Anthropological and linguistics articles from University of Western Australia

Monday, May 07, 2007

Kimberley Art Styles...religious? by Marcia Helene Hewitt

R.M. Berndt considered Aboriginal art to be essentially religious in nature. Discuss two distinctive art styles from the Kimberley in the light of this.

Marcia Helene Hewitt 10436125

In order to discuss art in the Kimberley in the light of Berndt’s statement, it is necessary to understand his statement in both anthropological and artistic contexts.. In addition to his notion that ‘religion was the inspiration of all Aboriginal art in one form or another” (Berndt, 1980, p. 3), he also went on to say that “this was true even where it spilled over into everyday living...wrapped in mythological association and expressed in symbolic allusion, most Aboriginal art was designed---through its own particular cultural style---to communicate two basic kinds of ‘message’” (Berndt, 1980, p.3). Wangarr, (Yolngu), djukurrpa (Walpiri) and Arrente (Aranda) are the proper terms for the English word ‘dreamtime, ’ which is the religion of the Aboriginal people, in every location.

Dreaming, which was translated by Spencer and Gillen in a publication in 1896, was taken from the Arrente term that they argued related to events associated with ancestral beings. (Morphy, 1998). Most of Aboriginal belief is based on a time before humans existed, when earth was a flat and featureless plain. Ancestral beings emerged from within the earth and began to give shape and form to the world. Ancestral beings were capable of metamorphosing into other bodies, such as kangaroos, emus, possums, caterpillars or witchetty grubs whilst other ancestors could become trees or rocks. They were not subject to the restrictions of every day life. (Morphy, 1998).

It is probably also useful to mention that the terms religious, spiritual and sacred art have frequently been used interchangeably and this is considered in art circles to be a mistake. There can be some overlap, for a work of art may be religious and spiritual, and may also be sacred. However often the terms are exclusive and therefore require special definition.
(Kennedy, Brian, 2001).

According to Gregory Armstrong of Vanderbilt University, the notion of “ religious art” when applied to art criticism, is not defined in any narrow sense. The Church , synagogue and temple art are all considered to be religious, but so is the art of any culture in which religion is a deeply motivating element. It has been well said that art, religion and culture form a unity. (Armstrong, 1968).

Religious art has a particular characteristic; the power of the representation depends on the faith of the viewer, not necessarily on the art itself. Religious images are very often signposts to particular beliefs. So in the light of that more extended definition, I will describe two styles of art in the Northern Kimberley region as fitting the definition of religious art.


One cannot dispute the religious nature of the Wandjina cave paintings in the area of Walcott Inlet. When Captain Grey stumbled upon these rock drawings near the Glenelg River he commented that he was startled by “a most extraordinary large thus appeared to stand out from the rock; and I was certainly rather surprised at the moment that I first saw this gigantic head and upper part of the body bending over and staring grimly down at me” (Barrett & Croll, 1943, p.40). In fact, Captain Grey in 1897, Brockman in 1902 and Dr. Basedow in 1917 all independently described them as “robed & haloed priests.” (McCarthy, 1958, p.56).

Wandjina paintings have certain things in common: large eyes; a beak- like nose; no mouth; a ‘breast plate’ a striped halo around the head, rain texture in the background. This style of art belongs to the Unambal, Ungarinyin and Worora tribes around the rivers between the King Leopold Range and Drysdale in the Northern Kimberleys and was, at least for academic purposes, discovered by Europeans in 1838 A cave in the Walcott Inlet shows a Wandjina with his two wives and children, an eagle hawk above his neck and a barred figure representing lightning above his head


(Elkin, p.54). The art around the Walcott Inlet depicts four groups of paintings. Several of these groups of paintings were described by Prof. Elkin in 1931. In the Beleguldo cave on Bellevue Hill, there is one horizontal Wandjina 13 feet long, two females 2 feet long, and two other figures who look to be children. Four other Wandjina 3 feet long and having two heads have almost faded away. With them are an eaglehawk, wallaby tracks, and Nalgo yams, whilst a forked and banded figure across the large Wandjina’s head is lightning (McCarthy,1958). In the Bindjibi shelter at Walcott Inlet there are another four groups of paintings. Among the remarkable human figures found here is a life- like portrayal of a seated human with a beak. One Wandjina is 9 ft. 8 inches long, lying stiffly on his side, and associated with another one 5 ft. 6 in. long, in red on a white ground the rain. Djarndad is also pictured here with a long yellow tail. A Wandjina 16 ft. high is in this cave. Stone slabs have been placed on blocks by Ungud to bring the rain.
Matthews, R.H., 1909).

The significance of Wandjina is both diffuse and unified. For the Worora tribe the Wandjina is the main representative of the local tribe. He may be a different form such as an eaglehawk, or a hero who became the Milky Way. The Wandjina are creators who made the landscape and the plants and flowers, caves and water bodies. According to Dr. A Capell, each Wandjina went into a cave when he finished his journey and died. They are painted on their side in many caves...and then entered the sacred Ungud spirit pool. (McCarthy, 1958).

This is how the mythology goes: In the beginning, in the Dreamtime, the Wandjina roamed the unformed earth. They were the “originators of all human customs and the inventors of all implements” They could transform from human to animal and back again, and were responsible for forming the earth. The most revered Wandjina, the Rainbow Serpent, created waterways, mountains and valleys on the land by ‘writhing’ its body, then gave birth to many life forms. The birds in the sky, the fish in the sea, the mammals on the land, all of the reptiles, and even humans descended from the Rainbow Serpent. (Rainbow Spirit Elders, 1997).

Each local Wandjina carries the name of a local clan. There are now twenty locations known containing Wandjina paintings a few miles apart. If a man sleeps near a Wandjina cave he might dream of a baby spirit which he then gives his wife . So the Wandjina caves serve as conception sites, which would add the concept of sacred when defining the art of the Kimberleys. The child would then belong to the clan of this Wandjina.

Wandjina artwork depicts creation, conception ,destruction, weather conditions and totemic place and moiety. Some people have likened this cosmology to Hinduism (Bodley, J. 2004).
Wandjina is also believed to be self created. In fact, Professor Elkin was told by Aboriginal people directly that Wandjina was not created by Aboriginal people, and that also the reason they have no mouth is that there would be terrible floods ! (Elkin, 1927).

Although I am loathe to use European analytical tools on such a wonderful mythological tradition, it does seem of some import to note that Aboriginal rock art traditions can be classified in terms of religious significance according to whether they utilize a geometric or silhouette style of representation. Geometric styles comprise a limited range of simple motifs such as circles, arcs and straight or wavy lines. Silhouette styles render humans and animals in terms of their bodily outline, viewed frontally, from one side or from above depending on the species. If there is any merit in the study of sacred geometry, then this type of analysis could wield interesting returns in respects to innate spirituality. (Layton, 1985)


Art historians are only beginning to understand the full significance of the figurative art tradition of the north-western part of Australia, which depicts a vital society with a depth of culture marked by laws, symbols, metaphors, and wells of wisdom. The Bradshaw figures (named after Joseph Bradshaw, the first European to describe them in 1891) appear as thin and elegantly drawn shapes in mulberry red ochre. These paintings are regarded by Aboriginal people of the west Kimberley as an important part of their cultural heritage.

According to the Ngarinyin lawmen of the West Kimberley, the Gwion Gwion started in the Stone Age. First the Gwion Gwion was a bird...then he was a man. He made the gimbu, the stone point, and the tomahawk. He made spears by cracking open the rock. He also made the knife. The Gwion Gwion bird has a long nose. It’s hard to find him because he walks around at night. Only Gwion Gwion Men know how to find them (Mowaljarlai, 1996).

Joseph Bradshaw was clearly impressed with the paintings he first saw in 1891 whilst walking in a gorge in the Prince Regent River area. His notes from the trip were subsequently published in the Transactions of the Royal Geographical Society of Victoria in 1892:

We saw numerous caves and recesses in the rocks, the walls of which were adorned with native drawings, coloured in red, black brown, yellow, white and a pale blue. Some of the human figures were life size, the bodies and limbs were attenuated and represented as having numerous tassel-shpaed adornments appended to their hair, neck, waist, arms and legs; but the most remarkable fact in connection with these drawings is theat whenever a profile face is shown the features are of a most pronounced aquiline type, quite different from the native we encountered. Indeed, looking at some of the groups one might think himself viewing the painted walls of an Egyptian temple. These sketches seemed to be a great age. (Bradshaw, 1892.)

However, the Bradshaw figures are not considered part of current religious belief (Ryan & Akerman, 1993). They are believed to relate to an earlier time when the Gooyorn is said to have pecked at rocks until it bled and then created fine lines on the rock with its blood stained beak. Some of the Woonambal people tell stories of the Wandjina being helped by the gooyorn. The work of Rosie (Ngalirrman) Karedada work depicts the Wanjina with Gooyorn Assistants painted in 1991. It is easy to see here that the gooyorn continue to live on within the contemporary l psyche of Aboriginal people ( Karedada, 1991).

In conclusion, the Dreamtime is essential to the understanding of Aboriginal art. Art is a means of access to the Dreaming, a way of making contact with this spiritual realm (Morphy, 1998). The art styles that I have described from the Northern Kimberleys manifest the self generated ancestors from the Dreaming, and include the stories of how
weapons were made, how rain comes and what moiety a baby spirit will belong to. In this way the art of the Kimberleys succinctly illustrates Berndt’s statement that
Aboriginal art is religious art, which really is an indisputable fact once one grasps the cosmology of the dreaming as it relates to Aboriginal culture.


Armstrong, G. 1968. Books on Religious Art: A Survey. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 36. No. 1 (Mar. 1968) pp. 46-53.

Barrett, C. & Croll, R.1943. Art of the Australian Aboriginal. Melbourne. The Bread and Cheese Club.

Barry, M. & White, P. 2004. Exotic Bradshaws or Australian Gwion: An Archaeological Test. Australian Aboriginal Studies. Vol. 2004.

Berndt, R. M. and Stanton, J.E. 1980. Australian Aboriginal Art in the Anthropology Museum of the University of Western Australia. Perth. University of Western Australia Press.

Berndt C & Berndt R. 1982. Aboriginal Australian Art. A Visual Perspective. Sydney. Methuen Australia.

Bodley, J. 2004. Tribes, States & the Global System. New York. McGraw Hill.

Bradshaw, J. 1892. Notes on a recent trip to Prince Regent’s River. Royal Geographical Society of Australia (Victoria Branch) Transactions 9 (2): 90103

Brockman, F. S. 1894. In: Transactions of the QueenslandBranch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australia vol. 10 .

Charlesworth, MJ.. 1998. Religious Business: Essays on Australian Aboriginal Spirituality. New York, Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

Davidson, D.S. 1936. Aboriginal Australian and Tasmanian Rock Carvings and Paintings. Philadelphia. The American Philosophical Society.

Elkin, A. P. 1931.. Art of the Australian Aboriginal .Studies in Australian Totemism. Oceania. Sept. 1931. pp. 9-25.

Gondarra, Djiniyini Rev.Dr. OAM. 1986. Let My People Go. Reflections on Aboriginal Theology. Australia. Bethel Presbytery.

Karedada (Ngalirrman) Rosie. 1991. Wandjina with Gooyorn Assistants. Natural earth Pigments on canvas. Christie’s Sydney.

Kennedy, Brian,Dr. 2001. Speech given at the National Gallery of Australia. Canberra.

Neowara, Paddy. 2001. Gwion Gwion---Secret and Sacred Pathways of the Ngarinyin Aboriginal People of Australia. (publisher)

Layton, Robert. 1985. The Cultural Context of Hunter Gatherer Rock Art.
In Man New Series, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Sept. 1985). Pp. 434-453. Britain. Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain & Ireland.

Matthews, R.H. 1909. Folklore notes from Western Australia. Folklore 19 pp. 224-227

Matthews, R.H. 1909. Some peculiar Burial customs of Australian Aborigines. Sydney. William Brooks.

Matthews, R. H. - Transactions of the Queensland Branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australia. Vol. 10 - 1894-5.

Morphy, H. 1998 Aboriginal Art. London. Phaidon Press Ltd.

Mowaljarlai, David. 1995. Conversations at the Well Bookshop in Subiaco.
Personal communication.

Mowaljarlai David & Malnic Juttler. 1993. Yorro Yorro Broome. Magbala Books..

McCarthy, Frederick. 1958. Australian Aboriginal Rock Art. Sydney. Trustees of the Australian Museum.

Morphy, H. 1991. Ancestral Connections: Art and an Aboriginal System of Knowledge.
Chicago. University of Chicago Press.

Morphy, H. 1989. From dull to brilliant: the aesthetics of spiritual power among the Yolngu. Man. 24: 21-40.

Neowara, Paddy. 2000. Gwion Gwion---Secret and Sacred Pathways of the Ngarinyin Aboriginal People of Australia. Germany. Koenemann Publishing.

Nolan, A. 1976. Jesus Before Christianity. London. Dartman, Longman & Todd.

Oates, WE. 2002. Schooling Custodians. Paper presented at the International Life-long Learning conference. Yeppoon, Australia.

Rainbow Spirit Elders. 1997. Rainbow Spirit Thelogy: Towards an Australian Aboriginal Theology. Sydney. Harper Collins.

Roberts, Jo. 2003. Sacred Spirit of the Wanjina Soars. The Age. Melbourne.

Ryan, J. 1993. Images of power: Aboriginal Art of the Kimberley. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria; 10- 19.

Stanton, JE. 1988. Images of Aboriginal Australia. Perth. University of Western Australia Occasional Paper No. 2.

Stanton, J.1988. Innovative Aboriginal Art of Western Australia. Perth. Anthropology Research Museum, Occasional Paper No. 1. University of Western Australia.

Willing & Kenneally. 200?. Under a Tegent Moon: A Historical Account of Pioneer Pastoralists Joseph Bradshaw & Aeneas Gunn at Prince Regent River. Western Australia.
CALM Publishing.