Wandjina Rock Art
Kimberley Rock Art
In Aboriginal mythology, the Wandjina were cloud and rain spirits who, during the Dreamtime, created or influenced the landscape and its inhabitants. When they found the place they would die, they painted their images on cave walls and entered a nearby waterhole.
The Wandjina figures are said to be ancestral beings, to the Worrorra, Ngarinyin and Woonambal language groups or the Mowanjum people of the Kimberley (north eastern Western Australia) and are believed to have emanated from the clouds and the sea.
These ancestral beings are powerful figures and are believed to control the weather and lightning, as well as bring the monsoonal rain, that maintains the fertility of land and animals.
According to Aboriginal history, the rock paintings have always been cared for and repainted by descendants. The repainting revives and reaffirms spiritual essence and nature.
The head of the Wandjina is surrounded by a halo or an elaborate headdress that represents the clouds and lightning striking the ground. Importantly they are never painted with a mouth which signifies different things for the different Aboriginal groups. For example, in the Kalumburu area, the Wandjina lost their mouths by closing their lips too tightly when the first bolt of lightning struck. The Worrorra alternatively believe that the rainbow serpent sealed the mouth of the Wandjina. They believed if Wandjina had mouths, it would never stop raining.
Wandjina are depicted in large groups, reflecting a communal culture. Also depicted in their paintings are the totemic animals like rainbow serpent which is believed by some to reinforce the significance of the Wandjina to fertility.
Wandjina are luminous and imposing, their dark eyes gazing out from their white face can often appear as if they rise out from the rock surface.
The Bradshaw paintings are highly distinctive when compared to the Wandjina art of the same region. The Bradshaws are one of the regions earliest paintings, which have been recorded as dating back to between 20,000 to 26,000 years ago. The earlier art recorded consists of crude animal drawings that are believed to be up to 40,000 years old.
The art predominantly depicts human silhouette figures that appear to be suspended in the air or in a dynamic style that suggests running, hunting or dancing. The figures are ornamented with objects such as belts, headdresses, bags and tassels while other material culture is sometimes depicted, such as boomerangs and wands. Such body adornments are usually only found in agricultural societies that have developed hierarchical systems of status. As well as showing body adornments, the art also shows relatively advanced technology. One painting depicts a boat with 29 people on board. Another depicts a boat with four people on board, and a rudder.
Since it’s European discovery in 1891 by Joseph Bradshaw, many have studied the art in its cultural and environmental context and their exact origins remain contentious because the sophistication of the art and what it depicts is suggestive of a culture of people that was not believed to exist until around 10,000 years ago.
The Bradshaw art is commonly known by their local Aboriginal name, ‘Gwion Gwion’ but has been known by various other names including Kiro kiro or Djaeneka Djaeneka depending on the area and the language spoken.
Australian Aboriginal art is one of the very oldest ongoing tradition of art in the world. Rock carvings and rock etchings date back to more than 30,000 years.
The art reflects the richness and diversity of Aboriginal culture and illustrates the distinct differences between tribes, languages, dialects and geographic landscapes. Art has always been an integral part of Aboriginal culture and said to connect past and present, the people and the land, the dreaming and reality.
In the Kimberley region, specifically the regions we visit, the Wandjina and Bradshaw Art are prolific. Both are found in natural rock art galleries, beside rivers, on top of waterfalls or simply in resting places for those journeying from one place to another.