Dick (Goobalatheldin) Roughsey
Dick (Goobalatheldin) Roughsey
1924 - 1985
Dick Roughsey, a member of the Lardil people, was born on Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria. His tribal name, Goobalathaldin means rough seas, hence the English derivative. During his early years with his family and friends, he explored the shorelines listening to the Dreaming stories and learning how to hunt and gather the once plentiful bush foods. He attended the mission school, learning how to read and write and then found employment, first on cattle-stations and later as a deckhand on the area supply boat Cora. While making deliveries to the different missions and Aboriginal communities, Roughsey would seek out the bark painters, sitting with them to watch them paint and listen to their stories. His first attempts at painting followed the style of Albert Namatjira who at the time was gaining public recognition. A pivotal meeting with the airline pilot and artist Percy Tresize galvanized Roughsey’s wish to become an artist. ‘Paint what you know yourself,’ Tresize told him, encouraging Roughsey to embark on painting as a professional career and also to rely on his own sources of inspiration. Tresize brought supplies of suitable bark and ochres to Roughsey who began painting the stories of his own tradition. Soon after, his first exhibition in Cairns was highly successful, generating great enthusiasm among both artists and audiences. Later, Tresize also instructed Roughsey in the use of European art materials and techniques, which provided the basis for the illustration of the many children’s books that they would work on together. Their close friendship and art-writing collaboration lasted until Roughsey’s death in 1985. Tresize described Roughsey as endlessly fascinated by art, ‘he worked at it fourteen hours a day and seven days a week‘ (1993: 173). He became a leading Aboriginal artist, exhibiting in Australia’s major cities and, in 1973, became the inaugural chairman of the Aboriginal Arts Board, travelling widely in Australia and overseas to promote the preservation and perpetuation of Aboriginal art. Roughsey stressed how important it was for Indigenous Australians to tap into their rich cultural identity at a time when political control was only beginning to be regained. Recognizing the loss of their lands and lifestyle had left many living on very meagre resources in depressed conditions, he envisioned the way art could provide a means of income as well as cultural and spiritual regeneration. His quick-witted intelligence had facilitated his own successful mediation between Aboriginal and European culture and he sought unfailingly to extend that opportunity to others. Tresize recalled that he could recite Shakespeare and other English poets (learned from the Scottish missionaries) or perform a mesmerizing traditional song and dance for friends and visitors. Roughsey regularly returned to Mornington Island where his wife Elsie and their children lived. He would work on a new series of paintings and instruct his children, some of who followed in his artistic footsteps. In 1978 he was awarded an OBE for his many cultural contributions. Many Australian schoolchildren were first introduced to Aboriginal mythology through Roughsey’s award winning children’s books. The Rainbow Serpent became established in the national psyche as an Australian creation myth. It was a Dreaming of special meaning to Roughsey because it was on his homeland island that the huge serpent came to rest after it had finished creating the land, seas and mountains. In Moon and Rainbow 1971 Roughsey told the story of his early life and his early fascination for art and myth. The book provides a unique insight into less known aspects of Australian history and inspired others, including Elsie his wife, to write. Roughsey accompanied Tresize on many expeditions in the Cape York Peninsula, playing a crucial role in the documentation and study of Quinkan rock painting and meeting with many tribal elders. This eventually led to the declaration of the Quinkan Reserves and the return of these lands to their Aboriginal owners. Suddenly taken ill at the end of one of these study adventures, Roughsey returned to Mornington Island to ‘sing himself better’. Sadly, after a period of illness, he passed away. Roughsey’s ‘foot in both worlds’ was reflected in his painting. He could succinctly illustrate the narratives of Aboriginal life and myth in a lyrical European painting style but also skilfully express the dynamic patterns and figurative motifs that characterise the ancient painting traditions of Queensland’s far north. His tireless efforts to encourage Indigenous Australians, and Indigenous artists in particular, followed in part upon the model of his enduring friendship with Tresize, who himself often said that it was he who was doing most of the learning. His description of Roughsey as a ‘key inspiration in his life’ could well be quietly echoed by many others who knew this determined yet gentle and endearing man.
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