Tuesday, April 14, 2009


In Aboriginal mythology, the Wondjina (or wandjina) were cloud and rain spirits who, during the Dream time, painted their images (as humans but without mouths) on cave walls. It has been said if they had mouths, the rain would never cease. They also lacked limbs and had a skull-like face. Their ghosts still exist in small ponds. Walaganda, one of the Wondjina, became the Milky Way. Paintings of this style that represent the mythological beings involved in the creation of the world are called "Wondjina style".

The Aboriginal people are part of a hunting-gathering society, located in the outback of Australia. Objects found on geographical sites may suggest that this area had been inhabited as long ago as 174,000 B.C. Imagery and myth were a big part of this culture. They believed that "dreamtime" is cosmological time and is the order of the universe from beginning to end. There were ritualistic acts performed during dreamtime, which included the making of rock art. The Wandjinas have common colors of black, red and yellow on a white background. Wandjinas are believed to have made the sea, the earth and all its inhabitants. The existing rock art found, has depicted them as having huge upper bodies and large heads. Their faces show eyes and nose, but typically lack mouths. Around the heads of Wandjinas there appears to be lightning and feathers. The Wandjina is thought to have special powers and if offended, can cause flooding and intense lightning. The paintings are still believed to have special powers and therefore are to be approached cautiously.

In the culture of the Worora, Ngarinyin, and Wunumbul tribes, which make up the Mowanjum community outside Derby, Western Australia, the Wandjina is the supreme spirit being.

The tribes came together early this century at the Kunmunya Presbyterian mission and the government settlement at Munja. Since 1950, they have endured many forced moves, first to Wotjulum, then to the old Mowanjum site and, finally, to the present day Mowanjum site about 15 kilometres outside Derby.

As with most complex cultures, opinions about creation can differ. According to David Mowaljarlai (dec), a highly respected Mowanjum elder, the Worora, Ngarinyin and Wunumbul people are the three Wandjina tribes. Only these three tribes see the Wandjinas as the true creators of the land. Many other Australian Aboriginal tribes believe that the Dreamtime snake or Rainbow Serpent was the main creative force.

According to Mowanjum artist Mabel King, during Lai Lai (the creation time), Wallungunder, the "big boss" Wandjina, came from the Milky Way to create the earth and all the people. These first people were the Gyorn Gyorn – what some gudiya (white) people call Bradshaw figures, named after the gudiya to first see them in 1891. The Gyorn Gyorn had no laws or kinship and wandered around lost.

Wallungunder saw that he could do good with these people, so he went back to the Milky Way and brought many other Wandjinas with the power of the Dreamtime snake to help him bring laws and kinship to the Gyorn Gyorn people. The Dreamtime snake represents Mother Earth and is called ungud. Each of the artists has his or her own ungud birthplace or dreaming place.
The Wandjinas created the animals and the baby spirits that reside in the rock pools or sacred ungud places throughout the Kimberley, and continue to control everything that happens on the land and in the sky and sea.

Sam Woolagoodja (dec), a distinguished and eminent Worora leader and law man, described the Wandjina image by saying 'their power is so great that they don't need to speak, so they have no mouth. Their eyes are powerful and black, like the eye of a cyclone. The lines around a Wandjina's head can mean lots of things – clouds, rain, lightning. The Wandjinas, he said, painted their own images on the cave walls before they returned to the spirit world.'
In addition to being the sole holder of many sacred laws, one of Sam's most important responsibilities (and one that now belongs to his son, Donny) was the upkeep and repainting of hundreds of Wandjina cave images along the Kimberley coast. This ensures that the Wandjinas' power remains strong.
Almost 20 years ago, David Mowaljarlai told local Derby District High School art teacher Mark Norval that the elders were very worried about the young people forgetting about the Wandjinas and their true homelands. "They should build a big place out of rocks, like a cave, at Mowanjum and we should do paintings all over those rocks to teach all the kids about our culture," he said.
Today, through the efforts of the Mowanjum elders and artists and many dedicated local people and businesses, the Wandjina culture is not being lost. Rather, as the artists continue to paint and the Mowanjum children begin to rediscover their own beliefs and heritage, the culture is evolving.

Thanks to the generosity of the Mowanjum people, the world now has the opportunity to learn about one of the oldest and most powerful images in Aboriginal art and the stories that have been passed on for more than 100 centuries.

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