Betty Bundamurra loves to paint! Her unique interpretations, prolific output and passion for storytelling characterize a practice that is driven by a deep connectedness with her natural environment and the embodied spirit forms of the Wandjina and the Kira Kiro.
Bundamurra began painting late in life, in 2009 at Kira Kiro Arts in Kalumburu, a small community of only 500 people established on the northern coast of Western Australia near Faraway Bay. Situated on Kwini land, today three clan groups reside here as part of the Balangarri Native Title; Kwini, Wanambal and Gamberra. It is a 10-hour drive from Kununurra in the East Kimberley region on rough 4WD tracks. Only the most dedicated reach the end of the road and make it all the way to the community. The remoteness has protected Kalumburu from too many visitors and Bundamurra’s paintings depict the wildlife and the virtually untouched paradise where she lives. However, as the arts worker at Kira Kiro Arts, Bundamurra encourages visitors to visit this remote and beautiful part of Australia, adding “three flights operate per week!”
Belonging to the Ngarinyin, Worrora and Wanambal Gamberra language groups, Bundamurra was born in the bush and then raised by nuns at the Kalmuburu Mission from the age of three when her mother passed away. She enjoyed going to school and learning to read and write. Today, she writes all her stories and with each painting the artist imparts an original narrative and character. Her stories and poems sometimes found written directly on the reverse of her paintings, particularly her works on paper, are as beautiful and inventive as her visual representations.
The artist’s subject matter is richly diverse and for her debut solo exhibition, the works presented in Wandjina’s Assistant are best categorised in two themes, with the first concerning the depiction of animals in their natural environment. These works are detailed renditions celebrating the Country the artist loves, joyfully painted with careful observation of the creatures she observes on fishing or camping trips on her Country. These creatures are also representations of Kwini Dreamtime stories and Kwini lore; parables for children and creation stories. Or like, The Whale – Wiliji, they are recent histories and contemporary anecdotes.
The second theme in Bundamurra’s work concerns the rich rock art endemic to her region; the Kira Kiro and the Wandjina or Wanilirri in Ngarinyin language. The Wandjina is the ancestral creator; the rainmaker and creator of cyclones and great floods, the protector of sacred sites and law grounds. Depicted with wide black eyes against a white, ghost-like face with a large halo, Wandjina can choose to punish people when they disobey the law by creating storms, cyclones and even denying water altogether. Bundamurra recalls her uncle George Jomari’s important role as a Ngarinyin custodian: “His job was to regularly paint one Wandjina for the family. If he didn’t there would be drought.” As the source of all life, the Wandjina is therefore powerfully depicted with reverence and confidence. They can be male or female and they have many pets and assistants and it is here the Kira Kiro spirits play an important role. They are the helpers or assistants of the Wandjina. They teach people the law, how to hunt, share, protect and respect the land and sometimes they are fierce warriors. Bundamurra often paints these figures dancing and celebrating, either because spring has arrived and the Wandjina has watered the earth, or because people are following the laws correctly and they see their work is done.
Kira Kiro figures are regularly painted by artists from Kalumburu; however, unlike the typical depiction of these figures by her peers or her ancestors on cave walls, Bundamurra’s spirits are multifarious, sometimes enlarged, exaggerated, with their limbs elongated and poetically distorted. They are adorned with extravagant headwear, tassels and artefacts, seemingly outstretched and disproportionate yet perfectly balanced. They gather together, curiously poised and exquisitely painted with spirited imagination. Bundamurra describes these spirits as creatures who float off the ground and have “little witches feet.” They live in her thoughts, come alive in her paintings and bring charm and humour to her stories for us to enjoy.
Betty is married to a Kwini man and has five children and 10 grandchildren. She dedicates her life to preserving the Kwini stories that she was taught by her elders and her husband. Through her arts practice Bundumurra continues the work of her ancestors and the work of the Kira Kiro. Her unique and playful expressiveness, her joyful images, rich imagination and love for her Country radiates through her work. Her pieces announce her knowledge and respect for Kwini culture while also illuminating the humour of this fascinating artist.
In Wandjina’s Assistant we gain an appreciation for the richness of this artist’s culture and spiritual life. We are fortunate she has bestowed to us an enchanting and lively depiction of her place in the world.