Why is there a donkey in that painting?

Madigan Thomas, Old Wagon Road, 2004, ochre and natural pigment on canvas. Courtesy the artist
Madigan Thomas, Old Wagon Road, 2004, ochre and natural pigment on canvas. Courtesy the artist

Before the Western art world had heard of Rover Thomas, Queenie McKenzie, Rusty Peters, Mabel Juli, Hector Jandany and Patrick Mung Mung as artists, these people were teachers, painting to educate their children and their families. When the east Kimberley community of Warmun established the Ngalangangpum School[1] in 1979, paintings and handmade items were used to teach younger Gija generations. This two-way curriculum, requested by the elders, saw Gija language and culture taught alongside “Western” subjects.

The two-way curriculum came just after the Whitlam administration formally brought in bilingual education in 1973. Queenie McKenzie was an outspoken proponent of two-way teaching at Ngalangangpum.[2] At the school’s inception, elders painted on many surfaces – corrugated iron, car bonnets, flour tins, bark, plywood – and would congregate under a bough shelter, to teach children. These items were didactic in function and were used to depict matters of culture, history and Ngarranggarni (Giga Law). These items now constitute the Warmun Community Collection.

Today, elders do not use these Collection items to teach at Ngalangangpum. There are several Gija people who continue to take part in the teaching curriculum, but the two-way curriculum is only “one hour a week”.[3] Paintings are still seen as a valuable method of cultural transference. Gabriel Nodea, the Warmun Art Centre Chairperson, stresses the importance of using art to educate: “corroboree and painting are like our archives [...] It keeps us strong and keeps connection to country and gives us strength to live in the white man’s world.”

Two-way teaching at Warmun came at a time of “cultural renascence”[4] in Gija country. In 1974, a Gija/Worla woman died from a car accident caused by torrential rains south of Warmun at Woonggool creek. People from the area believed that the rain was released by the Rainbow Serpent (who also caused Cyclone Tracy) and was a warning to not forget their culture.[5] The well-known Gurirr Gurirr joonba developed from this tragedy and so sparked the east Kimberley art movement.

Madigan Thomas, an elder at Warmun, possesses extensive knowledge of traditional medicines and bush foods found in her country which lies south-west of Warmun. She paints Beranggul, a specific type of honey made by Australian native bees. Typical for east Kimberley art, Thomas’ painting does not literally depict the honey, but rather its location and its place in history and tradition: “you know that yellow one, from the tree – Beranggul, where they used to cut him, ya know, tucker. Lernjim, we call him, that yellow egg for sugarbag. He a bit brighter than Gayirriny. We used to cut him for ceremony time. For young people, no flour or sugar, put him, this tucker for young man you know [...] For Aboriginal people that’s all. No flour, sugar. Not then.”[6]

Sugarbag is the preferable form of sugar for most Gija people not only because it tastes fantastic, but also because collecting it involves trips out bush with family and friends. In Gija there are three different words for Ngarem, or Sugarbag. In English, these distinctions are not made. Many Gija and Miriwoong elders assert that “you cannot know Country without knowing the language.”[7]7

Understanding Aboriginal art sometimes confuses gardiya (the Gija term for whitefella or non-Indigenous person), who want to grasp artworks through binaries such as “aesthetic” or “ethnographic”. While working for the Warmun Art Centre, my list of outrageous comments included: “Why is there a donkey in that painting?” and “This is not real Aboriginal art.” (because there are no dots). The customer referring to the donkey was looking at a painting by Madigan Thomas of her first contact with pastoralists. She painted her family on Jijitji (a hill) watching – for the first time – whitefellas traverse donkeys through her country.

The aforementioned comments are ignorant and create false binaries. Works of art can be entities that have “social lives”.[8] Art needs to be understood within the widest framework possible as an active component of society: “Art as a way of doing, a way of behaving as a member of society, having as its primary goal the creation of a product or effect of a particular kind.”[9] Indeed, the items that make up the Warmun Community Collection were made solely for teaching and were not “intercultural” items “produced by members of one culture for use by another”.[10] 

In 2011 impetus is growing to bring back more two-way teaching at Ngalangangpum, once the community is rebuilt after the devastating floods. But two-way teaching is contested ground and there are difficulties in its application. Often elders have health and time constraints. Schools are under-resourced. In some communities where several languages are spoken, it is not easy to determine which languages to teach and who will teach them. Unfortunately, some of these considerations are hard to resolve and ultimately risk moving teaching out of Indigenous hands.

Historically, teaching Western values, behaviour and religion has been imposed on many Indigenous people and ties have been severed between Indigenous children, their families and their traditions. Critics argue that two-way teaching can hinder a child’s ability to learn one language sufficiently and reinforce binaries between non-Indigenous culture(s) and Indigenous culture(s)[11] while advocates argue that it increases cultural awareness within the immediate and the wider community, enhances language skill and use, asserts cultural identity and heritage, and helps with the acquisition of language in the future.

There are many successful programs and communities who use cultural items and artworks as educational resources, such as the Ara Irititja project, Mt. Theo Program in Yuendumu and the Science in Context/Living Knowledge project in NSW. There are many two-way schools across Australia. Collections and artworks have been used in native title claims, as recognised expressions of culture and history, such as the Saltwater Collection of Bark Paintings of Sea Country from Yirrkala. Art Centres can also provide space for knowledge transference through paintings and the telling of stories.

To maintain and establish two-way curricula, understanding the complexities and values contained within artworks and language is paramount. After all, what part of the non-Indigenous education system can possibly teach Gija children the cultural concepts cryptically contained within artworks which were specifically painted by elders to teach during the early days of Warmun’s Ngalangangpum School? Recalling Marika-Mununggiritj’s assertion that “our children have a right to know and understand their own cultural beliefs,”[12] a holistic approach to schooling and education needs to include Indigenous knowledge on an equal footing with mainstream Western education, and support the ongoing transmission and regeneration of Indigenous value systems.

Implementing contemporary projects for remote Aboriginal communities that not only incorporate Indigenous knowledge but also use locally preferred transference methods, languages, and art can facilitate a move away from dominant narratives towards a broader non-linear education in which many constellations cross-reference each other and historical and cultural contexts are taken into consideration.


  1. ^ See details on the Ngalangpum  School at http://www.ngalawarmun.wa.edu.au/
  2. ^ In Veronica Ryan, From Digging Sticks to Writing Sticks, Perth, WA, Catholic Education Office of Western Australia, 2001.
  3. ^ Peter Roguszka, Ngalangangpum Principal, personal communication with the author, 2010. 
  4. ^ Kim Akerman, “The Renascence of Aboriginal Law in the Kimberleys” in R. M. Berndt and C. H. Berndt (eds), Aborigines of the West: Their Past and Their Present, Perth: UWA Publishing, 1979, pp. 234–42. 
  5. ^ Will Christensen, “Paddy Jaminji and the Gurirr Gurirr”, in Judith Ryan (ed.), Images of Power, Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1993, pp. 32–35.
  6. ^ Madigan Thomas, personal communication with the author, 2010.
  7. ^ Frances Kofod, personal communication with the author, 2011.
  8. ^ Arjun Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986, p. 13. 
  9. ^ Will L. D’Azevedo, (ed.) The Traditional Artist in African Societies, Indiana University Press, 1973, p. 7. 
  10. ^ Nicholas Thomas, Entangled Objects: Exchange, Material Culture and Colonialism in the Pacific, Harvard University Press, 1991, p. 4. 
  11. ^ Cathryn McConaghy, Rethinking Indigenous Education: Culturalism, Colonialism and the Politics of Knowing, Flaxton, Qld., Post Pressed, 2000, p. 121. 
  12. ^ R. Marika-Mununggiritj, “The 1998 Wentworth Lecture’, Australian Aboriginal Studies: The Journal of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies 1: p. 9, 1999.