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Ray Thomas: Regenerating Culture

Moongan and Lit (meaning father and child in Gunnai language) is the title of a recent exhibition of artist Ray Thomas and his son Tirilli. The show at East Gippsland Art Gallery is dedicated to Tirilli’s older brother, Raymond Noel Lindsay Thomas, who died prematurely in 2017. It underlines the driving force of Thomas’ work – to address the critical need to pass knowledge on to younger Gunnai artists and kin.

Ray Thomas The Elder & the Apprentice Pyrography & acrylic on Jirrah (kangaroo skin) Image: Studio JOMO

The Elder & the Apprentice introduces us to the overriding theme and the master craftsmanship of this artist. He uses a pyrographic (burning) technique to execute detailed human and animal imagery on the inside of the pelt. Hierarchical in structure the composition encompasses an elder, a young boy hunting, lizards, kangaroos, snake and an emu with chicks. It is a display of Gunnai peoples’ traditions, fauna, designs and markings.

Delicate and soft, it is a totem that wraps around you. It gently draws the viewer into a warm place of cultural meaning and sacred significance.

Thomas is a warm and gentle man who personifies the regeneration of Gunai Kurnai culture in East Gippsland. He is descended from five tribal groups across Victoria and southern New South Wales, a product of the forced migration and subsequent intermarriage between his kin and other tribes incarcerated at the Lake Tyers Mission Station. Established in East Gippsland in 1861, it was the 'depositary' for the dispossessed survivors of the resistance to white settlement. It was an institutional bid to remove Aboriginal people from their land and to expunge Aboriginal language, culture and traditions.

Ray Thomas Barlajan the Platypus 67cm x 52cm

Ray Thomas, Bataluk the Lizard 67cm x 52cm

The complexity of his ancestry and their tragic history is remarkably counteracted in Thomas’ positive vision and drive for the future of his people. It is expressed in the intense color, vibrancy and super-realism of his work. His ability to pass on his superior technical skills to his son is in evidence in the quality of the woodwork that Tirilli has achieved so early in his development as an artist.

Together they honor their Gunnai ancestors using the traditional markings and patterns of the original Gunnai Maraaga (shields) sourced from the Melbourne Museum archives and now returned to country in the Krowathunkooloong Keeping Place, Bairnsdale, Victoria.

Ray Thomas Left: Bunjil Maaraga (shield) 36 x 90cm Right: Maaraga (shield),36 x 90cm

Tirilli Thomas, Broadface Gunnai Maaragas (shields), 20 x 52cm

A seminal work in the Ray Thomas story is Homage to Lin Onus. It harks back to his life in Melbourne and the influence of his friend and renowned artist, the late Lin Onus.

Ray Thomas, Homage to Lin Onus, Acrylic on canvas, 1200 x 90cm

Painted on a blank canvas that was gifted to him by the Onus family, Thomas executes this iconic tribute to his artistic mentor with deft technical prowess and touches of the playful super-reality and patterning reminiscent of Onus. In the past Thomas has been open to influences from both 'Western' Surrealism and wider Koorie cultural traditions. Onus once described it as "the Bowerbird style …. picking up bits and pieces, here and there."

Today Thomas is focused on the essence of tribal identity, traditional values and the self-determination of the Gunnai Kurnai people. He is part of a joint effort by descendants to recapture the "bits and pieces" of culture and traditions, almost entirely lost.

Ray Thomas Brolga in the Wetlands 67cm x 52cm Acrylic on Canvas

As Cultural Business Development Coordinator at the GunaiKurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation (GLaWAC) he is actively building a future for young Aboriginal artists. He is opening studios, exhibition spaces and a market for their work at the GLaWAC centre on the Princes Highway on the edge of the Colquhoun Regional Park Forest between Lakes Entrance and Bairnsdale. It is a dynamic centre rapidly emerging as a unique tourism destination.

Artist Ray Thomas Photo: Studio JOMO

He brings a deep understanding of his ancestry and traditions and recognition as an esteemed artist to this leadership role. Thomas is also proving to be skillful at bridging the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aborignal communities.

Ray Thomas Lidia Thorpe MP 2018 Acrylic on possum skin, 132 x 180cm

Lidia Thorpe MP was painted in 2018 for the Archibald Prize. Here Thomas pays homage to a prominent Aboriginal political leader and her great-great grandfather, Henry Thorpe, who was awarded the Military Medal for bravery defending his country in World War 1 on the battlefields of France, where he died and is buried. Great Uncle Henry was the brother of Thomas' grandmother Allie Connelly (nee Thorpe). The work demonstrates technical prowess as a portraitist but it also strengthens the bonds of kin. It sits well on the patchwork of traditional possum skins giving the work additional cultural authenticity.

It is a powerful statement of leadership and Indigenous pride.

Ray Thomas Echidna gouache and ink drawing on paper 24 x 28cm

The colorful drawings of Echidna, Fish, Stingray and Snake have a colorful freedom of style depicting fauna in their habitat. Deceptively simple on first impression they reveal a level of detail that is both rich in anatomical and habitat detail that dissects flat into symbolic patterns of meaning.

Ray Thomas Fish gouache and ink drawing on paper 24 x 28cm

Ray Thomas Stingray gouache and ink drawings on paper 24 x 28cm

There is a simple essence about these works that immerse us in the nature and powers of Echidna, Fish, Stingray and Snake.

Ray Thomas Snake gouache and ink drawing on paper 24 x 28cm

These intimate drawings are a full expression the ‘biophiliarts’ concept. They enhance that deep and innate connection between man and nature, culture and country. We sense that they inspire and guide the regeneration of an ancient and living culture.

Images: Lisa Roberts, East Gippsland Art Gallery

Words: Jo Moulton Studio JOMO

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