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Region: Kimberley, WA
Little if anything is known about Ignatia’s childhood and youth. She first became prominent at Kalumburu in the mid 1980’s where she lived adjacent to the Benedictine mission that had been established in 1907, 25 kilometres from the northern coast. Both here and at Mowanjum (the site of a former Presbyterian mission), local authorities had exercised strong control over the Woonambal landowners who were taught that their tribal customs and beliefs were at odds with Christianity.
Ignatia was born around 1930 and was already in her mid 50’s when she first began creating bark paintings related to the Wandjina. She and her husband were responsible for maintaining the remnants of these spirit ancestors which are said to have lain down in caves and turned into paintings on the cave walls after their time on the earth.
The Wandjina are powerful fertility spirits. They are said to keep the spirits of unborn babies in the freshwater pools where women collect fish to eat when they want to become pregnant. They are traditionally characterised by large round black eyes fringed with short lashes. The centre of the chest features a solid black, red or simply outlined oval, which is believed to represent its spiritual essence. The almost circular head is surrounded by a halo or headdress representing hair, clouds and lightning. The inclusion of a mouth is rare. Its absence is most often attributed to a belief that painting a mouth on the Wandjina’s face would bring perpetual rain.
Images of the Wandjina created on bark, canvas or slate were viewed by artists such as Ignatia as purely reproductions of the ‘real’ Wandjina’s adorning the cave walls at their most important Dreaming sites. Her primary artistic inspiration and purpose lay in her responsibility to maintain these ancestral beings, by repainting them and ‘keeping them strong’.
Though it is not known when Ignatia passed away, this wonderful old Woonambool elder left a priceless legacy. Wandjina images are amongst the most powerful of all Aboriginal art. They are certain to continue to grow in value as they are prized and loved by those fortunate enough to live with them.