It has been suggested that Wandjina paintings on bark were first produced for trade and exchange with missionaries travelling by lugger along the Kimberley coastline as early as the 1930s. The Worrorra, Ngarinyin and Woonambal custodians did not possess the technical know how commonly found in Arnhem Land, and for this reason their own barks were usually poorly prepared. The often knotty surfaces were irregular, and the pigments were applied without fixatives. Few pre-1970s examples survive. Of those artists that gained recognition for these images prior to the mid 1980’s the most revered are Charlie Numbulmoore, who was first recorded painting by anthropologist Ian Crawford at Gibb River Station in the mid 1960’s and Alec Mingelmanganu whose work was noticed by anthropologist Kim Ackerman during a visit to Kalumburu in 1974/75.
By 1985 Warringarri Aboriginal Arts had been established in Kununurra and the first art coordinator, Joel Smoker, made regular visits to the former mission station at Kalumburru. Here, as in Balgo Hills and several other Kimberley communities, husbands and wives customarily painted together and supported each other making artefacts such as carved and decorated boab nuts, tools and weapons, ceremonial items and the first rudimentary paintings in ochre and resin on bark. Ignatia Djanghara and her husband Waigan worked together as did Rosie and Louis Karedada and Lilly and Jack Karedada. They gathered their ochres from the local creek beds and, like their counterparts in Arnhem Land used charcoal to create black paint.
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 25 kilometres from the northern coast in 1907. 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, who was born around 1930, was already in her mid 50’s when she first began creating bark paintings related to the Wandjina. She and her husband Waigan 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, said 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’.
Ignatia’s images of Wandinas on bark are typically icon-like in shape, with rounded sides, narrower at the top than the base. The spirits are often depicted with bark buckets, unique to the Kimberley region. Gwion, or Bradshaw figures, occasionally accompany her Wandjina. These are seen throughout the region in adjacent rock art sites.
Though it is not known when Ignatia and Waigan passed away these two wonderful old Woonambool elders 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.
Through the late 1980’s even the largest Wandjina paintings (up to 2 metres high) created by Ignatia, Waigan, Jack, Louis, Rosie and Lilly could be purchased for no more than $150 each. In 1992 (several years prior to the first specialist Aboriginal art auctions) the last remaining stock of the government marketing company Aboriginal Arts Australia was sold at Lawson’s. I personally purchased 5 large boxes containing more than 100 Wandjina paintings on bark for $300 per box. All were sold through Coo-ee Aboriginal Art Gallery for less than $20 each. Since that time they have increased in value 100 fold. They are now amongst the most highly contested items at auction. This is evidenced by the fact that 25 of 27 paintings by Charlie Numbulmoore; 13 of 17 by Alec Mingelmanganu; and no less than 50 of 54 by Ignatia Djanghara have sold at auction. Works by Numbulmoore have sold for as much as $228,000 and Minglemanganu for $244,500.
By comparison Ignatia’s highest price to date is the $11,400 paid for a bark measuring 103 x 45 cm at Sotheby's in 2005 (Lot 260) and only 4 barks have sold for more than $5,000. Nevertheless her success rate is an unparalleled 93% at auction after 54 individual results have been recorded. And though her career the average price has been just $2,484 no less than 8 of her 10 highest prices have been set since 2005.
Ignatia’s larger barks tend to be divided vertically into two panels with a single Wandjina featured in the top section and either a Wandjina, Boab tree, bark bucket, snake turtle or other creature below. It is these double panel works that feature most prominently amongst her highest sales occupying 1st, 2nd 6th and 7th positions while groups of several smaller paintings sold as single lots occupy 3rd, 7th, 8th and 10th positions. In 2011, Sotheby's sold Untitled (Bark Container) (circa 1970) for $4,800, the first bark container or Coolaman to enter the top 10 results.
Both Ignatia and Waigun created these barks prolifically over a 20-year period. They are a regular feature of any Aboriginal art auction and represent fantastic value, and a wonderful entry point, for new collectors with a limited budget.