Wandjina Rock Art

Wanjinas are an indigenous art style for which the Kimberley has long been famous, Visiting a Wandjina site is, without doubt, the most dramatic experience in rock art.  The Wandjina is an ancient, powerful, mysterious and deeply spiritual symbol. These striking figures, some dating back thousands of years, are found throughout the Kimberley in rock art sites. 

Wandjinas were first recorded by the explorer George Grey in the Kimberley in 1837 (Grey 1841:201-205, 213-215). George Grey’s Wanjina sites are found in the Glenelg River area.

Found predominantly in the northwestern and central areas of the Kimberley, Wanjina art is associated directly with the indigenous myths, traditions and contemporary communities of the area.  At least 4,000 years old, it is a living art form representing ancestral beings originating in the sea and the sky.  Images of Wanjina are characterised by halo-like headdresses and mouthless faces with large round eyes, fringed with eyelashes, set either side of an ovate nose.

The large scale, and solid or static appearance of the Wanjina art contrasts with the Gwion art, with its more delicate images of a usually smaller scale, and its less tangible connection with contemporary indigenous culture. 

The Wandjina represents the creator spirit for the Aboriginal people of the Kimberley region.  Wandjinas gave the traditional law to the people.  The Wandjina therefore forms a central part of the culture of the region.  The Aboriginal people treat these sites with respect and caution, indeed often approaching Wandjina sites with a wariness bordering on fear.  The Aboriginals tend not to stay at the sites for long, for they believe that the Wandjina are present at the sites, and you don’t want to anger them by overstaying your welcome.  

Initiated elders were responsible for refreshing the Wandjina figures in their tribes’ sacred sites in traditional times, in other words, repainting the figures.  This still occurs in a handful of sites but many images are now fading due to the loss of traditional ways. 

Today, certain Aboriginal people of the Mowanjum tribes repaint the images to ensure the continuity of the Wandjina's presence. Annual repainting in December or January also ensures the arrival of the monsoon rains, according to Mowanjum belief. Repainting has occurred so often that at one site the paint is over 40 layers deep. The painting style evolves during this process: the figures of recent years are stockier and some now possess eyelashes.

The indigenous people believe that the Wandjinas were responsible for bringing the annual rains and storms to the region, and thus the people refreshed the images annually to maintain the power of the Wandjinas and ensure the return of the rains and renewal of fertility to the area.  The image of the Wandjina is reminiscent of the enormous storm-cloud formations which bring rain to the Kimberley each Wet season.

Around the heads of Wandjina are lines or blocks of color, depicting lightning, clouds or rain. The Wandjina can punish those who break the law with floods, lightning and cyclones. The paintings are still believed to possess these powers and therefore are to be approached and treated respectfully. Each site and painting has a name.

The Wandjina paintings have common colors of black, red and yellow on a white background. They appear alone or in groups, vertically or horizontally depending on the dimensions of the rock, and can be depicted with figures and objects like the Rainbow Serpent or yams. Common composition is with large upper bodies and heads that show eyes and nose, but typically no mouth. Two explanations have been given for this: they are so powerful they do not require speech and if they had mouths, the rain would never cease

Most Wandjina sites are located under rock overhangs, which have served to protect the art from moisture and wind.  The predominant rock throughout the Kimberley is the King Leopold sandstone, smooth, hard and pale, and therefore perfect for rock art.

Wandjina Art - European Origins?

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