Warmun Arts. You got a story?

On language and the image in Gija art.

Rover Thomas in Warmun, late 1970s. Photo: Ted Beard
Rover Thomas in Warmun, late 1970s. Photo: Ted Beard

Painting at Warmun has long been linked with the desire of the old people to pass on Gija language to children. At the same time as the Goorirr-goorirr song and dance cycle was given to Rover Thomas by a spirit, Gija elders were requesting that the Ngalangangpum School teach their language. Paintings carried in the dance helped launch the local art movement and the singers and dancers were also the language teachers. They made objects as teaching aids that are now part of the Warmun Community Collection.

Here, the image of Queenie McKenzie includes a painting depicting people going out to collect the small white fruit of ngoorrwany or berenggarrji. McKenzie sits holding a branch of the bush food. Gija people have always been conscious of the way works of art encode knowledge. Diverse voices circulate in the space around an artwork as Aboriginal artists in remote communities, their non-Aboriginal colleagues and art audiences make, write and speak about art. But what is at stake in such discourse is very different for the Gija artist and the non-Aboriginal writer, linguist, arts worker and audiences for art. Artists and writers enact contrasting positions of power.

Queenie McKenzie, 1987. Photo: Frances Kofod
Queenie McKenzie, 1987. Photo: Frances Kofod

Texts about paintings in the context of a dominant culture privilege written registers. In part, this is to satisfy the desire and demand from non-Aboriginal audiences to penetrate the visual language of Gija art. There is often an expectation that a painting by an Aboriginal person will provide greater access and insight into Aboriginal Australia. But texts are also produced at the insistence of artists such as Madigan Thomas, Hector Jandany and Beerbee Mungnari who have wanted to share more about their work with their own community and more broadly. 

The making and exchange of images has always been embedded in Aboriginal Australia. Wandjina in the west Kimberley, lightning men in the Victoria River area in the Northern Territory, images of game and hand prints or stencils throughout Australia all speak without words of the people to whom they belong. Before colonisation these were painted or incised on bodies, rock faces, bark, artefacts or in sand. Today they also take shape through a plethora of media and enter the domain of the contemporary art world. Many works by past and present artists living in remote Australia function as warnings to strangers and support ceremony as affirmations of belonging or play. 

The meeting of Aboriginal art with the international art world that began in the twentieth century saw the development of a cultural economy that is not in every sense radically new. In the East Kimberley the trade of objects, song, story and ceremony were all part of economic transactions between people and nations. In Warmun, as in most of Australia, Gija artists are particular about only creating work that relates to country over which they have custodial rights. The Ngarranggarni (Dreaming) created this country and many artists chose to share these stories with prospective buyers. Consequently, within the art market, works without stories are sometimes devalued. But this need not be the case. For example, arresting works by the late Paddy Bedford seen in the exhibition Walking the Line are purely abstract plays with colour and form.[1]

Installation view, Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia, 2006. Photo: Jenni Carter © the estate of Paddy Bedford
Installation view, Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia, 2006. Photo: Jenni Carter © the estate of Paddy Bedford

Bedford used his signature visual language to depict the same story in strikingly different ways. One of his most important Dreamings was the White Cockatoo, the Little Corella who as a man, sat on a rock at a place called Jawoorraban and told a travelling group of men to stop. They became part of the country there. He painted this story many times, each showing the White Cockatoo and the line of men but representing them differently. Similarly, with the emu who became wedged in the rock at Mount King, each version shows the mountain, and some also include the neighbouring hills or a red circle marking the Bedford Downs massacre site and an image of something stuck in a long crack. Only in the example in the Art Gallery of New South Wales do we see a recognisable emu.[2]

Paddy Bedford, Untitled (Emu), 1999, natural pigments on canvas. Collection: Art Gallery of New South Wales, Mollie Gowing Acquisition Fund for Contemporary Aboriginal Art, 1999. Photo: AGNSW © Estate of Paddy Bedford

Whereas Paddy Bedford played with paint, creating many representations of the same story, Rusty Peters has painted many works with diverse stories. An original founder of the Ngalangangpum School Peters sees a direct link between traditional rock painting as instruction for the young and his own work as an artist. Speaking about his work What This Museum, exhibited in Beyond the Frontier at Sherman Galleries Sydney, 2005, he said:

Dama warna-warnarram, ngarag-garri woomberramande. Wayinigana mardi yirrarn-boorrewa warna-warnarram bemberrayangbende-      ngarri. Ngarangarag-garri woomberramande nawan-yirrin deg-garri yamberremnya, bemberrayangbende dambi yarriyangem. Wayinigana mardi yirrarn-boorrewa warna-warnarram Ngarranggarnin. 

[A very long time ago the first people made these things. That is why we copy the things they put here. When they made paintings in all the caves and when we looked at what they had put there in our place, we knew how to do things by copying the things they made long ago in the Dreaming.] 

Rusty Peters, Waterbrain, 2002, natural pigment on canvas. Collection: Art Gallery of New South Wales. Photo: AGNSW ©Rusty Peters/Licensed by Viscopy, 2016
Rusty Peters, Waterbrain, 2002, natural pigment on canvas. Collection: Art Gallery of New South Wales. Photo: AGNSW ©Rusty Peters/Licensed by Viscopy, 2016

Peters’ monumental work Waterbrain (2002), about conception, birth and the development of human consciousness, began with words. After years discussing the concept, the then artistic director of Jirrawun Arts, Tony Oliver presented Rusty with a number of large canvases proposing he create images to go with the story.

For Ralph Juli, a senior staff member at Warmun Art Centre, grave consequences rest on the command of narratives his mother Mabel Juli and uncle Rusty Peters paint and tell with such authority. Juli writes, “I feel good about that Garnkiny[3] because I’ve got a story for my mother’s side … Garnkiny brings me back to my Mum’s place. My own proper place. Like I was saying – if I don’t know story, I’m nobody. Someone might come along and ask me for my country and I’ll have nothing. You get some smart gardiya (white people) who might come and they’ll try to jam you up with questions, and if I don’t know properly I’ll get tangled up.

They’ll ask, ‘You got a story?’ and I’ll have to say, ‘No’ ”.[4] Juli describes the instability of knowledge used against Aboriginal people to continue the same dispossession that has left these systems fighting to survive. It is often through a painting or visit to an art centre that younger Gija people first experience the Ngarranggarni stories that make up their intellectual inheritance. Journeys and conversations become resources available to assist in protecting and asserting their claim to country through struggles and negotiations over native title, compensation for stolen land and wages, mining and agricultural development. 

Mabel Juli, Garrnkiny Ngarranggarni (Moon Dreaming), 2012. Photo: Warmun Art Centre. © Mabel Juli/Licensed by Viscopy, 2016
Mabel Juli, Garrnkiny Ngarranggarni (Moon Dreaming), 2012. Photo: Warmun Art Centre. © Mabel Juli/Licensed by Viscopy, 2016 

Through similar processes, non-Aboriginal art centre workers become default archivists contributing to what is sometimes the only written repository of stories told by people who have passed away. Artists sit with staff who document what they want made known about their work. A look through Warmun Art Centre’s database reveals a rich but patchy catalogue of place names, oral history accounts, Ngarranggarni narratives, details of Gija life before first contact and expressions of artists’ feeling for their subject. Much like records held in art centres across remote Australia they are exhaustive here, scant and sketchy there. Spelling of the traditional language is inconsistent and “direct” quotes lie on a spectrum between accurate, approximate and improbable.

With limited resources and time, workers do what they can with whatever expertise and linguistic tools are at hand while dreaming of having the capacity to facilitate rigorous archiving. For languages like Gija, clinging on through a diminishing number of speakers, the makeshift becomes valuable. Family members gather together these traces and carry forward a picture of their language as it lived through their loved one, what they made and what they said about it. 

Video and audio recordings by linguists and art centre workers are another kind of art-related text. George Mung stands statuesque in his cowboy hat amongst dry grass. The image is digitised from a scratchy 1980s VHS.[5] He points a wooden digging stick at his painting, at faces of Joowarri (spirits), hills, rocks, animals, describes places on his country Jarlaloo and explains the origins of the moonga-moonga song cycle given to his wife Buttercup. With tears in his eyes after watching the film, artist Patrick Mung Mung said how grateful he was to hear his father’s voice and learn from him again. Recording is full of mistakes; we forget to turn on the microphone or bring a wind cover, there is too much glare, we talk over people, ask clumsy questions exhausted by long drives, dust and arguments. Inevitably so much is left outside of the frame but also much packed in with love and vision by the storytellers.

Visual images are surrounded by written and oral discourses through which writers reframe an artist’s voice. It is important then to critically reflect on and try to understand the multiple functions Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people play as creators, collaborators and consumers. The documentation of artworks for Gija cultural heritage is of great significance for the people belonging to the culture but operates differently to considerations of providing “story” for the art market. This re-contextualising process has serious implications for Aboriginal communities as well as wondrous potential.

After hearing an audio recording of her brother Hector Jandany, Betty Carrington said, “Listening to those stories for my brother I feel menkawoom (good). I bin like to hear my brother’s voice … I bin thinking try to do painting for my brother but I didn’t know all the story til I bin hear him now … I’m part of my big brother. I’m talking, learning from him half the story and I want his story going when I’m gone – for my family”.[6] 

Rusty Peters, Gooragawarriny Garrnkinynoongoo (The Two Mothers of the Moon), 2012. Photo: Warmum Art Centre
Rusty Peters, Gooragawarriny Garrnkinynoongoo (The Two Mothers of the Moon), 2012. Photo: Warmum Art Centre


  1. ^ Paddy Bedford (ed.), Tony Oliver and Bala Starr, Paddy Bedford: Walking the Line, published by Jirrawun Arts: Kununurra, WA, 2003.  
  2. ^ See multiple images of the Cockatoo and the Emu Dreaming in Linda Michael (ed.), Paddy Bedford, Museum of Contemporary Art: Sydney, 2006 
  3. ^ Garrnkiny is the Dreaming story of the moon, a story his mother is renowned for painting. 
  4. ^ From Garrnkiny: Constellations of Meaning, Warmun Art Centre, 2014, publication and exhibition at RMIT Galleries, Melbourne. 
  5. ^ Made by an unnamed visitor with Patrick McConvell in 1986, copy held by Frances Kofod.
  6. ^ Thambarlam-ngirri Nyinge-nyinge Ngenarn Girli-girrim – My Feet are Itchy for Walking, Warmun Art Centre, 2015. 

Anna Crane is a linguist whose work with Gija people since 2005 has focused on cultural education and language maintenance. Frances Kofod is a linguist and cultural consultant who has been working in the East Kimberley since 1971. Alana Hunt is an artist, writer and curator based in the remote East Kimberley region of Western Australia.