The arrival of foreigners in the region from the late nineteenth century prompted artists belonging to the Worrorra, Wunambul, Ngarinyin and neighbouring language groups to seek means to propagate further the spiritual powers of Wanjina by painting or etching their images on shards of slate, slabs of timber and on flattened sheets of eucalyptus bark, and more recently on canvas.
Alec Mingelmanganu, a Worrorra artist who lived on the mission at Kalumburu, was one of the leading Wanjina painters of the twentieth century. Mingelmanganu was not a prolific artist in the public domain; his major works on bark and on canvas are limited in number, but Vermeer-like, they are masterpieces of a tradition.
While Mingelmanganu’s images of Wanjina adhere to the tenets of the genre, they are distinctive. The figures usually are depicted with hunched shoulders painted white, opening out to a rounded head that is bordered by a halo-like ring.2 The eyes are close-set either side of a vertical for the nose, and the mouth is not shown. A horizontal line runs across the chest to separate the torso and limbs that are decorated in red ochre stippling representing falling rain. The stippling lends the image a sense of shimmer or brilliance to evoke the presence of ancestral power within the painting; it has the effect of taking the picture out of the profane and into the spiritual realm. From the lateral chest line hangs an ornament or breast-plate, likely to represent an engraved ceremonial pearl shell of the type that originate in the western Kimberley and are traded over vast distances through the deserts of western and central Australia.
Significantly, in his paintings, Mingelmanganu strove to replicate a sense of the scale of the rock paintings which vary from human size to the monumental. He achieves this by drawing the figure to the extremities of the support, lending it a sense of overarching grandeur.
This painting is likely to have been shown at the first commercial exhibition of Wanjina paintings at the Aboriginal Traditional Arts gallery in Perth in the late 1970s. The nature of the painted surface and the cane binding that frames the picture is consistent with a number of other paintings from that exhibition, or that Mingelmanganu created around that time, including Wanjina (Austral Gothic), 1975, and Jilinya, 1977, from the Thomas Vroom Collection that were sold at Sotheby’s Aboriginal art auction in London in June 2015.2
1 This entry was written with reference to Kim Akerman’s Wanjina — Notes on Some Iconic Ancestral Beings of the Northern Kimberley, Hesperian Press, Carlisle, Western Australia, 2016. Kim Akerman who has written extensively on the history of the Wanjina and on the art of Alec Mingelmanganu.
2 Jilinya, 1977, is illustrated in Akerman, K., with J. E. Stanton, Riji and Jakuli : Kimberley pearl shell in Aboriginal Australia, Northern Territory Museum of Arts and Sciences, Darwin, 1994, p.57, plate 47. See also Sotheby’s Aboriginal Art – Thomas Vroom Collection auction catalogue, London, 10 June 2015, Lot 58, Wanjina (Austral Gothic), 1975, and Lot 59, Jilinya, 1997.
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