Marking NAIDOC Week
While on an extended journey through the Kimberley and Pilbara regions of NW Australia, I have been exploring indigenous spirituality through their amazing art. In particular, I have been ‘captured’by the artists of the Mowanjum people and the work of the noted white artist Mark Norval. Mark and Mary Norval are artists and teachers based in Derby whose lives for four decades have become entwined with those of the Mowanjum community made up of the Worora Wanumbul and Ngarinya tribes. The latter three groups are Wandjima tribes. Theirs is a part of the oldest religion in the world still practiced.
Their supreme spirit being is the Wandjima (see illustration).
Only these three tribes see the Wandjima as the true creators of the land. Most of the other aboriginal tribes of Australia believe that the ‘Dream time snake’ or ‘Rainbow Serpent’ was the main creative force.
Mark Dorval, who has dedicated many years to encouraging indigenous artists has explained that some of the people of the Mowanjima believe that these Wandimas control everything that happens on the land, in the sky and in the sea. They created the people, the animals and the baby spirits that reside in the rock pools or sacred places throughout the Kimberleys. I was pleased to procure the following painting by emerging great young artist Tanisha Wungundin-Allies as she put the finishing strokes on her work.
Like most complex cultures, including Christian, opinions differ about creation. In one theme, the people had no laws or kinship until the Wandjima came down from the Milky Way. Until then they were wandering around lost. Familiar? These originals are portrayed in what (white) people call the Bradshaw figures. The ‘big boss’ Wandjima brought many other Wandjima to drive out the evil spirits which were taking ther babies. (The Wandjima had the power of the Rainbow Serpent which slid around everywhere and made all the rivers valleys and mountains. The snake represents Mother Earth.)
So the story continues of how the Wandjima originally painted their own faces and bodies in the caves. Their power is so strong they don’t have to speak. Their eyes are powerful – big and black like a cyclone and the lines around their heads can mean clouds, rain, or lightning.
Today’s artists who are loyal to the cultural tradition (or faith) are obligated to keep the Wandjima happy by continuing to paint them – a tradition that emerged long before the Pyramids of Egypt were contemplated and passed down through hundreds of centuries. The belief in the Wandjima is as strong today as it was for their ancestors.
Many Mowarjim people today follow the ‘two ways’ as a result of the Christian teachings brought to them 90 years ago by Presbyterian missionaries. Most have been able to integrate both cultures to form a unique Mowanjim ‘religion’ in which they believe that God was responsible for creating the Wandjima. Some have discarded the Wandjima altogether and others hold uniquely to the Wandjima spiritual power and shrug off Christianity.
This culture is still evolving as is Christianity. For me this experience has helped to give me greater understanding of the causes for culture clash and an appreciation of people like Mark Norval who give so much of themselves to helping indigenous people grow their wonderful identity and story.
Paul Inglis 14th July 2019.