The Wonder of Western Australia’s Wandjina
Only three Australian Aboriginal tribes believe that the Wandjina is the creator of the land rather than theDreamtime snake or Rainbow Serpent. Mowanjum Artist Mabel King said “the big boss” Wandjina came from the Milky Way to create the earth and all the people. The old people tell the story that Wandjinas came to earth to help the Gyorn Gyorn, the earliest spirit people, who had no laws or kinship and were wandering around lost. In addition to caring for the Gyorn Gyorn the Wandjinas helped create the animals and the baby spirits that live in the rock pools and sacred places throughout the Kimberley region of Western Australia.
The Wandjina’s naiveté is a distraction that may trick many people into thinking there is nothing of substance to see or interpret in the childlike images boldly centered on backgrounds of sky blue or sun yellow. However, there is much depth in these ancient images that today can still be seen on cave walls across the Kimberley area of Western Australia. With close attention and a willing eye many secrets about the Wandjina are revealed in Mabel King’s paintings.
The most striking element of the Wandjina is the bold headdress that conveys clouds, rain, lightening or many other powerful natural forces. Some elders say that the Wandjina’s mental power is so great that they do not need to speak while others say that Wandjinas do not pass judgmentand therefore the ancient spirits have no need of a mouth. Whatever the reason, it is strange and slightly unnerving to see this humanlike form devoid of the instruments of speech. The over large eyes are bold and black with one Worora leader describing them as the eyes of a cyclone.
Mabel King’s blue Wandjina appears to me to be the figure of a male spirit. His hands are narrow and thin, his body heavy and full. The yellow Wandjina by contrast only occurs to me as female. Her body is curvaceous and rounded at the top and her hands appear to cast a shadow suggesting more hands working away behind the scenes.
Artist and senior elder of the Ngarinyin people of Western Australia Mabel King had sacred women’s powers and for her life time she was the keeper of traditional Ngarinyin song and dance. I was lucky to meet Mabel in 2004 when I visited the Mowanjum community. The Art centre at the time was a small dusty outbuilding nothing like the magnificentMowanjum Aboriginal Art and Culture centrethat Mowanjum now has. Mabel told me about her Wandjinas and the stories of their power in a quiet whispering voice that soothed and intrigued me.
After we talked for a while I looked at many paintings from various Mowanjum artists on canvas and on paper. Mabel’s artwork spoke to me and although I did not want works on paper I was drawn to her bright figures and playful spirit. For the first time that day I was compelled to buy works on paper. I had previously disregarded works on paper and falling in love with Mabel’s work freed me to explore and purchase many more affordable and stunning piecesgoing forward.
After lovingly nursing my works thousands of miles back home I realized Mabel’s simple but honest artistic offerings needed a reverence and a kind handling process that I don’t believe canvas demands. There were frames to be selected and wood grains to be compared. Should we mount the works within a paper frame or let them stand alone idle behind the glass? My local picture framer and I discussed in detail each issue and the esthetic we needed to ensure the Wandjina’s might shine brightly in their new frames behind glass. We chose to stand the Wandjinas alone on slightly raised backing mounts thatseemed to make the ancient spirit figures lift off the paper and reach toward the viewer.
For many years our pair of Wandjinasone yellow one blue, hung in my children’s bedroom bringing colour and joy to their young lives. Recently however, I moved them into the living room so we all might enjoy Mabel’s witty and naïve Wandjina stories. In 1999 the prestigious National Gallery of Victoria purchased four of Mabel King’s Wandjinasto add to their impressive indigenous collection.
The Wandjina’s most significant moment in modern history was to be the indigenous artistic icon for the opening ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. To the haunting voices of ancient song men thousands of indigenous dances and singers poured in the Olympic stadium where they welcomed the ancientspirit figure that rose from the ground to awaken the people of Australia and to give them an opportunity to rejoice. Mabel King would have been proud of the Wandjina’s recognition and status that night. Mabelpassed away in her country amongst the spirits of the Wandjina in 2006.
Spirit of the Wandjina, Mowanjum artists of the Kimberley, Western Australia 2000.
You Tube Clip Sydney 2000 Olympic Games opening ceremony.
About the Author:
Linette Etheredge is an art collector, documentary filmmaker and teacher from Melbourne Australia.
Artwork © The Artist – Photo Courtesy Linette Etheredge