MOWANJUM Aboriginal Festival, this is the largest traditional corroboree that is open to the general public in Western Australia.
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.
Derby, Western Australia 2011
Photographer Ingetje Tadros
Video by Romani Tadros