Thomas Ray Ahwang

Posted by Aboriginal Art Directory | 07.11.09

Gallery: Aboriginal Art & Craft Gallery
Dates: 14.11.09 : 14.12.10
Location: Shop 2, Drift, Williams Esplanade, Palm Cove, QLD 4879


At Pandanus Gallery, Palm Cove
Saturday, 14 November, 2009 from 2 – 5pm

Thomas is a Torres Straits Islander born in December, 1974. A precocious child, primary school did not satisfy his yearning and craving to learn, establishing a recurring pattern throughout his education years.

High levels of activity became a temporary substitute, expressed in basketball, swimming and recreational activities. However, by the time he entered high school Thomas was both frustrated by the lack of stimulus and bursting at the seams with creative energy.

A keen interest in various forms of art, film and documentary production and the natural world generally (especially the flora and fauna in the seas and rain forests) evolved alongside the need for release in sporting and recreational activity.

Overall, secondary education also did not satisfy Thomas’ needs. His hyper intelligence and energies led to imbalance in aspects of basic education and difficulties with those exercising discipline. During his teens, these circumstances contributed to Thomas experiencing homelessness for the first time, a pattern which would reappear.

Because of his unusual capabilities and drives, in Year 9 Thomas was sent to St Augustines’ boarding school in Cairns. Again, sport was the major release. Settling in was difficult and, no doubt perceptions of Thomas followed established patterns.

An example of the complexities involved was an important maths examination. Thomas had been rated the lowest performer in the fourth level (the lowest) in the subject but his results in the exam were those of a significantly higher achiever.

Apparently, an answer to one examination question was quoted verbatim from the study text and his result was questioned, implying cheating. Thomas was required to sit another examination forthwith, the results of which were even higher marks. His ranking leapt from the lowest of the low to the highest achiever in the second highest achiever level within the year.

Thomas graduated with the Higher School Certificate in 1991 on Thursday Island and pursued a number of varied career paths while trying to develop his artistic directions. These included starting the Aquatic Marine Resource Management Degree at UCQ, Townsville and a Legal Secretarial Studies opportunity in Perth, Western Australia. In 1996 he was offered enrolment at the University of Adelaide in Bachelor of Law but was thwarted by an experience not unfamiliar to many Indigenous young men of his age.

For three years from 1999, Thomas variously was a labourer, Mr Mom and research Assistant at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra involved in the repatriation to the Torres Straits of significant cultural artifacts and relics from the UK and Europe.

Over 2002 and 2003, Thomas enrolled in a ceramics course with TAFE on Thursday Island and expanded his interests and activities in film, documentary development and painting. Repeating the course enabled him regular access over this time to equipment that would otherwise be restricted.

In 2006, he participated in the Moa Art Collective, specialising in painting. Associating and rubbing shoulders with Billy Missi at the Collective was another experience in Thomas’ evolution as a unique artist.

In 2007, Thomas was invited to enrol in the Bachelor of Printing Degree at Victoria College of the Arts in Melbourne. He was one of 15 selected from a national pool of 600 applicants.

In 2009, Thomas applied for and was granted deferral in his Degree studies due to intermittent problems in funding accommodation and the basics of living. In this situation, he developed his artworks as a source of income at the expense of studying academic components in the degree. Between 2007 and 2009, Thomas sold a number of works in order to survive, and as could be expected in the circumstances at prices well below their true value.

In September 2009, he returned to Cairns to establish a body of work for his first showing at Pandanus Aboriginal Art Gallery, Palm Cove on Saturday, 14 November, 2009.


Technique in this exciting new work is immediately striking in the range of colour and carved forms suggesting relief sculpture. It surprises on first sight as a unique form of artistic expression that combines painting, printmaking and wood carving in particular. The works suggest a poetic and philosophical component that the title of each work reinforces.

Another striking feature is subject matter. Namely, a rich mixture of Indigenous views of the natural world and the contrasting, sometimes destructive imperatives of modern, Western life. In a sense, it is an eloquent warning and simultaneous protest expressed by an Indigenous spirit seeking opportunity, growth, harmony and balance within the human race as a whole, especially as an Australian.

Thomas uses prepared ply wood to first paint using the vernacular of flora and fauna as central metaphor and progressively carves shapes consistent with his desired theme. This process is repeated sometimes over 3 or 4 layers, the end effects of which are palpably dynamic across the surface, which appears to comprise a depth in multiple layers.

Thomas’ colour palette is totally that of the natural world, laid down with both subtlety and intensity, producing a vibrant and evocative visual experience.

One of the reasons for the almost universal response to these magnificent and unique works may be Thomas’ challenging life experiences from which he and his art are evolving. Most striking in this regard - which is evident in the content of the works both big and small and especially in “Habitat” – is a lyrical gentleness devoid of both attack and anger that welcomes the viewer into a world of great possibilities that presently, are beyond acknowledgement by the modern world.

Yet the works are not prescriptive. Nor is any threat evident or implied, notwithstanding perceived challenges of ‘them and us’, ‘survival of the fittest’, ‘the rich get richer …’ and so on, to which one can imaging an Indigenous person responding negatively.

Overall, the visual, intellectual and emotional content of these works is little short of astounding -- the clear hallmarks of an emerging artistic talent of great potential.


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