Recent paintings of the Wandjina, the spirit ancestors of the present north-west Kimberley peoples, by the great aboriginal artist, Lily Karedada (Bubbles).

Lily Karedada was born of Woonambal parents in her father’s country. Woomban-go-wangoor, around the Prince Regent River. She belongs to the Jinnengger (owlet nightjar) moiety and her specific totems are the turkey, possum and white cockatoo. Her bush name, Mindindil, means bubbles, referring to the time when her father “found” her spirit coming from the water. Spirit children are believed to have been made by the Rainbow serpent and conception occurs when one of these enters a woman.

Lily Karedada, her brother-in-law Louis and sister-in-law Rosie say the Wanjina are rainmakers living in caves and the Gooyorn (the small figures discovered by Joseph Bradshaw) are their helpers. Louis tells the story of how young children pelted the owl and took out all his feathers. He appealed to the Wandjina for help. The owl is thrown into the sky and turns into a cloud and with the help of the ranbow beings brings the cyclone and drowns everyone. The empty eye sockets and beak like nose suggest the features of an owl emerging out of mist and storm. The head is encircled by a band of red, yellow or black to depict lightning. The Wandjina figures grew from mythology and depict the violent movement of the clouds in the Kimberley wet mixed with the real physical characteristics of the owl who occurs in many versions of the story

In the north-west and central Kimberley, painted images abound on rock shelters and cave sites, where two spectacular ancestral beings predominate and overpower the others; the usually monumental, stolid Wandjina and the ubiquitous Rainbow Serpent with which they are associated. The symbolic meaning of these huge mouthless supernatural figures with big faces and prominent black eyes began to be uncovered in the 1920’s when the fist anthropologist was shown the images at Kunmunya mission. Memories of the rigid conditions of mission rule have not been erased from the karedada family artists, though now the situation is one of aboriginal control where husbands and wives support each other. Ochres are still gathered from creek beds with charcoal used for black and gum boiled from the boorngnoor tree used as a mixer.

Lily Karedada, now a highly acclaimed artist, is regarded as the most important visual interpreter of the Wandjina. Her work is held in all major collections in Australia and overseas.

The Wandjina is found in cave paintings in many places throughout the Kimberley There are many stories about the Wandjina told by Aboriginal people all of which have something to do with rain-making. The other recurrent features of cave paintings in the Kimberley are small active figures usually painted in red ochre known as Bradshaw figures. They are named after an explorer, Joseph Bradshaw. They are called Gooyorn by die Woonambal.

Lily Karedada, her brother-in-law Louis and sister-in-law Rosie say that the Wandjina are rainmakers living in eaves and the Gooyorn are their helpers. If people go to a cave without calling out properly to say something ad. “Hello! I’m not trying to disturb you. I belong to this country. Don’t make big rain!” [The Wandjina can cause a cyclone to come and wash the intruder away.]

Louis tells a story of how the Wandjina spread out and stayed in all the caves from a place near the Gibb River called Wanalili.

Some people belted the owl (morn-gorn) and took out all his feathers. He felt ashamed without his feathers and ran down to his friend, a Wandjina. He said,

“Look! Look at me! They took all my feathers. I’ve got no feathers! What about you help me!”

And the Wandjina sent that lizard, that one that has a white mouth called Magoorri-goorri (a large species of shakey -paw lizard). That lizard ran down and he called the people. He ran down to the little ridges. He looked back there and he called all the people to help him.

“Come here! Come here! Come here!” he says.

That’s why you can see that lizard runs stop and shake his hand, run stop and shake his hand. Then he called the rain. This was in the early days when all the country was still soft. He made big rain and he called all the animals.

All the Wandjina and this Gooyorn mob got lots of goannas and little crocodiles and held them by the neck. They went along whipping people with them. And all the Wandjina, that is another lot of Wandjina, they spread out, they were still fighting. This first one, the boss one, stayed at Wanalili. This other lot of Wandjina kept on fighting. And when they finished fighting, they said

“Oh! I’ll have a rest here. I’l1 lie down in this cave now. This my cave.”

All right. Another lot went down and they found another cave.

“This my cave!”

It happened everywhere like that. They made their homes in all the different caves. And that’s how the Wandjina spread out everywhere. This was from early days at Wanalili when the Wandjina drowned the country.

They used boomerangs and shields and tomahawks when they were fighting. When the fighting finished the rain stopped and the country was drowned full of water. Then the water dried out again.

They get wild and start fighting again and the lightning comes everyday and the big wind comes in the wet time.

More stories of the Wandjina and photos of the place called Wanalili by Louis can be found in The Art of the Wandjina by 1. M. Crawford published by OUP in 1968 (The people who acted as consultants to Ian Crawford called the place Wanalirri. l/rr substitution often occurs in Kimberley languages)

The Wandjina have been the subject of many fanciful theories concerning visitations from outer space in books such as Von Daniken’s The Chariots of the Gods. However it seems likely that their figures grew from mythology concerning tile violent movement of the clouds in the Kimberley wet mixed with the real physical characteristics of tile owl that occurs in many versions of the story.

In a story told by Gija people at Turkey Creek the Owl has his feathers pulled out by two young boys who throw him up into die sky where lie changes into a cloud and turns round and round, and with help of the rainbow brings the cyclone and drowns everyone. Recently on ABC television a wildlife program showed film of an owl turning his head round and round. His face looked very much like the face of the Wandjina, two eyes and a stroke for a nose/mouth. It is easy to see how the Wandjina face grew from that face.

The Gooyorn or Bradshaw figures are said by the Karedadas the helpers of the Wandjina. They always look busy. They help the Wandjina to hunt and they dance and sing to help him to make rain.

They sing

“Rayi bany boorrma ngayi garnmen.

Garnmen binya ngayi banyboorr mangena gooyoo banyberrma. Gooyook! Sch! Sch! Sch!

(on the Sch! they blow water from their mouths just as people blow paint when making hand stencils.)

The people who acted as consultants to Ian Crawford in the 1960’s told him that the Bradshaw figures were “rubbish paintings” and the work of a bird. This differs from the account given of them by the Karedadas and also from people spoken to in the East Kimberley who say they are from the dreamtime There is no doubt that they are very old.

It is also said that people in the West Kimberley regard Wandjinas as sources of child spirits unlike those in the East Kimberley who come mostly from the rainbow snake. There was no time to discuss this with the Karedadas but Lilly’s account of her father finding her spirit coming out of the water in a spring controlled by the rainbow snake is similar to the stories told in the East Kimberley. The rain is an obvious source of fertility and rebirth in a country with such -marked wet and dry seasons. In the wet all the goannas and snakes that have been hibernating during the dry move around the country, the water holes fill up and deciduous trees such as boabs get new leaves. It seems reasonable to believe that the rainmaker is also associated with fertility.