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
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
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.