Creative Freedom and Tradition: Controversies of the Wandjina

Creativity and faith sometimes collide in very unpleasant ways. What lies behind this conflict and can it ever be resolved?

© jwbenwell with CCLicense
© jwbenwell with CCLicense

In the Kimberley area of Australia, indigenous tribes worship the Wandjina, supreme creators of the world. The Kimberley nations are recognized by all other tribes in Australia as the only group allowed to paint these figures, recognizable by their large eyes and lack of mouths. Elaborate headdresses, which are interpreted as different types of storms, often grace their heads. These unique and beautiful paintings require special permission from tribal elders to be made and their veneration and sacred qualities are a pillar of tribal culture.

Grey Alien © Alien-hack-master with CCLicense
Grey Alien
© Alien-hack-master with CCLicense

For the outsider, these iconic images pose a lure. While the relationships of Wandjina to the believer are not easily understood, the images themselves are easily assimilated and copied by artists and bear some similarities to what many science fiction and alien conspiracy buffs would call Grey Aliens. Excited by both the strangeness and familiarity of the figures, artists have created their versions of the sacred images without permission. Their motivations vary from seeking common ground with another culture to making money off of a trendy image, but the reaction from the Kimberley community has been understandable outrage.

Vesna and Damir Tenodi sought to place a large stone sculpture depicting an outsider’s interpretation of Wandjina in a very public position outside of their art gallery in Katoomba and were ultimately denied permission. This was known as the Blue Mountain case. You can read in depth about it here. There was also a case in Perth, outside of the Kimberley region, where Wandjina showed up in graffiti, which you can read about here. In that situation, some indigenous people saw the street art as an homage to their culture, while others took offense that it was done in the wrong place by unapproved individuals.

graffiti in Perth image © Nick Cowie with CCLicense
graffiti in Perth
image © Nick Cowie with CCLicense

In “westernized” nations, creative people are generally allowed to represent what they want or need to, even if it offends some people deeply. There have been and will continue to be controversies, such as that over Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine, but such art is allowed to stand as valid expression of human experience. Public opinion is not seen as a reason to censor art and the individual voice is given protection unless it becomes deemed dangerous or intolerant. What constitutes dangerous or intolerant is a legal matter of some contention, but is not determined on religious grounds.

Christ by Adolfo Simeone  image © Waiting for the Word with CCLicense
Christ by Adolfo Simeone
image © Waiting for the Word with CCLicense

By contrast, sacred images have lost a great deal of their power in western culture. By marketing a particular interpretation of a sacred figure and allowing it to be plastered on billboards, we present a particular picture of a faith. This obscures other interpretations and drives away people who are made uncomfortable by that picture. Does using art almost as religious logo contribute to the exclusion of some people from faith communities, even when this was not at all the intention of the artist?

The Kimberley people are newer to the assimilation game and many of them would like to keep their faith and art authentic. Unfortunately, they are fighting two forces which will make that very difficult as our world becomes increasingly globalized. The first is the driving force of financial gain propelled by advertising. As long as there is money to be made from the sale of an iconic image it will be replicated and sold. Both faith and artistic expression are likely to suffer.

© Hartwig HKD with CCLicense
© Hartwig HKD with CCLicense

The second force is that of inspiration and creative impulse. Despite the desire of religion to control both artistic and faith experiences, the creative spirit cuts across religious and cultural lines, often with delightful results. You cannot control the effects your art will have on a stranger, nor can you deny that stranger an encounter with the forces you revere. Blending of culture can result in wonderful art even as it upsets order and the common ground. It is my hope that empathy and sensitivity can help us find venues and spaces for both the traditional and the new, even when the new seems sacrilegious.

How do you see it?

2 thoughts on “Creative Freedom and Tradition: Controversies of the Wandjina

  1. chris ludke Reply

    My daughter was an exchange student in Perth about 10 years ago and I went to with her to see what it was like. She stayed for 6 months. I stayed for 3 weeks. I couldn’t get enough of the Aboriginal art! It’s so inspirational! When we left Alice Springs a black lady came out to me as I was loading my car and asked me if I wanted to buy a painting. I asked her if she painted it and she said yes. She wanted $20 for it so I gave her $20. I thought I was so lucky to get it, and she told me the meaning of the painting, which was women gathering food. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If an artist knows the sacred meaning and uses it in their art then their art could be sacred. And the same images showing up in the art of an outsider would still have something going for it but not the same impact or value. I hope they don’t get too frustrated by the art world because their work is amazing.

    • katmcdaniel Reply

      Thank you so much for sharing your experience, Chris. You make some excellent points. There is something mesmerizing about aboriginal art and about their culture in general. I think it contains elements that western culture has discarded and some of us really miss.

      Some outsiders truly want to experience, in their own fashion, the culture of others and I think both sides can be enriched by that. One of the best insights I ever received about my Christian faith came from a Buddhist.

      I don’t think there is anything wrong with an artist selling a painting that is a genuine creative work, even if it is sacred. They put work into it and deserve to be compensated. It’s when art becomes trendy and artists charge exorbitant amounts for works that are easy to reproduce that I think they lose their way. And often the people who make that mistake are not artists, but art dealers. Some art dealers are as clueless about the creative process as some outsiders are about indigenous art.

      Thanks again for your comment!

Leave a Reply