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Wandering Wandjinas : a double-take at misplaced spirits in the australian landscape

What is Wandjina?

The Mowanjum people of the Kimberley Region (North-Western Australia) are split into three language groups; Worrorra, Ngarinyin and Wunumbal. They are the custodians of Wandjina iconography and lore. In their land, the surrounding areas of Derby, the Wandjina is the supreme Creation Spirit, associated with rain and therefore the seasonal regeneration of the red desert and all natural resources.

Depictions of Wandjina are painted in significant ritual sites for the Mowanjum. The earliest known artwork began appearing around 3800-4000 years ago, following a time of great meteorological change in Australia. The end of a millennium-long drought saw the arrival of a tropical monsoon climate.

The bodies of Wandjina are often adorned with dots, representing the heavy rainfall. Other elements of cyclonic weather such as lightning and thunder are included in the halo-like imagery around their heads. Indigenous members of the Mowanjum community are also known to wear headdresses that symbolically refer to such weather phenomena during ceremonial dances that pay homage to the Wandjina Rain Spirit.

Throughout the months of December and January, an annual repainting is deemed necessary to ensure the arrival of the life-giving monsoon rains. Each site and painting has a specific name, and the upkeep of the artwork does not only guarantee the visibility of the Wandjina belief but also the continuity of their presence in the landscape. Repainting has become so important that records show paint forty layers deep. And what is more, we can trace the evolution of style with more recent figures becoming stockier and painted with eyelashes.

Their Dreaming Stories tell of the very first Wandjina; Idjair, the father of all Wandjinas who lives in the Milky Way. His first son created Earth and all life upon it, including the first human beings, the Gyorn Gyorn people. Fun fact; Gyorn Gyorn paintings are amongst the oldest artwork in the world at 60, 000 years old, at least five times older than Egyptian pyramids and found in the Kimberley Region.

Common colours of Wandjina figures are black, red and yellow on a white background, using the ochres of the Australian earth. The spirits are portrayed alone or in groups, sometimes positioned vertically and sometimes horizontally depending on the dimensions of the rock. We also see the figures depicted alongside other great spirits of Aboriginal culture such as the Rainbow Serpent, and are also shown with traditional sustenance like yams.

Many people comment on their alien-like appearance, sending conspiratorialists into a frenzy. Huge circular heads with large eyes immediately draw associations with the classic Area 51 alien of the contemporary collective consciousness. However, it is fascinating to note that Wandjina are typically depicted without a mouth. It is said that they are so powerful, they do not require speech and if they had mouths, the rains would never stop.

Wandjinas Hit the City

Friends are often surprised when I tell them that I love tagging but dislike street art. This is because graffiti is a culture, arising naturally out of the soup of modern society. People hitting their tags in the darkened corners and the starry heights is like social media before digital space (and arguably better than social media). Graffiti artists are incredibly inventive, developing unique styles of script for which the spray can is the perfect tool.

So much of the street art we see is commissioned rubbish in my opinion. Respect where respect is due; many of these artists are technically adept and there are many murals out in the world that are fabulous. Off the top of my head, the work of Australian street artist Adnate is phenomenal, depicting aboriginal faces across the buildings of Melbourne, and there is also the art of Francisco Bosoletti and Faith 47 who are just as poetic and skilful.

Unfortunately, I believe there to be an abundance of uninspired artists decorating our cityscapes and creating some sort of nightmarish, dystopian nursery. Art for art’s sake is now a dreary luxury for us all to be bored by, smiling and numb on our way to work. In most instances, I prefer seeing little last-minute cartoons thrown up on a wall – simple, spontaneous, creative and fun.

In 2006, Wandjina figures began appearing around Perth, sprayed amongst the scrawls.

Taryne Laffar’s 2007 short documentary, Who Paintin’ Dis Wandjina details the controversy that surrounded an anonymous graffiti artist’s misuse of Wandjina imagery, away from their home in Kimberley. Indeed, Wandjina is not a cultural symbol of the Noongar in South-Western Australia and the boy seemed unaware of the complexities and nuances of the various clans. The elders generally believed the young artist’s intentions to be benign and merely ignorant to aboriginal customs and notions of topophilia, as the film also portrays. After meeting with the elders and learning about their cultural beliefs, he agreed to stop painting Wandjina. A number of the Mowanjum people also stated that they feared the power of the Wandjina and the consequences that could ensue because of their displacement.

However, I am not writing this to regurgitate the issues of misappropriation that have long been resolved. I wish to tease out an unpopular opinion by taking a second glance at the situation. Although I may be alone in this, playing Devil’s Advocate is a role I relish from time to time.

Although I agree that Wandjina do not belong in the South-Western territories, I also acknowledge an increasingly complex and interconnected world. As a child of transient upbringing, I can empathise with our anonymous graffer. Early in the documentary, he mentions his childhood in the Kimberley’s where the Wandjina was a permeating icon, both around his neighbourhood and in his house. It is clear the spirit of Wandjina has been of great influence to him since he was young, and seems to have followed him all the way to Perth.

In the 1920s, a series of relocations disrupted the Mowanjum community, moving them to settlements far away from the Wandjina homeland. However, they too painted the spirit away from its rightful place during this tumultuous time. It is only natural that they brought their culture with them as they moved from their home country. The Wandjina stood beside them.

“wherever you go the Wandjina spirit is still there…even if you die, the spirit is still there”.

We assume the artist is not of heritage, although this is not stated in the documentary. Yet even so, is it only the elders who have say in the message of Wandjina? Or rather, is it the Wandjina alone that dictates this? Traditionally, it has revealed itself to the Mowanjum people. But is it not possible to argue that Wandjina is channelled by those who belong to the land?

It has to be said that in a globalised world, the aboriginal peoples are not the only ones born of Australian land anymore. And it may be a difficult pill to swallow, that the legacy of the land is now a shared one. I believe their culture should be respected but is the boy really doing the Wandjina story disservice? Or is he continuing it?

When we ask this question, it is imperative that we understand that there is no separation between one’s life, art and the land – all is one and the same within the indigenous mindset. However, I also believe this to be true to creatives, who have the ability to see the world through this associative and interconnected lens. The graffer is simply telling the story of his life through the art that surrounded him in his environment. For better or worse, the Wandjina became part of his story too.

Even today, Wandjina has been moved to a centre, agreed upon by the Mowanjum. Here, many native artists are thriving, painting and selling their work. It is a fantastic accomplishment for the community, and I encourage you to visit the website and explore their work and the artists themselves. The Mowanjum Centre allows the Wandjina to move with the times, not only relegated to the bush and delivering the beauty of their culture to outsiders.

Yet the art world is insular and full of novelty. We may argue that the graffiti artist prevailed in public interest, successfully introducing the general public to a specific aspect of aboriginal culture, elevating it from homogenous preconceptions. There is no doubt that the prolific outpouring of Wandering Wandjina imagery, some 500 hits, raised awareness and interest with forums dedicated to *Wandjina Watching*. Admittedly, this is not how the Mowanjum people wish to tell the ancient stories and hand down their wisdoms. Alone, the colour symbolism included in their work is important; “they have songs in it”. There is meaning and moral with each mark.

In the documentary, the graffiti artist states that he uses colours that he likes, what is left in the can. The use of neon pinks and greens reflect the story of urban Wandjina. It is notable that he also went further than painting, interacting with his environment using grass or wheat to create Wandjina images, using what the city had to offer. His approach reflects his belief that he was spreading “Wandjina as a recognisable image that people can relate to in however, whichever way they choose to, y’know?” It is a sentiment I have always held about mark-making.

The primary point that bubbles down is:

“one person may be of good intention, but what if every white person in Australia want to do it?”

To which I would answer, knowledge is free. With respect and admiration, caretakers of the old ways and wisdoms, see what world has washed upon us!

Do not all the children of Australia hold the spirit of Wandjina in their hearts? Do the Wandjina not appear with climate change? With the weather becoming hotter and prone to bushfires, perhaps the Wandjina are needed across the Australian landscape? Just some thoughts.

Perhaps it is time we come together as one under the Wandjina, as these ancient images become part of the ever-integrating fabric of Australian society.

The Wandjina is walking through the country

The Wandjina is bringing news

The people are talking about the news

Notes & Recommendations

  • McCulloch's Contemporary Aboriginal Art: The Complete Guide by Susan McCulloch and Emily McCulloch Childs

  • Papunya: A Place Made After the Story by Geoff Bardon and James Bardon

  • Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art: Collection Highlights, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra by Franchesca Cubillo and Wally Caruana

  • Aboriginal Art by Wally Caruana

  • Rethinking Australia’s Art History: The Challenge of Aboriginal Art by Susan Lowish

  • Mowanjum 50 Years: Community History by Mary Anne Jeb

  • The Art of Wandjina: Aboriginal Cave Paintings in Kimberley, Western Australia by Ian M. Crawford

  • Keeping the Wandjinas Fresh: Sam Woolagoodja and the Enduring Power of Lalai by Valda Blundell and Donny Woolagoodja

  • Gates of Graffiti by by Torkel Sjortrand and Malcolm Jacobson

  • Flip The Script: A Guidebook for Aspiring Vandals and Typographers by Christian P. Acker


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