My old man [Rover] told me, 'We gotta do painting and tell our stories through there'. Might as well do it through arts so the whole world can hear us.
Clifford Brooks, Wiluna, 2006
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Rover Thomas. Photo: Kevin Kelly, about 1995.
Rover Thomas is one of Australia's most important artists. One of the first two Indigenous artists to represent Australia at the 1990 Venice Biennale, his paintings sparked a greater appreciation of Aboriginal art, both nationally and internationally.
Although he found fame late in life as an East Kimberley artist, Rover was a desert man, and the story of his life is interwoven with that of the Canning Stock Route. Rover was born in the 1920s and raised in the Country around the middle stretches of the stock route. After his parents died, he was picked up by a drover, Wally Dowling, and taken north to Billiluna and the Kimberley. He became a stockman himself, and eventually married and settled at Turkey Creek. There, in the 1970s, he pioneered the East Kimberley school of ochre painting on canvas.
Rover's desert family moved in other directions, settling in faraway missions and stations. Rover's brother Charlie moved south to Jigalong. His sister Nyuju Stumpy Brown moved to Fitzroy Crossing, and another sister, Kupi, walked west to La Grange mission (Bidyadanga) with her daughter, Miyapu Mary Meribida. Nyuju, Mary and Charlie's son, Clifford Brooks, all became artists in their own right.
In this way, the story of Rover Thomas is more than one man's remarkable life. His story reveals the personal impact that the stock route had on the historical movement of Aboriginal families, and the extraordinary artistic movements that followed in their tracks.
Canning Stock Route, 1989
Rover Thomas, ochre and natural binders on canvas, 105.5 x 60.5 cm
The spiral form in this painting is a waterhole on the Canning Stock Route where cattle stopped to drink on their way south to Wiluna. It is possibly Kunawarritji (Well 33), where the young Rover was picked up by drovers in the 1940s.
Holmes à Court Collection.
Canning Stock Route Country, 2007
Clifford Brooks, Birriliburu Artists, Tjukurba Gallery, ochre and binder on canvas, 147 x 91 cm
In 2007 Clifford travelled the entire Canning Stock Route, retracing the journey of his father's brother, Rover Thomas. Clifford paints his parents' Country along the middle stretches of the stock route, including the story of his father's search for Rover. Rover's story has become part of the Country that Clifford paints and, through the use of ochres, an inspiration for the way he paints it.
Blood on the Ground, Wells 33–41, 2007
Clifford Brooks, Birriliburu Artists, Tjukurba Gallery, acrylic on linen, 150.5 x 75.8 cm
Clifford's father, Charlie Brooks, was away travelling when Rover was taken by drovers. When Charlie returned and found Rover gone, he went looking for him. On this journey he encountered a horrible scene somewhere near Well 41:
[My father] went looking for his young brother Rover back in his home Country, but nothing, empty. No track. Only track was wagon wheel and yawarta [horse] and bullock, that's all He been get up on a sandhill and he been look down whitefella, massacre. They been get shot: [Aboriginal] men, women and children.
My Father Looking for his Brother, 2007
Clifford Brooks, Birriliburu Artists, Tjukurba Gallery, acrylic on linen,
75.7 x 51 cm
That old fella [Clifford's father, Charlie], he knew in his heart that his young brother was still alive. Every time in the camp fire he used to tell me ... 'My young brother is still alive somewhere up north'.
Clifford Brooks, Wiluna, 2007
Charlie Brooks and Rover Thomas were finally reunited in the 1980s, a lifetime later, after family recognised the artist's face in a newspaper.
You have got to come back to your Country. You should have come through the Canning Stock Route. You went away from here through the stock route and you should have come back here, through the stock route. I've been waiting for you.
Charlie Brooks to Rover Thomas, 1986
Lake Disappointment, 2007
Clifford Brooks, Birriliburu Artists, Tjukurba Gallery, acrylic on canvas
152 x 95 cm
Clifford's father set off in search of his brother Rover Thomas from Martilirri (Well 22), just north of Lake Disappointment. Clifford painted this canvas on his return from the 'return to Country' trip, having been given permission to paint this area by Jeffrey James, who, like Clifford's fathers, also belongs to Kunawarritji (Well 33).