from the editor's desk

Review of ‘Yornadaiyn Woolagoodja’ by Yornadaiyn Woolagoodja

Woolagoodja, Yornadaiyn. Yornadaiyn Woolagoodja. Broome: Magabala Books, 2020. RRP: $34.99, 208pp, ISBN:

Brenda Saunders

In this autobiography, the artist and traditional painter of his Country, Yornadaiyn Woolagoodja, invites the reader into his world, his life and art. Aided by many excellent photographs, we become aware of a different way of seeing and being in the land of the Woddordda. Woolagoodja gives us a detailed explanation of the complex subject he calls ‘Lalai’ or Creation of Country; a very mysterious world of spirit beings able to change their form at will, at times appearing as people or various animals on the walls of ancient caves around the Ngarinyin region north of Derby in Western Australia.

In one section, Woolagoodja writes of the Creators of Country: the Woongudd, the Wandjina and the enigmatic Geeyorn. The first and most important is the Woongudd, two Creator serpents shaping the Country; then came the Wandjina. As first people, they set down the lore and rules for living. The enigmatic figures of Geeyorn are everywhere, he tells us, watching for people who disobey the lore. Readers may remember when the Namaralay Wandjina became familiar to the whole world. In 2000, the author’s giant figure, made from this well-known painting, featured at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics (182).

He writes at length of his family connections, his life experiences as a Woddorddai man and his dedication to Country and Culture. His primary concern is to make the next generation understand that the future lies in the spiritual life; in the powerful Lalai.      

Listed in the contents page, the sections have titles such as ‘Country, the meaning of it’, and ‘Lalai is the biggest story’. These bring to the untutored reader a deeper understanding and reverence for this complex system of belief and why the author finds it so important to preserve his Dambimangari Culture.  It is not only written for us, the strangers or ‘aalmarri’, but as a record for his Nation’s people as well.

In the chapter entitled ‘My Woongudd and My Family’, the author gives a fascinating account of the naming of his family members. He tells us ‘My father found me as a whirlpool’ in the sea at Yornadaiyn, hence his name (104). He details his early life on Kunmunya Mission, his travels around Country as a young man, as well as the preparation for dancing Wandjina Ceremonies. The book also covers a very comprehensive appraisal of his life as a cultural ambassador, such as his contacts with art institutions and his travels interstate and overseas.

The text is well supported by rich and detailed photography. Throughout this large ‘coffee table’ book, the beautiful reproductions help to explain complex stories and put them in context. Some capture the mysterious creatures on the rock ledges up close; the curious drawings of birds and animals, crocodiles and dugongs. The large title page at the front opens onto an amazing photographic array of great squid-like forms. Others writhe around the powdery surface of the cave. Each new section is introduced by a large double-page spread with views of the stunning Kimberley landscape or surrounding seascapes. These images help to set the narrative in place.

Throughout the book there are also many reproductions of the author’s own colourful Wandjina paintings. Some of these are large complex murals, such as the work for the Mowamjum Festival (174). Others feature bright portraits and figures referencing the originals in the caves. In the chapter entitled ‘Bringing the Country to Canvas’, he explains his art: ‘I am that Wandjina, that Country. I am not a separate thing’ (166). He no doubt gained such connection during the many years he spent learning the techniques of ‘refreshing’ or repairing the ancient rock art, a ceremonial task continued through each generation. Yornadaiyn, like his father Sam Woolagoodja, is one of several traditional artists guided by the spirits to paint these Wandjina Creation Stories into life.

Several photos register these sacred duties performed on special visits to the caves with other local Traditional Owners. On one such visit, the author explains that the ‘Wandjina he draws you towards him […] gives you encouragement to do the thing’, meaning to ‘refresh’ the image (192).

As a respected leader, the author chronicles the recent innovative measures he has encouraged, such as tourist education walks and the formation of a Native Title Group Dambimangari Aboriginal Cooperation in 2006, due to the threat of renewed mining on Koolan Island. Woolagoodja was also influential in the formation of the traditional painters’ art group and the setting up of the modern Mowanjum Spirit of the Wandjina Aboriginal Corporation in his Community, a building constructed in the shape of a Wandjina face.

The artist has given his name, Yornadaiyn Woolagoodja, to the title of this book, but it is much more than an autobiography of an important contemporary Aboriginal artist. It could well be subtitled ‘Spirit of the Wandjina’. We are presented with an enthralling study into the intricate relationship between nature and the people and spirits who inhabit it. This is a particular worldview from a man dedicated to educating the younger generation and a testament to the proud heritage of the Woddordda Kimberley People.

Brenda is a Wiradjuri writer and artist living in Sydney. She holds an MA in Creative Arts (Wollongong University) and many of her poems and reviews have appeared in anthologies and journals, including Australian Poetry JournalOverland, Southerly, WesterlyCordite and Mascara. Her fourth poetry collection, Inland Sea, was released in 2021 (Ginninderra Press). Brenda won the 2014 Scanlon Book Prize (Australian Poetry Inc) and in 2018 the Oodgeroo Noonuccal Prize (Queensland Poetry) and the Joanne Burns Award (Spineless Wonders). She is a mentor for Black Cockatoo, the Emerging Indigenous Poets site at VerityLa.com.

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