What are Wandjina?

Wandjina are the supreme spirit ancestors of the Indigenous people of the Kimberley. They are found in painted form on the walls and ceilings of rock shelters in the clan estates of the Worora, Ngarinyin and Wunambal language groups,[15] although visually similar figures can be found in Bunuba country in the central Kimberley and on Koolan Island in the Buccaneer Archipelago—traditionally part of the territory of Umiida people.[16]

Wandjina have names and some display individual characteristics, which identify them; however, all Wandjina share certain features that make them instantly recognisable. Their faces have eyes and nose but never a mouth. Their anthropomorphic forms are frontal and often imposing in scale, sometimes extending up to 5 metres across the walls or ceiling of shelters; however, very small examples also occur (Figure 10.5). Their heads are surrounded by a semicircular band of solid colour or radiating or dotted lines that give the impression that they are wearing a helmet or headdress.[17] The radiating lines from the head are said to represent the lightning that foreshadows the wet season rains.[18] Wandjina are often shown as a full body, or at least head, shoulders and torso, but some have only the head and shoulders represented. The body lacks anatomical detail and is filled with visually powerful decorative designs such as dotted and striped lines over solid pigment. An oval shape on the chest placed centrally beneath the shoulders is said to represent the ‘Wanjin’s heart, in others its breastbone, and in yet others, a pearl-shell pendant’[19] (Figure 10.6). Most Wandjina are upright but some are depicted horizontally where they ‘lay down’ in the shelters. Some are painted in groups and others individually. Most Wandjina are drawn in outline onto a matt-white pigment background, which is created by blowing the pigment from the mouth. The outline is often in black or red and the decorative infill is applied over the white background in red, yellow, orange or black pigment. Most significantly, Wandjina are luminous and imposing, their dark eyes gazing out from their white face mesmerise, appearing to rise out from the rock surface.

Figure 10.5 Detail of small Wandjina faces painted at Saddlers Springs, Iminji, WA, November 1973.

Photograph courtesy of Kim Akerman.

Figure 10.6 Wandjina with black-cockatoo feathers painted in Otilyiyalyangngarri Cave, Mount Barnett, WA, 13 April 1985.

Photograph courtesy of Kim Akerman.


The Wandjina was intrinsically linked to the mythological life, social organisation and seasonal movements of Indigenous Kimberley peoples. Kimberley people believe that the Wandjina undertook ‘creative journeys which left the land and all living matter in its present form’.[20] Each Indigenous group or ‘clan’ had its own territory or ‘estate’ and, following the creative journey, Wandjina ‘lay down’ in a shelter within each clan estate. ‘Each Wandjina has a name, a moiety and a set of totemic symbols from which each clan is directly descended’[21] and for which the members of that clan are responsible. Frequently associated with the Wandjina are myriad other motifs portraying mythological beings and a wide variety of plants, animals and items of material culture. These motifs are often linked to events that occurred in the creative journey of the Wandjina with which they are associated.

Figure 10.7 Wattie Karrawarra, painting the Wanjina Kalerungari, Derby, WA, 7 April 1975.

Photograph courtesy of Kim Akerman.

Figure 10.8 Decorated bark bucket—karaki, height: 460mm. Artist: Lily Karedada, Wunambul. Lily Karedada produced this work for Waringarri Arts. She has decorated it with two Wandjina figures, one of which is shown here.

Photograph courtesy of Western Australian Museum, Anthropology Department A26508.

While Wandjina are the anthropomorphic representations of spirit ancestors, they are not seen as ‘art’ and it is believed they were not originally painted by people. They are the powerful creative beings who put themselves onto the rock after the creative process was completed.[22]

Mowaljarlai encapsulates this in his description of them as


Those IMAGES were put down for us by our Creator, Wandjina, so that we would know how to STAY ALIVE, make everything grow and CONTINUE what he gave to us in the first place. We should dance those images back into the ground in corroborees. That would make us learn the story, to put new life into those IMAGES.[23]

This is not to say that the Wandjina images are not repainted or retouched as they age and lose their lustrous quality. Because the Wandjina put their own images on the cave walls before they returned to the spirit world, keeping the images fresh and strong is a responsibility of the living and repainting them is an integral part of the process of ensuring the regeneration of all life forms.[24] Senior men of the clan would retouch or restore the Wandjina in their clan estate at the end of the dry season. This would ensure the coming of the north-western monsoon and the rains that replenished the land.[25] Because of this, Wandjina representations are not static but show stylistic changes over time and space.

Ian Crawford, who produced the first major study of the Wandjina motifs in the Kimberley, relocated several Wandjina that had been recorded historically. He was able to document how their form changed with successive retouching episodes. For example, Crawford[26] reports that the Wandjina at Langgi, which was repainted between January and February 1929, is not just a

restoration of an earlier painting, but a completely new one covering earlier paintings. The old men are very secretive about restoration of paintings, claiming…that the originals are the work of the Wandjina, not of men. They do admit that these paintings are cleaned and restored occasionally, but it is clear…that they sometimes disregarded the old paintings altogether.

The new painting at Langgi differs slightly in style from such older paintings as are visible. This allows us to form some idea of the changes in style which have occurred.[27]

[15] Ryan, Judith and Akerman, Kim (eds) 1993, Images of Power: Aboriginal art of the Kimberley, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, p. 10.

[16] O’Connor, Sue 1999, ‘30,000 years of Aboriginal occupation, Kimberley North West Australia’, Terra Australis, vol. 14, Department of Archaeology and Natural History and Centre for Archaeological Research, The Australian National University, Canberra, p. 11.

[17] Blundell, Valda and Woolagoodja, Donny 2005, Keeping the Wanjinas Fresh: Sam Woolagoodja and the enduring power of Lalai, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, p. 23.

[18] Ryan and Akerman, Images of Power, p. 12.

[19] Blundell and Woolagoodja, Keeping the Wanjinas Fresh, p. 23.

[20] Vinnicombe, Patricia 1992, ‘Kimberley ideology and the maintenance of sites’, in G. K. Ward (ed.), Retouch: Maintenance and conservation of Aboriginal rock imagery, Occasional AURA Publication 5, Australian Rock Art Research Association, Melbourne, p. 10.

[21] Ibid., p. 10.

[22] Utemara, Daisy with Vinnicombe, Patricia 1992, ‘North-western Kimberley belief systems’, in M. J. Morwood and D. R. Hobbs (eds), Rock Art and Ethnography, Occasional AURA Publication 5, Australian Rock Art Research Association, Melbourne, p. 25.

[23] Mowaljarlai, David, Vinnicombe, Patricia, Ward, Graeme K. and Chippindale, Chris 1988, ‘Repainting of images on rock in Australia and the maintenance of Aboriginal culture’, Antiquity, vol. 62, pp. 690–6.

[24] Blundell and Woolagoodja, Keeping the Wanjinas Fresh.

[25] Ryan and Akerman, Images of Power, p. 12.

[26] Crawford, Ian M. 1968, The Art of the Wandjina, Oxford University Press, London, p. 57.

[27] Ibid., p. 57.