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Traditional Aboriginal ArtThe Kimberley Region


The Kimberley region of northern Western Australia is a vast region covering more than 400 000 square kilometres. It is home to Aboriginal people of diverse language and cultures.

Kimberley art is recognised as a strong and distinctive style. The first of the major developments in Kimberley painting was at Warmun (Turkey creek), south of Kununurra when a group of artists emerged in the late 1970s who painted ceremonial boards using natural ochres.

The style of painters such as the late Rover Thomas, Queenie McKenzie, Jack Britten and others is identifiable by its use of flat areas of thick ochre, silhouette forms and marking of outlines with white or pale ochre dots.

Other artists in the Kimberley have maintained their long cultural traditions of painting wandjina images on bark and other materials, while other artists or communities (such as at Fitzroy Crossing) have made use of modern materials to produce brightly coloured works in acrylic.

The main community centres for art work in the Kimberley are:

In this short photographic tour we start in the east Kimberley and present a fleeting impression of the region as seen by a non-Indigenous photographer. Many of these photographs were taken on foot in remote areas, but we start with a place - the Bungle Bungles - that is now more accessible, at least in Kimberley terms! However, until the mid 1980s it had barely been heard of by the outside world.

Kimberley Map

Bungle Bungle region

The Bungle Bungle region has supported a rich Aboriginal culture for at least 20 000 years. People with an interest in the country speak Kija, Miriwoong, Jaru and other languages and tended to live along the rivers, creeks and waterholes of the area. One of the artists featured on this Website, Jack Britten, is a senior Kija lawman and uses designs from his country and paints using ochres derived from its earth.

When the Kimberley region is mentioned, most Australians would think of the Bungle Bungles' striking beehive-shaped domes and deep gorges. They were formed around 20 million years ago by water action on much older sandstones and conglomerates. The characteristic striping is the result of layered staining by blue-green algae.

Bungle Bungles

Livistona palms

Deep within the domes are narrow chasms and gorges - in places the sheer walls narrow down to passages with walls only a metre apart. In the wider gorges, Livistona palms provide elegant fans of greenery. These plant communities are relics of previous wetter times when lusher vegetation covered the region. Throughout the Kimberley there are pockets of relict vine thicket and rainforest around pools and springs providing shelter for birds and animals. These were also popular places for Aboriginal people to visit or relax in, especially during the hot dry season.

Cathedral Gorge in the Bungle Bungles leads to a wide still pool in the dry season. During the Wet, it would be impossible to reach this point as the gorge would be filled with raging torrents many metres deep, swirling and scouring the sandstone into its rounded, convoluted shapes. Animal tracks are often observed at these pools as they come in to drink.

Cathedral Gorge

Carr Boyd ranges

Leaving the Bungle Bungles and flying north along the valley of the Ord River and the ranges to its west, the country becomes even more wild and rugged. Here the Carr Boyd ranges, north of the huge Argyle diamond mine, lay spread out in the late afternoon sun of a hot and hazy day in the late dry season. The haze comes from dust and the fires that occasionally result from lightning strikes at this time of year.

The Ord River is one of the immense rivers of the Kimberley. These rivers are quiet in the dry season, sluggishly moving across sandy beds or through long still pools and waterholes lined with paperbark trees and pandanus. But in the wet season they spread across the country in swift moving silver and grey masses.

The Ord River
Keep River region
To the east of the Ord River, straddling the border between Western Australia and the Northern Territory, is the Keep River region. The landscape here is similar to the Bungle Bungles, with deeply dissected sandstone gorges and pockets of rainforest. Walking in this country can be very difficult and confusing!

The native kapok tree provides a brilliant splash of colour in the dry season as it flowers on the bare branches. These trees are deciduous and are one of the first to drop their leaves at the end of the Wet. After flowering, the trees form fat green pods that later burst to distribute hundreds of fine seeds with silky hairs attached.

The native kapok

sandstone domes and boab tree

The scenery of Keep River is reminiscent of the Bungle Bungles with the round sandstone domes. There are also large areas of speargrass reaching above head height - and of course boab trees. The young boab in this picture may one day grow to become one of the gnarled, spreading giants that dot the landscape.

These large figures are painted on the roof of a rockshelter in the Keep River region more than 3 metres above the ground. They represent the first Miriwoong men, the giant Gangi Nganang. Stylistically these figures are a link between the Wandjina figures further west in the Kimberley and the large creation figures of the Victoria River region to the east.

Miriwoong men
Cockburn Range
West of the Ord River is the Cockburn Range, a plateau shaped like a vast round fortress of high orange cliffs and drained to the north by a narrow gorge. This gorge is enclosed with thick vine rainforest in which pythons live - and in the water there are numerous fish, turtles and freshwater crocodiles.
High under the cliffs of the Cockburn Range, where the creek drains out from the plateau, there is a large and beautifully preserved gwion gwion (commonly known as a Bradshaw) figure. The male figure has a concentric headdress and is holding a boomerang ready to throw, with six others in the other hand, while beneath him there are four smaller female figures.

gwion gwion figure

Flying west, we pass over the mouth of the Ord River and across the immense tidal mud flats of Cambridge Gulf. As we go further west, we pass over the King George River and its huge waterfalls dropping sheer into the ocean and on to the Mitchell and Drysdale Rivers - the heart of Wandjina country. The West Kimberley is the subject of part 2 of our photographic tour, coming soon.


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