of the two different career paths both men have taken, which appear to be heavily influenced by fate, both have managed to become artistic leaders in their respective fields – which is a credit to the Aborigine race, their families, and ultimately themselves.
Brody, Anne Marie. 1997. Eleven Aboriginal artists. Sydney : Craftsman House, ISBN: 9057041316.
Blundell, Graeme. 2011. Heartbreaking tale of courage and tragedy. The Australian [Canberra, A.C.T] 12 May 2011: 19.
Coppel, Stephen. 2011. Out of Australia: Prints and Drawings from Sidney Nolan to Rover Thomas. Apollo. 174.589pp94-7.
Guest, Debbie. 2011. Dingo assault charge dropped. The Australian [Canberra, A.C.T] 19 Apr 2011: 7.
Kalina, Richard. 2007. The dream of aboriginal art: the author reflects on the visual richness and symbolic complexity of an art form that has come to occupy a significant place in the history of modernism. Art in America. 95.4 pp91-9
McCallum, Grant. 1998. Aussie stars. Tamworth, N.S.W. : Coolabah Publishing.
Nowra, Louis. 1997. Blackness in the art of Rover. Art and Australia. 35.1 pp51-58.
Taylor , Dominic, Coleman, Les. 2011. Price determinants of Aboriginal art, and its role as an alternative asset class. Journal of Banking & Finance – Vol35, Iss 6, pp 1519–29.