As is the case for many famous, influential Aboriginal artists, Rover Thomas started to paint later in life. Though his career was relatively short, his artistic reach extended far, with his style now recognised as one of the founding styles of the Warmun community's distinctive artistic style.
His unique way of painting was part of a collective to bring control back to the community through art, as well as promoting the language, culture, and literature of Gija people.
Born in 1926 near Gunawaggi, Thomas grew to be fully initiated in traditional lore and was greatly influenced in his art by stories, ceremonies, and the mythology of his totemic ancestry. He covered a great number of themes in his work, from the rapid changes occurring in Aboriginal life, the displacement of his people from their ancestral lands and subjugation, and the conflicts between white settlers and Aboriginal people that often ended in bloodshed and tragedy.
His exploration into art began in 1980 when working on the Kurirr-Kurirr ceremony, which was given to him in a dream after the sudden death of a relative. He created paintings on wooden boards that were used by participants in the ceremony. These paintings held the sacred symbols necessary for the ceremony to take place, and Thomas’ ceremonial images, dances, and songs paved the way for the expansion of the ceremony itself.
With traditional mythology and storytelling so essential to his work, Thomas created a style that presented the landscape of his art as both a physical location and a spiritual site. Considered an innovator, his style changed the way the art world viewed Aboriginal Art, redefining the framework in which it was conceptualised. As his style evolved, he took inspiration from his desert upbringing, creating pieces which give a map-like, aerial perspective of the land, littered with symbolic images.
Thomas’ early paintings were created with pigments he sourced himself from the land surrounding him, giving his works a textured, sheeny finish. His early works exhibited instability due to these pigments, which often lifted from the surface and prevented proper adhesion. His introduction to new, water-soluble pigments changed his work, creating a stable base for the natural, earthy ochres and matt finish he desired.
Deceptively simple yet powerful, Thomas’ works brought a modernist, abstract style to Australian Aboriginal Art. His love of his land, his people, and painting pushed him to create. The universal appeal of his artwork brought him into the spotlight, spawning a new style of Aboriginal Art to be admired and revered by generations to come.