The Man from Bullo River

Word reached me today that the Gadjerong elder and senior artist of Waringarri Aboriginal Arts, whose kartiya surname came from the Carlton Hill Station, finished up on Saturday at the age of 80 (or thereabouts). He was born near Goordamanakoo on Legune Station just east of the NT/WA border and remembered taking part in refreshing cave paintings in the area as a child with his father. The iconography of these cave paintings informed his subject matter and style during his career as an artist for Waringarri, of which he was one of the founders. He painted there with Rover Thomas, Queenie Mackenzie, and Hector Jandanay before they moved to Warmun.

Perhaps the most emblematic image from his work, used as the “trademark” of Waringarri Artists, is that of Jimilwirring, the three lightning men, who represented an important Dreaming for the artist. These three men came down to earth as lightning bolts, and created three rock hills east of Kununurra at a place variously given as Gooroongga or Booloobooloobi. They are shown with lines representing lightning radiating in a circle around their heads and drops of water falling from between their legs into rockholes in the hills.

Another common image in his work was that of a Rainbow Serpent known as Waloojabi, whom the artist often represented in a female state with breasts pendant from her underside. Waloojabi is said to have created the Bullo River Gorge, making a saltwater river by punching through the hills in Goonumoori country.

In recent years, he produced a magnificent series of dark paintings of land around the Victoria and Bullo Rivers, which is Dingo country. Dark red ochre hills fill large parts of the black ground of these paintings, which to my taste are his best work. They hover between representation and abstraction in my Western eyes and the yellow and white rockholes and rivers seem to glow from within. 

In the late 1990’s he worked with archaeologist Richard Fullagar from Wollongong University on a project sponsored by the People and Place Research Centre of the Australian Museum. His knowledge of cave paintings in the Keep River region helped researchers document some of the easternmost known locations of Bradshaw figures in rock art .

I will leave the last words to the artist himself:

My father and the old people taught me how to paint when he was young. I painted on cave walls and did body painting for ceremonies and dancing…I like to paint. It gives me a good feeling in my heart… I do this so that many people can know the stories…so that those stories won’t get lost.

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