Billy Joongarra Thomas (c.1920 – 2012) began painting for Waringarri Arts in Kununurra in 1995. He was already in his seventies and like his friend and fellow artist Rover Thomas had spent his youthful years droving cattle on the Canning Stock Route, deep in the remote desert regions of Western Australia. He knew his country intimately and never ceased his ceremonial immersion and involvement within it. Right up until his final years, he continued to spend long periods ‘out bush’ before coming in to Billiluna or Kununurra again to paint. He was revered as a senior lawman and healer, custodian of secret initiation rites and ceremonial songlines. By the time he died in his 90s, peacefully, in the aged care facility at Fitzroy Crossing, he had participated in major exhibitions that brought the Kimberley tradition and history to the world. His paintings are held in state and private collections worldwide, still commanding high prices as part of a treasured and important indigenous legacy.
Born near Billiluna, the southern end of the Canning Stock Route, Billy inevitably became caught up in the repercussions of this huge well-sinking and cattle-moving project through the Great Sandy and Gibson deserts, which was nearing completion at his birth. The traditional nomadic lifestyle of his Wangkajunga people, like all the desert tribes of this vast inland area, was disrupted and their sensitive ecological balance with their ancient homelands destroyed forever. Alongside other young Aboriginal men, Billy began droving cattle through the northern regions and tapping into a great cultural interchange that in some respects was the only positive aspect of what became known as the ‘wild time’. As later histories have laid bare, brutal treatment from white settlers saw the widespread killing, dislocation and dispossession of the desert dwellers. During this time, their traditional network of ceremonial songlines and shared sacred sites became a source of social interchange and spiritual support, directly feeding into the evolution of today’s vital Kimberley art movement.
From the mid 1980s, contemporary artworks from the Kimberley were shown in Australia’s state galleries to an appreciative public audience, and recognisable personal styles emerged. The decade ended with the first Aboriginal artists (Rover Thomas and urban artist Trevor Nickolls) to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale. Some time later, around 1995, Billy Thomas walked into Waringarri Arts to ask the manager, Kevin Kelly, for art materials and was soon rewarded with sell out shows himself. His unique, gritty ochres, with their palpable sense of earthy authenticity, employed traditional desert iconography to depict country through the lens of its ancestral associations. His cultural knowledge was formidable, but he would dot over and scrape back his mark making in order to ensure that secret, sacred aspects were veiled from general view. This gave a distinctive lightness to his work, reflected in his colour choices of much white and light grey, dusky pinks and yellow-brown ochres.
Billy’s totem was the black snake . Its sinewy swirls thread through his own Dreamtime landscapes, connecting the underground waterholes that are the vital sites of replenishment and ceremony. Waarla is a huge mudflat in the Great Sandy Desert that becomes a vast lake after rain. It is a historic meeting place for diverse desert rites that Billy maintained and taught to young initiates. His connection to the land was inextricably woven into his art. Billy’s fluidity of drawing became more accentuated in his later works. Gestural brushstrokes carry sumptuous white across the daubed and layered surface - the earthy being supplanted by the atmospheric. Billy stopped painting in 2005 but not before tutoring his son, Lloyd Quilla. His seminal works are likley to provide foundational patterns for a future generation of artists.
Author: Sophie Pierce
2004 - Colour Power - Aboriginal Art Post 1984, National Gallery of Victoria Federation Square, Melbourne; EXPLAINED, A closer look at Aboriginal art, Aboriginal Art Museum, Utrecht, The Netherlands.
2002 - An Artists Survey, Balgo Hills, at Hogarth Galleries, Paddington.
2001 - Dixieme Biennale Internationale de la Gravure, - Arts d'Australie • Stephane Jacob / Sarcelles; Australie,Visages d’un continent, Arts d'Australie • Stephane Jacob / Galerie Visages de l'Art, Marly-le-Roi.
2000 - Arts d’Australie, Arts d'Australie • Stephane Jacob / Espace Mezzo - Avenue des Champs-Elysees, Paris; Accents Australiens, Arts d'Australie • Stephane Jacob / Espace Adamski Designs, Paris.
1999 - Australie – Art, Arts d'Australie • Stephane Jacob / J.L. Amsler - Bastille, Paris.
1998 - Le Temps du Rêve, Arts d'Australie • Stephane Jacob / Bibliothèque municipale, Le Perreux-sur-Marne; Propositions Australiennes, Arts d'Australie • Stephane Jacob / galerie Luc Queyrel, Paris.
Ryan, Judith (editor), Colour Power - Aboriginal Art Post 1984, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2004 (C).
While living at the small settlement of Billiluna, Billy Thomas began painting the odd acrylic work on canvas for Warlayirti Artists at Balgo Hills in the mid 1990s. Soon after, however, on a journey into Kununurra, he met Kevin Kelly, the manager of Warringarri Arts. From this time onward his preferred medium was earth pigment (natural ochre collected from the region). When Kevin Kelly left the 'official' art centre to establish his own Red Rock Arts in Kununurra Billy followed. His most important works and the exhibitions they featured in date from the beginning of their friendship. His works first appeared at public auction in1999 and since then over 100 paintings have been up for sale. However, these results are dominated by small early works that have depressed his average price and success rate.
Prior to 2018, Kangaroo and Spear Dreaming, 2001, had held his record since 2007. The painting measured just 90 x 120 cm, yet achieved $30,000 including buyer's premium against a presale estimate of $20,000-30,000, in Sotheby's, Important Aboriginal Art sale held in Melbourne during July that year.
A much larger spectacular painting, Gunambalayi Travels of the Black Snake, 1998, was expected to do far better when Mossgreen advertised the sale of the Ross & Rona Clarke Collection in Brisbane, in September 2012. Mossgreen had hoped to achieve at least $30,000 and possibly as much as $50,000. It just fell short of the previous record at $29,280, even though it was considerably larger at 150 x 180 cms.
Though his best result was only $10,800, 2015 was a wonderful year for Thomas. Nine works were offered for sale and every single one sold. By the end of the year his average price stood at $6,799. Until 2018, 19 works have sold for more than this of which 12 had sold for more than $10,000, and of the 25 works offered for sale between 2013 and the end of 2017, all but 2 found a buyer, an indication that whenever one of his works comes up for sale it is hotly contested, especially if it demonstrates that spare earthy pale white aesthetic so prized by collectors.
Sothebys included three excellent examples of Thomas's work in its London Aboriginal Art sale. Gunambalayi - Travels of the Black Snake set a new reord price for the artist at $39,877 and Kangaroo and Spear Dreaming sold for $33,231 establishing his second highest record to date. Another Untitled work sold for $28,800, his 5th highest price ever. Overall 71 works have sold of 115 offered since they first appreared at auction in 1999. A stronger indicator of their success however is his sales since 2014. No less than 24 sold of 27 offered during the last 3 years is the best indicator that the finest works by this artist are considered to be highly desirable and worthy of the finest collections.