Aboriginal Art of the Kimberley

For many of our guests, seeing and understanding the ancient rock art of the Kimberley is high on their agenda when joining an expedition cruise along this rugged coast. There’s two main types of rock art you will be looking for in the Kimberley, the more modern Wandjina art and the mysterious Gwion Gwion.

During your Kimberley cruise you will see spectacular natural art galleries at places like Raft Point, Bigge Island and Vansittart Bay. But you should keep your eye out at all times, as new examples are still being found adorning cliff faces and rocky overhangs right through the Kimberley. Who knows, with a bit of luck and a keen eye you might just spot the next great find!

Here’s a brief overview of the two forms of rock art found in the Kimberley.

Wandjina Art

First recorded in 1838 by explorer George Grey, the Kimberley’s Wandjina art is thought to date back between five and ten thousands years. In Aboriginal culture, the Wandjina is the Rain Spirit of the Wunambul, Wororra and Ngarinyin language people, the controller of the “Seasons”, the bringer of rain which equals water which equals “life”.

During your Kimberley expedition you’ll come face to face with Wandjinas on several occasions. Indeed, you will find them easy to categorise as they are always painted with similar features; always in full frontal, with large “owl-like” eyes, long nose and no mouth. Although stories vary from clan to clan, it is said that if the Wandjina had a mouth and he opened it the rains and floods would come.

First recorded in 1838 by explorer George Grey, the Kimberley’s Wandjina art is thought to date back between five and ten thousands years. In Aboriginal culture, the Wandjina is the Rain Spirit of the Wunambul, Wororra and Ngarinyin language people, the controller of the “Seasons”, the bringer of rain which equals water which equals “life”.

Some of the best spots to see Wandjinas include a rock overhang at Raft Point (where the Great Fish Chase is depicted in all its glory) and also Bigge Island.

Did you know that the Wandjina Spirit was a centrepiece component of the Sydney Olympic Games opening ceremony back in the year 2000?

Aboriginal art Kimberley Cruises Wandjina

Gwion Gwion (Bradshaw Paintings)

The more mysterious of the Kimberley’s rock art is known traditionally as Gwion Gwion art, or the Bradshaw Paintings in honour of the first European to chronicle them back in 1891, pastoralist Joseph Bradshaw. What is unusual about Gwion Gwion art is that it is quite different to any other known Australian rock art, featuring as it does elongated human forms adorned with tassels, hair ornaments and even clothing.

The origins of Gwion Gwion has long been debated, with little consensus being reached. Local indigenous elders attribute the works to their forefathers, whilst some researchers claim that the figures resemble the art found in some parts of Indonesia and may therefore have been drawn by the first Indonesian traders to reach Australian shores.

While the origins may still be debated, recent scientific advances have allowed a timeline to be developed. Interestingly, a minimum age of 17,500 years has been attributed to some examples of Gwion Gwion by carbon dating mud wasp nests that had been built over some paintings.

Gwion Gwion Bradshaw Paintings

Interested in learning more?

Why not pick up one of these books from your local library in preparation for your expedition cruise:

Bradshaw Art of the Kimberley by Grahame Walsh
Published by Takarakka Nowan Kas Publications, 2000
*** This one might be hard to get your hands on, copies now fetch thousands of dollars!***

The Lost World of the Kimberley by Ian Wilson
Published by Allen & Unwin, 2006

Aboriginal paintings at Munurru, Kimberley, Western Australia by David Welch
Published by David Welch, 2014

For more information about the Kimberley’s rock art visit the Kimberley Foundation.

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