When approaching an image of Wandjina, the spirits that are believed to have created the Aboriginal tribes of the Kimberley on Australia's northwest coast, certain protocols should be followed: typically, a shout out to warn the Wandjina of your approach is appropriate.
Stenciling or spraypainting the image on city walls is not.
Only a select group of Aboriginal elders have permission to paint the spirits' image, and they typically do it on tree bark or cliff walls; nonetheless, Wandjina art, most notably appearing on ancient rock art (above), is appearing on alleyways and carparks in Perth, prompting concern from some Aboriginal elders.
Mike Donaldson, president of the Kimberley society, says, "This person shouldn't be doing graffiti, that's the bottom line... but from my perspective, it does raise the awareness of Aboriginal culture."
It reminds me of Tame Iti, a controversial Maori activist, whose moko has helped lead a resurgence in full-facial tattooing among Maori men. Like the Wandjina image, application of the moko is reserved only for Maori who undergo spiritual rituals and can't be inked by just anyone; despite this, the moko has appeared on faces of many colors and geographies, more as fashion than spiritual marker. But perhaps a more appropriate parallel to the Wandjina graffiti is Iti's work with indigenous Maori music. The co-creator of (( the open project )), a program promoting creative collaboration across cultures through music, film, and art, Iti combines traditional Tuhoe chants with hip-hop beats to make the music more relevant to new generations. Whether the Wandjina graffiti does more than provide a quick reminder of Aboriginal creation myths or if it's a reflection of the increasing urbanization of the Kimberley's indigenous people, the conversation about translating traditional themes in new mediums is undoubtedly a worthwhile one.
Images: top, all others.