Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Faculty of Creative Arts


This thesis examines the paintings of Kukatja/Wangkajunga artist and stockman Rover Thomas, who was born 1926 at Yalda Soak near Well 33 on the Canning Stock Route in Western Australia and died in Warmun on 12 April 1998.

The basic contention underpinning my study is that the creation of art throughout the East Kimberley region since the 1970s can be seen as a response to the dramatic social changes that occurred since colonisation which caused dislocation and dispossession throughout Aboriginal communities.

After a life as a stockman on various cattle stations in the East Kimberley, away from his own country of Kukatja/Wangkajunga people, Thomas commenced his innovative painting in the early 1980s, whilst living at the community of mainly Gija and Miriwoong people at Warmun or, as it was then called, Turkey Creek. By exploring Thomas’s life, in the upheaval of the late 20th century, the pathways that led to the establishment of the distinct East Kimberley art movement became clearer. Thomas’s boards and canvases with their individual style were fundamental to this art movement. I argue that Thomas’s hybrid style, which featured a reinvention of East Kimberley tradition, was drawn from aspects of regional rock painting and ceremonial practices, and was distinctive compared to the other regions of North Australia especially Arnhem Land, West Kimberley and the Western Desert. My research shows how Thomas moved across the wide terrain of the East Kimberley, drawing together different places aligned to his father’s and mother’s ancestry, presenting places, stories, topographical features in an aerial perspective with broad areas of colour enclosed by dotted outlining. His palette of earth colours was minimal.

The extraordinary originality of his paintings led to his representing Australia in the 1990 Venice Biennale. This thesis attempts to answer the question ‘What is a Rover Thomas painting’ through critical analysis of ten of his paintings drawn from the collections of Art Gallery of New South Wales and National Gallery of Australia. This study is not concerned with the mythology or the iconography Thomas used in his paintings but it is specifically focused on the stylistic analysis of his paintings. This study provides a detailed scrutiny of painting methods and techniques and establishes a fresh approach to all material aspects of his paintings: including pigment, its consistency and texture, brush strokes and dotting, and the trajectory of each work from its source in the Kimberley. This thesis demonstrates that Thomas’s paintings were an amalgamation of different cultural styles, which developed out of great social change, yet remained deeply embedded in the land.



Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in this thesis are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Wollongong.