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Special Report

Art of the East Kimberley

Rover Thomas
Ngarin Janu Country
Natural pigments in synthetic polymer resin
Art Gallery of South New Wales

Paddy Bedford
Untitled, 1999
© Paddy Bedford
Art Gallery of South New Wales


SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA.- • Art Gallery of New South Wales presents TRUE STORIES - Art of the East Kimberley on view through April 27, 2003. These works of art carry both spiritual significance and a vivid sense of East Kimberley country – an ancestral landscape of epic ranges etched in profile against endless blue skies. Hetti Perkins, Curator Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, Art Gallery of New South Wales.

True Stories: Art of the East Kimberley is an exhibition of Aboriginal art from the East Kimberley region of Western Australia featuring 80 paintings, sculptures and works on paper from circa 1976 to the present. 

Highlighting the work of over twenty East Kimberley artists, the exhibition features significant works by pioneering artists including Rover Thomas, Paddy Jaminji, George Mung Mung, Queenie McKenzie, Jack Britten and their contemporaries, Hector Jandany, Rusty Peters, Paddy Bedford and Madigan Thomas, who continue to be the driving force of this distinctive Australian art movement.

From the resinous earthy surfaces of the early 1980s boards to the brightly coloured ochres found in paintings of the present day, East Kimberley art continues to enthral with its symbiotic _expression of past and present. While the works are strikingly contemporary in their execution, the artists continue to be inspired, as Paddy Bedford says, by the “true stories … from the olden days”. 

Gija artists, whose country covers a vast area of the region, make a major contribution to True Stories. They are joined in the exhibition by artists from neighbouring Miriwoong, Gajirrawoong, Kukatja and Wangkajunga country. A suite of eleven Kurrirr Kurrirr boards that are often recognised as being the archetype of contemporary Gija painting will be exhibited. This group of works, painted mostly by senior Gija artist Paddy Jaminji in 1983, were created for ceremonial use under the instruction of Rover Thomas. 

True Stories features a core group of paintings by the late Kukatja-Wangkajunga artist Rover Thomas, acknowledging the groundbreaking role this distinguished artist played in bringing the emerging emerging art movement of the East Kimberley region to national and international attention. In 1990 Rover Thomas represented Australia along with fellow Aboriginal artist Trevor Nickolls at the Venice Biennale.

East Kimberley paintings operate on many levels underscored by the ancestral stories – the “true stories” – that explain the creation of the landscape, such as the scattering of the giant barramundi’s scales that became the Argyle diamonds. Intertwined with these stories are the layers of recent history – the massacres and dispersals of Aboriginal people, the pastoral era and mining exploration of their land. 

References to the past and present are often juxtaposed on the painted surface. In these works the ancient topography becomes synchronous with the landmarks of today where, for instance, an artist may depict the Great Northern Highway cutting a swathe through their homelands.

Hetti Perkins, Curator Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, Art Gallery of New South Wales

True Stories reveals the connections and influences that exist between artists and communities. The Art Gallery of New South Wales has sought guidance and permission from the artists and elders of the East Kimberley and has worked collaboratively with the Warmun Arts Centre in Turkey Creek, Jirrawun Arts of Juwurlinji/Kununurra, Waringarri Arts and Red Rock Art, both of Kununurra. A short film created in collaboration with the artists especially for the exhibition, presents the stories behind the paintings through interviews with the artists and visits to their country.

Eight artists from the East Kimberley communities and key contributors to the art movement will participate in a one day symposium on Saturday 11 January 2003 providing an unprecedented insight into the Aboriginal culture of the region. (see details below)

A comprehensive program of education activities run throughout the exhibition’s duration and includes floor talks, a film programme, workshops and performance.

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