A Ngardi tribesman, Tommy Skeen was born in his country near Yaka Yaka, c.1930, and grew up in the desert north of Lake McKay before moving to the mission at Balgo Hills and later working in the Kimberley cattle industry.
One of the founding painters at Balgo, his early works exhibited marked shifts in palette and an absence of the subdued ochre colours more commonly used by men at the time. While he employed the sacred spectrum of red, black, yellow and white to depict the traces of ancestral beings, these were rendered as vibrant colours juxtaposed with a range of others including lilac, blues and greens. This special colour sense can be seen clearly throughout his work as exampled by Parra Koora near Yakka Yakka in the Great Sandy Desert 1993 and Inargi Dreaming 1992.
Parra Koora 1993 depicts a sacred site connected with men’s initiation in which the prominent iconography is depicted in flat colour with boldly defined outlines. The ceremony taking place, and the inter-connected sites, leap from the canvas while the clap sticks, also representing a range of hills, and the U shaped cave where his father, grandfather and great grand father were entombed are visually emphasised by their containment within a blanket of white dotting, which sparkles like stars above the variegated coloured underlay. The interplay between flat colour and field of white dotting heightens the celebratory feel of this and other work by Tommy, in common with those of his wife Millie Skeen and indicates the close collaborative relationship they shared.
During their most productive and accomplished artistic period, 1990-1994, they commonly painted together, and alongside one another. At that time many important artistic couples collaborated such as Johnny Mosquito and Muntja, Lucy Yukenbarri and Helicopter Tjunurrayi, and Wimmitji Tjapangarti and Eubena Nampitjin. With the empowerment of these and other important culture women, who associated bright colour with health, well being and allure, Balgo art gained renown for its new found freedom of expression that manifested as a bold and assertive art style. Balgo artists also equated the bright luminosity that the highly charged colours imparted to their paintings with the power of the ancestral beings and the sacred country they created. It is the carnival atmosphere of vibrant colour, errupting upon Tommy Skeen’s canvases as well as their compositional arrangement that define his artistic brilliance.
Tommy’s work did not conform to the characteristically formal, linear quality of the predominantly Kukatja men’s art in Balgo Hills at the time. Rather than conceptually composing the formal design elements, his paintings were created organically through a haptic process. As if painted in a reverie they mapped the richly eventful ancestral journeys across the land and the sacred sites in a way that still seems to contain their spiritual essence. Tommy’s Ingari Dreaming 1992, used as the cover image for Wirrimanu, the first major book on Balgo Hills art, written by James Cowan, reflects the country of his conception. There are a number of representational motifs in the work. The U shapes at the bottom symbolize women sitting. The large circle at the top of the painting represents a lake. The trace of his father is seen in a few footprints on the top right. However, this is the minimal literal translation, a shallow skin atop a transcendent reality that the work alludes to. Tommy’s feat of composition is driven by the complexity of all he portrays. Alongside the representational motifs is the cosmological significance of the place of conception. Conception is said to occur where the mother first feels the symptoms of pregnancy and it is here that the unborn foetus is animated by the spirit of a totemic ancestor, whether water, possum, goanna, digging stick, old man.
Tommy Skeen was never a prolific artist. At the time he painted, the art centre at Balgo Hills had never assembled solo exhibitions for any of their artists. However, his works were exhibited in good galleries including Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi in Melbourne, Coo-ee Aboriginal Art and the Hogarth Galleries in Sydney and, the now defunct, Dreamtime Gallery on the Gold Coast, all of which represented Warlayirti artists and placed Tommy’s work in good collections in Australia and overseas. His peek period was extremely brief with his very finest works produced between 1990 and 1994. By the time James Cowan encouraged men and women to paint on their own, Tommy’s dexterity was failing. His late career works, while being powerfully distinctive, do not have the finesse of those he created when in the peak of health in collaboration with Millie. Tommy Skeen’s finest works manage to capture, better than almost any other, the mysterious essence and beauty of the numinous landscape that had completely possessed him throughout his life. Although his painting career was brief, his works continue to appeal on a number of aesthetic and sensory levels and who could ever ask for more than that.