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Revel Ronald Cooper was born of Nyungar descent, probably in 1934, at Katanning, Western Australia. Cooper was one of six siblings; their mother died in 1940. As a young boy Revel and his sister Maude were declared wards of the state and placed in Carrolup Native Settlement (now known as Marribank), established in 1915 as a place of internment for Aborigines. The 'Carrolup School,’ as it became known, developed through the significant contribution made by Noel White who was appointed head teacher in 1945 and remained at Carrolup until its closure in 1951. White, together with his wife Lily, developed educational programs in art, music, dance and story telling to encourage the children’s imagination and creativity. Inspired by this interest and support, a number of children produced drawings, pastels and watercolours evocative of their Nyungar heritage: complex geometric designs, dramatic landscapes and animated figures engaged in dance. Cooper worked alongside a number other children many of whom went on to forge a career as an artist: Parnell Dempster, Reynold Hart, Milton Jackson, Ross Jones, Claude Kelly, Allan Kelly, Simpson, Greg and Goldie Kelly, Barry Loo, Cliff Ryder, Alma Toomath, A. Ugle, Primus Ugle and Vera Wallam.
The children’s art was widely exhibited and generated considerable interest, winning a number of awards in Australia and overseas. Following an initial invitation to exhibit at the Katanning Agricultural Show (1946) drawings and paintings by Carrolup children were exhibited at the Lord Forrest Centenary Exhibition in Perth (1947); Boans Ltd. department store, Perth (1947); Albany, WA (1948); Sydney (1948) and at a UNESCO sponsored seminar in Mysore, India (1949) (Stanton 1992: 29). The Carrolup School also attracted the attention of a visiting Englishwoman, Florence Rutter, and she arranged for a selection of work to tour Australia, New Zealand, Britain and the Netherlands. The 1952 publication by Mary Durack and Rutter Child Artists of the Australian Bush contributed to national and international recognition for the Carrolup School. Providing a detailed history of the Carrolup movement, photographs and documentary evidence and over fourty reproductions of children’s artwork, Child Artists of the Australian Bush went some way towards redressing assimilationist attitudes by drawing attention to the significance of children’s art for social cohesion and cultural maintenance.
The closure of Carrolup in 1951 thrust Cooper into a wider world where he experienced both isolation from his friends and the expectation of success imposed by assimilation. Cooper initially gained employment with J. Gibbney & Son Pty Ltd, a commercial art firm in Perth, before returning to the Katanning area where he worked as a farm labourer and as a railway fettler. Cooper’s struggles with alcoholism were already in evidence when, in November 1952, he was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. From the mid 1950s onwards Cooper lived 'on the road’, travelling extensively. In Victoria he worked for a brief period at Aboriginal Enterprises, the tourist outlet established in 1952 at Belgrave by political activist Bill Onus. A photograph from this period shows Cooper and Onus holding a boomerang made in the workshop and painted by designer Paula Kerry (1923-2008) in what she termed the 'Carrolup’ style (Kleinert 1997: 90). It has been acknowledged that Cooper was a formative influence on the young Lin Onus, the son of Bill Onus, who went on to achieve recognition as an artist (Onus 1990: 15; 1993: 290).
During the 1960s and 1970s Cooper painted prolifically. While he continued to paint the corroborees and landscapes familiar from his Carrolup childhood, his subject matter expanded to include Aboriginal myths and the recurring image of a bitumen road winding through a settled landscape – like the Waugul serpent of Nyungar legend. Stylistically his work is characterised by the vivid, rich colours typical of the south west region and became progressively more expressive. Although Cooper served a number of prison sentences in Western Australia and Victoria he had the opportunity to exhibit regularly in Victoria and interstate through the assistance provided by art collector James Davidson who worked in association with the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League. At the time the attention of the art world remained focused on the bark paintings of Arnhem Land as a paradigm for an authentic and traditional Aboriginal art. By contrast, Davidson broke new ground by exhibiting the work of Cooper, a city-based artist, alongside bark paintings from east Arnhem Land, Arrernte watercolours from Hermannsburg and woven rugs from Ernabella. While Cooper was in prison, Davidson provided encouragement and support through regular correspondence and the supply of painting materials. The publicity achieved by these exhibitions began to create a wider audience for Cooper’s work: artist Noel Counihan wrote appreciatively in Melbourne’s communist weekly, the Guardian (28 March 1963), of Cooper’s 'strongly original artistic talent’.
During a period of prison reform in the 1960s and 1970s, prison provided a productive site of cultural practice for many Aboriginal artists including Ronald Bull, Gordon Syron, Kevin Gilbert and Jimmy Pike. In Fremantle prison well-established Nyungar artists like Cooper, Goldie Kelly and Lewis Jutta were able to pass on their skills and techniques to a younger generation of artists who included Graham Taylor (Swag). During the 1970s Cooper’s repertoire widened to include sculpture, at least one portrait – of Gundidjmara man, Captain Reginald Saunders (1973) (Croft 2003: 25-26) – and several murals (located in Fremantle prison and the Aboriginal Medical Service, Redfern) (Croft 2003: 36). While in Geelong training prison Cooper published writing and in Fremantle prison he made and painted guitars and he completed several commissions including illustrations for a second edition of Durack’s book Yagan of the Bibbulmun (1976). In 1962, whilst Cooper was an inmate of Pardellup Prison Farm, he was commissioned by the then chaplain Father James McCarthy to paint twelve Stations of the Cross as part of the restoration of the Sacred Heart Church in Mount Barker (WA). At the consecration of the rebuilt church Cooper’s Stations of the Cross attracted considerable attention described in the parish newsletter, The Record, as 'realistic and challenging’. Under the leader 'Pardellup prisoner paints Stations of the Cross’, The Record added: 'Portrayal of the various scenes is vivid and imaginative. A new approach was used in the expression of the face of Christ and the facial lines are said to be provocative of deep thinking by the viewer’ (The Record 8 June 1962). These observations suggest that this was indeed a very significant project for Cooper. Regrettably the Stations of the Cross painted by Cooper were replaced at a later, unknown date and all attempts to ascertain whether the Stations of the Cross are still extant and, if so, where they are located have proved unsuccessful. This very significant subject would benefit from further research.
Cooper’s struggles with alcoholism and his itinerant lifestyle created both opportunities and difficulties. He died tragically at the age of 49, bludgeoned to death in his car at Buxton, Victoria, sometime around April 1983. His body was not found until several years later after Matthew De Carteret confessed to the murder. Cooper was buried on 30 January 1987 in the Catholic section of the Fawkner cemetery. Later that year on 1 September 1983 Cooper featured posthumously in the Encounters program 'The Broken Covenant’ produced by David Thompson for ABC Television. In the film Cooper protests vociferously against his experiences of injustice and inequality. As Cooper makes clear, 'painting the country of his heritage’ is a means of redressing this problem: he is painting 'for whites not himself.’ The film is also testimony to Cooper’s considerable musical talent concluding with a spirited performance by Cooper, accompanying himself on guitar, of Black American Big Bill Broonzy’s 1951 protest song 'Get Back (Black, Brown and White)’.
Cooper is today regarded as one of the key figures in a distinctive Nyungar landscape tradition that is the heritage of the Carrolup School. Through the role model he provided, Cooper contributed to cultural renewal and was influential on a later generation of Nyungar artists including Troy Bennell, Tjyllyungoo (Lance Chadd), Christopher Pease and Shane Pickett. The rediscovery in 2005 of almost a hundred drawings and pastels by Carrolup children in the collection of the Picker Gallery in Colgate University (NY) has given new momentum to the Carrolup School, resulting in several exhibitions, including 'Koorah Coolingbah – Children Long Ago’ at the Western Australian Museum and the Katanning Shire Gallery, WA, and a major publication by Tracie Pushman (2006).
Cooper’s work is represented in the National Gallery of Australia, Berndt Museum of Anthropology (University of Western Australia), Art Gallery of Western Australia, Fremantle Prison, Fremantle Hospital, the Aboriginal Medical Service in Redfern, the Holmes à Court collection and Colgate University, (NY).