Wangkatjunga language. Born c.192O. Died 2O12.
Billy Joongoora Thomas witnessed the imposition of the pastoral industry onto the traditional lifestyle of his Wangkatjunga people. Born around 192O in the bush, south of Billiluna Station in the Great Sandy Desert of Northern Western Australia, he recalled his first encounter with Europeans, when still a small child, a stockman approached him offering food. As cattle stations encroached on their ancestral estates, Thomas and his peers were indentured into the pastoral industry. Thomas prospered as a stockman, leading cattle along the newly minted Canning Stock Route. Later, he became a police tracker, a dangerous occupation that saw him shot in the leg during an exchange between police and a fugitive. While a stockman, Thomas worked alongside Rover Thomas, the great progenitor of East Kimberley painting in the 198Os. But it was not until 1995 that Billy Thomas presented himself to the Waringarri Aboriginal Arts center in Kununurra with the desire to start painting. Working in thick, impasto skeins of ochre, Thomas’ works married the austerity of East Kimberley painting, with the vibrant, winding networks of desert art. He embraced the materiality of his medium, producing thickly encrusted paintings that presented the physical reality of his country while alluding to its spiritual underpinnings. At their most poetic, the substance of the earth is left to speak for itself: blinding fields of white ochre, forcing the viewer to strain at the frontier of perspicacity to apprehend the subtle variations of a country coming into being. This is the poiesis of Dreaming, forming all things out of the shapeless void. Billy Thomas was a finalist in the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards every year from 1996–2OOO. His works are represented in the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of New South Wales. In 2O12, he was included in the exhibition Ancestral Modern at the Seattle Art Museum.