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Freddie Ngarrmaliny Janama Timms (1946–2017)

by Suzanne Spunner

This article was published:

Black Rock Dreaming by Freddie Timms (1991)

Black Rock Dreaming by Freddie Timms (1991)

National Gallery of Victoria

Freddie Ngarrmaliny Janama Timms (1946–2017), stockman, artist, and broker, was born in 1946 at Ngarrmaliny (Police Hole) near Foal Creek, Bedford Downs station (Barangen), East Kimberley, Western Australia, son of Gija/Kija parents Harry and Leanna Timms. His Gija or bush name, Ngarrmaliny, referred to his conception site and his skin name was Janama. He was grown up by his parents at nearby Bow River station, where his uncle, Kamiliny Palmentarri, also known as Timmy Timms, was the lawman and head stockman. When Freddie was ten his father was taken to the Derby Leprosarium (Bungarun) and died soon after. The family moved to nearby Lissadell station (Thildoowan) where Ben Boundy, Freddie’s ‘old stepfather,’ taught him ‘everything’ (Timms 2015).

At twenty years of age, Timms left Lissadell and worked as stockman, fencer, and mechanic on various stations including Texas Downs (Gawoornben), returning to Lissadell in 1976 as head stockman. In 1985, with his second wife Beryline Mung, he moved to Warmun/Warrmarn (Turkey Creek) and briefly worked as a gardener at the adjacent Argyle diamond mine. The couple moved to Woorreranginy (Frog Hollow), a Warmun outstation established by Timms’s brother-in-law Jack Britten, in 1986, and Timms worked in the Community Development Employment Program. At Warmun and Woorreranginy, he was exposed to the painting activity of the nascent East Kimberley art movement associated with the Goorirr Goorirr (Kurrirr-Kurrirr/Gurrir Gurrir/Krill Krill/Kuril Kuril) ceremony dreamt by Rover Thomas. Timms danced in early performances and was close to ‘that Jaminji Mob’ (Jandany 2004)—the first painters of the Goorirr Goorirr: Paddy Jaminji/Jambanji, Hector Jandany, Magany/Makany George Mung Mung, and Thomas. He had worked with Thomas on Bow River and Texas Downs stations and Mung Mung was his father-in-law.

Waringarri Aboriginal Arts was established at Kununurra in 1985 and the art coordinator, Joel Smoker, regularly visited Woorreranginy to collect paintings from Thomas, Jaminji, Mung Mung, and later Jack Britten. Timms, now in his early forties and with a young family to support, was quick to see an opportunity and asked Smoker to bring him some paints. His first works on canvas board were completed in July 1989 and Smoker recognised ‘great potential’ (Smoker c. 1989). Timms debuted in the Waringarri group exhibition Turkey Creek: Recent Work (1989), held at Deutscher Gertrude Street, Melbourne, which signalled the emergence of the East Kimberley school. He exhibited two canvases alongside fifteen works by Thomas, seven by Mung Mung, ten by Britten, and one by Jaminji, who was going blind from trachoma. Timms was the last of the first group of Warmun painters and began his painting career just as the career of the first artist, Paddy Jaminji, was at its end.

Timms’s Country on Lissadell station was drowned to form Lake Argyle and its black soil became the dark velvety background of his distinctive, spacious, and austere paintings:

I think about the country where I was walking and camping, all the main waterholes all the camping area. I remember the places where I used to go mustering and I follow them up with my painting. (quoted in Kofod 2000, 716)

In 1991 Timms painted for Waringarri group shows in Sydney, Perth, and Canberra, and for the Melbourne art dealer Vivien Anderson. Through his work for Waringarri, he was selected for Images of Power: Aboriginal Art of the Kimberley, an exhibition held at the National Gallery of Victoria, and a major international touring exhibition, Aratjara: Art of the First Australians, in 1993.

Outside Waringarri, Timms began painting for Kimberley Art, a Melbourne-based gallery, and in 1994 held his first solo exhibition at Kimberley Art’s Flinders Lane Gallery, his work travelling to Chicago and Paris. In 1995 he showed at William Mora Gallery, Melbourne, in a Waringarri group show. That year Kimberley Art brought him to Victoria to paint with and support an ailing Rover Thomas during a painting camp directed by Neil McLeod that would become a source of controversy due to the high number of works later attributed to Thomas and purportedly painted there.

While in Melbourne in 1996 Timms met the artist and gallerist Tony Oliver and confided his frustration at being paid a ‘pittance’ (quoted in Sprague 2020, 25). As well as encouraging Timms to experiment with acrylic paint in primary colours, Oliver undertook to find him a better and more transparent arrangement and introduced him to the doyen of Sydney gallerists, Frank Watters. Watters Gallery agreed to consign Timms’s work on commission and to treat Timms the same as any other contemporary Australian artist. After two solo exhibitions in 1997 and 1999 at Watters Gallery, Timms and Watters parted on good terms. Timms stated:

It doesn’t matter where you go—Fitzroy Crossing, Derby, Broome—all those Aboriginal artists, they don’t get much money … They don’t know how much their painting is worth, but I found out. (quoted in Sprague 2020, 56)

Timms invited Oliver to the Kimberley where he met other Gija artists, and a group began painting together at Rugan (Crocodile Hole) and Joowoorlinji (Bow River). The two men promulgated a plan—a dream—to set up an independent art centre free of the exploitation Timms had experienced in Melbourne and at Warmun from entities who set up de facto art centres in the community. Timms was elected chairman when Jirrawun (Aboriginal Art) Aboriginal Corporation commenced in September 1998 under the guidance of his uncle, Timmy Timms. Jirrawun began a great phase of creativity and empowerment for Gija artists. Timms’s painting Blackfella- Whitefella (1999), an embodied sociogram, depicted his unvarnished view of where the blackfella (himself) stood: at the bottom of the pile. It revealed Timms as one of few remote Aboriginal artists using his art for political commentary.

Timms’s grandmother had regaled him with stories of her exploits with Major (c. 1888–1908), a Wagiman man whose resistance efforts in the Mistake Creek area earned him the label ‘bushranger,’ and Oliver had introduced him to the work of Sir Sidney Nolan, leading Timms to create his own Ned Kelly series starring Major in the late 1990s. Later he painted a nine-metre-long, six-panel work about Lissadell station, Blackfella Creek, that alluded to his own story and Major’s last stand:

White people should know what they did to Black people, shot them down, some believe it, some don’t …  I hope that people will learn to respect our culture not just walk past. (Fire Fire Burning Bright 2002, 3)

Jirrawun addressed the ‘hard stories’ (Timms 2015), the massacre history, of the East Kimberley, releasing ‘hungry ghosts’ (Langton 2002, 12) in a Joonba (a narrative-driven performance of song and dance incorporating painting, theatre, story, and history) entitled ‘Fire, Fire, Burning Bright’ in 2002 that was led by Timms’s aunt, Peggy Patrick. Two important exhibitions followed: Blood on the Spinifex (2002) at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne, and True Stories: Art of the East Kimberley (2003) at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. When writer and historian Keith Windshuttle claimed that the oral histories that informed the paintings were fabricated, Timms issued an invitation to come and visit the massacre sites: ‘He don’t know nothing about killing black people’ (Jopson 2002).

Timms’s career was booming. He featured in four Jirrawun group shows at Dallas Gold’s Raft Artspace in Darwin: the opening show in 2001, Four Men Four Paintings, in which Timms was the generational bridge; Jirrawun Jazz in 2003; and Jirrawun Colour and the Jirrawun swansong, Last Tango in Wyndham, in 2008. Timms also showed at Gould Galleries, Melbourne; Grant Pirrie and Sherman galleries, Sydney; and JGM Gallery, London. In 2007 his painting Jack Yard (2004) was both a double-page illustration and the cover of One Sun One Moon: Aboriginal Art in Australia edited by Hetti Perkins and Margie West.

The proud and brilliant Jirrawun model inevitably proved brittle and imploded in 2010. Timms kept on painting for whoever and wherever he could. He painted with Red Rock Gallery in Kununurra, established by his old boss from Waringarri, Kevin Kelly. In 2015 he contributed to the combined art centres touring exhibition In the Saddle—On the Wall, which celebrated the role of Aboriginal people in the Kimberley cattle industry.

Dubbed ‘Raging Bull’ and characterised as ‘a man of few words and long silences’ (Rothwell 2013, 120), Timms was formidable, seeing off both humbuggers and carpetbaggers. Invariably the first to seize a new opportunity, he was also the first to detach himself and warn others whenever he smelt exploitation. He fought for a fair go for all Aboriginal artists, speaking out at Garma in 2003 and serving on the executive of the Association for Northern Kimberley Aboriginal Artists (2005, 2009–10). An innovator, he was up for trying new subjects and forging cross-cultural relationships, yet he never changed his signature style—finely wrought cartography, aerial vastness, and cryptic notation—throughout his thirty-year painting career, even under what must have been, at times, powerful influences. He remained his own man and never stopped painting his beloved country. His health broken by alcohol abuse, he died of pancreatitis in March 2017 at Halls Creek. His wife, Beryline Mung, a Gija language teacher and painter for Warmun Art Centre, survived him.

In 2018 Gold curated Mr Timms, a posthumous solo exhibition in Sydney, and in 2020, Timms, along with Oliver and Paddy Bedford, was the subject of Quentin Sprague’s, The Stranger Artist: Life at the Edge of Kimberley Painting, which won the 2021 Prime Minister’s literary award for non-fiction. Two solo exhibitions, Freddie Timms: Drawing the Line (2022) and Ngaarrmaliny: Visionary Artist and Gija Leader Paints His Country and History (2023) at Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney, were drawn from the estate and featured new essays by Arnaud Morvan and Marcia Langton honouring Timms’s life and legacy.

 

Suzanne Spunner is of Anglo and Irish descent and grew up on Boonwurrung Country.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Fire Fire Burning Bright: marnem, marnem dililib benuwarrnji. Program. Melbourne: Melbourne Festival and the Neminuwarlin Performance Group in partnership with Jirrawun Aboriginal Arts, 2002
  • Jandany, Hector. Hector Jandany. Warmun, WA: Warmun Art Centre, 2004
  • Jopson, Debra. ‘Landscapes in Blood.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 14 December 2002. Accessed 22 February 2022. https://www.smh.com.au/national/landscapes-in-blood-20021214-gdfysp.html. Copy held on IADB file
  • Kofod, Frances. ‘Freddie Timms.’ In The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture, edited by Sylvia Kleinert and Margo Neale, 715–16. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2000
  • Kofod, Frances, Eileen Bray, Rusty Peters, Joe Blythe, and Anna Crane. Gija Dictionary. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2022
  • Langton, Marcia. ‘Hungry Ghosts: Landscape and Memory.’ In Blood on the Spinifex, 12–15. Melbourne: Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, 2002. Exhibition catalogue
  • Rothwell, Nicolas. Belomor. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2013
  • Smoker, Joel. ‘Freddie Timms.’ Typescript created for Waringarri group exhibition, Turkey Creek: Recent Work, c. 1989. Copy held on IADB file
  • Sprague, Quentin. The Stranger Artist: Life at the Edge of Kimberley Painting. Richmond, Vic.: Hardie Grant Books, 2020
  • Spunner, Suzanne. ‘Mr Timms: A Man for All Seasons.’ Catalogue essay commissioned by Raft Artspace, 2018
  • Spunner, Suzanne. ‘Vindicating Rover Thomas.’ PhD thesis, University of Melbourne, 2012
  • Timms, Freddie. ‘Black Soil.’ Interview, ABC Open, 2015. Accessed 11 July 2022. https://vimeo.com/91580761

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Suzanne Spunner, 'Timms, Freddie Ngarrmaliny Janama (1946–2017)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/timms-freddie-ngarrmaliny-janama-32001/text39487, published online 2023, accessed online 15 April 2024.

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Black Rock Dreaming by Freddie Timms (1991)

Black Rock Dreaming by Freddie Timms (1991)

National Gallery of Victoria

Life Summary [details]

Birth

1946
Kimberley, Western Australia, Australia

Death

March, 2017 (aged ~ 71)
Halls Creek, Western Australia, Australia

Cause of Death

pancreatitis

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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