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Roughsey, Dick (Goobalathaldin) (1920–1985)

by Paul Memmott

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Dick Roughsey (Goobalathaldin) (1920-1985), artist and writer, was born in 1920 on Mornington Island, Queensland, and named Goobalathaldin.  A member of the Lardil 'tribe', he was one of five brothers and grew up in an Aboriginal family clan, leading a traditional lifestyle.  His mother Kuthakin (later known as Minnie) was from the Lilumben or Eastern Lardil (Rock Cod people); his father Kiwarbija, meaning 'Rolling Sea' or 'Rough Sea', was also known as Kubulathaldin.  Their country was on the south-east (Larumben) side of Mornington Island and included the smaller Langunganji (Sydney) Island.

Aged about 8, Goobalathaldin was taken into the children’s dormitory at the Mornington Island Presbyterian Mission and given the name Dick.  Upon learning the meaning of Kiwarbija, the missionary, Rev. R. H. Wilson, gave Dick’s family the Anglicised surname of Roughsey.  Educated at the mission school until he was 13 or 14, Dick was sent to work as a stockman on southern Gulf of Carpentaria cattle stations.  He also went out bush, learning to hunt and fish in the traditional way.  On 20 September 1944 at the Presbyterian Church, Mornington Island, he married Elsie William.  They lived in a bark house in the mission village and Roughsey worked as a deckhand on board boats servicing Gulf settlements.  Always popular with his kin, he took on the kathin-kathin role of public jester.  He made boomerangs and didgeridoos and painted barks for sale to tourists.

In the 1960s Roughsey and his elder brother Lindsay (Burrud) initiated a style of bark painting depicting Lardil sacred histories on cross-hatched and pointillist backgrounds.  It was gradually adopted by many local artists living at the Mornington mission and became known as the Wellesley region art movement.  Roughsey became friendly with an airline pilot, Percy Trezise, who encouraged him in his bark painting and provided him with commercial art materials that helped him adopt a finer technique.  He developed a second style of Mornington Island art, depicting scenes of both mission and Lardil ways of life, for example, water-lily harvests and dugong feasts.  His paintings, often signed Goobalathaldin, were exhibited at Cairns, Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

Trezise took Roughsey on expeditions to central Cape York, where they sought out and recorded rock art and excavated campsites in caves.  Also interested in the Lardil people and their culture, Trezise arranged for a corroboree to be staged in a Cairns theatre in August 1964.  Twenty Lardil dancers and songmen performed and Roughsey described the audience response:  'the theatre was packed out for the whole week. How proud we Lardil men were . . . We were amazed to find the white people so interested in our culture'.  From 1970 a professional touring group, the Mornington Island Dancers, travelled interstate every year, giving concerts.

Roughsey wrote about the changing cultural circumstances of his life in Moon and Rainbow (1971), the first autobiography of a tribal Aboriginal Australian.  Elsie Roughsey also wrote her story, An Aboriginal Mother Tells of the Old and the New (1984).  Roughsey and Trezise used their knowledge of rock art on Cape York Peninsula, combined with their common interest in interpreting the ancient regional Aboriginal culture, to write and illustrate some ten popular children’s story books.  The division of labour between Roughsey and Trezise in most of these books is unclear, but two of the earliest were attributed solely to Roughsey:  The Giant Devil Dingo (1973) and The Rainbow Serpent (1974).  They contained some of his best figurative paintings, representing tribal lifestyles in monsoonal savannah landscapes juxtaposed with powerful Dreamtime creatures.  Roughsey cleverly fused certain southern Gulf cultural elements (his own Lardil) into the Cape York regional cultural repertoires of artefacts, mythic creatures, Indigenous names and other symbols.  In 1976 and 1979 he won 'Children’s Book of the Year' awards.

Founding chairman (1973-76) of the Australian Council for the Arts’s Aboriginal Arts Board, Roughsey served (1974-75) on the council of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.  In 1977 he addressed the World Wilderness Congress in Johannesburg, South Africa, making special reference to the cultural heritage of Cape York.  He was appointed OBE in 1978.  Although in his later years he suffered increasingly from eye disease, which affected the clarity of his painting, he never stopped working.  He died of cancer on 20 October 1985 at Mornington Island and was buried in the local cemetery.  His wife and their daughter and five of their six sons survived him.  His paintings are represented in many Australian and international collections.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Memmott & R. Horsman, A Changing Culture, 1991
  • P. Trezise, Dream Road, 1993
  • P. Memmott, 'Origins of the Contemporary Art Movement', in N. Evans et al, The Heart of Everything, 2008
  • Australian, 29 February 1980, p 8
  • Canberra Times, 7 November 1985, p 16

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Citation details

Paul Memmott, 'Roughsey, Dick (Goobalathaldin) (1920–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/roughsey-dick-goobalathaldin-14193/text25205, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 23 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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