an NFSA website

Deadly Yarns 3 – Who Paintin’ Dis Wandjina? (2007)


Traditional owners from the Worora, Wunumbal and Ngarinyin, express offence at the culturally inappropriate use of a Wandjina image stencilled across the streetscape of Perth over 500 times by an anonymous graffiti artist. The film portrays both sides of the story, interviewing the traditional owners and the artist.

Curator’s notes

Who Paintin’ Dis Wandjina highlights the ongoing issue of the misappropriation of Aboriginal art and designs in Australia. The Wandjina hold a significant place in the cultural and religious life of the Worora, Wunumbal and Ngarinyin peoples of the Kimberley region of Western Australia, but the artist who graffitied the Wandjina in stencil form around Perth was unaware of the cultural context of the Wandjina:

I just sort of wanted to do this sort of street art thing … have something sort of a bit different to everything else, that maybe meant something a little bit different … I thought it would be good for Aboriginal people to sort of see their images on land that was once theirs, give them a sense of ownership.

The traditional owners explain the right to reproduce the Wandjina resides with the traditional owners and it is not culturally appropriate for Aboriginal people to paint their images in another Aboriginal peoples’ country. The Wandjina doesn’t belong in Perth – it belongs in the Kimberley but intellectual property rights law in Australia doesn’t provide protection against the inappropriate use of sacred imagery.

The artist chose colours he likes but traditionally ‘the paints are important and they have songs in it’. The Wandjina is only painted with a little bit of black, red, yellow and white. ‘Where are the songs?’ the women ask, ‘where are the poetry, where are their language that goes with that Wandjina? It is more than just a painting, it’s a whole lifestyle.’

As one woman explains, the artist’s ignorance is one thing but the repercussions of that ignorance may hold dire consequences for the traditional owners of the Wandjina image.

The film reaches a resolution when the artist recognises the rights of the traditional owners of the Wandjina iconography and agrees to seek their permission before any further use of the Wandjina. Worora woman, Leah Umbagai, explains that the artist needs to look within his own cultural heritage and ancestry to find images to paint.

Who Paintin’ Dis Wandjina? was broadcast on ABC Television as part of Message Stick in 2007.