Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 2, 2020

Yornadiyn Woolagoodja (2020), by Yornadaiyn Woolagoodja

The image on the front cover of this stunning book will be familiar to many people because it was featured in the Awakening segment of the opening ceremony at the Sydney Olympics.

The image is a Wandjina, which of the many which feature in the rock art of the Kimberley.  The author of this book, Yorna (Donny) Woolagoodja, a Woddorda man whose artwork features the Wandjina, worked with the creatives behind that part of the opening ceremony which featured Indigenous people from all over Australia.

Wandjina has no mouth because the sound of beginning cannot be heard by human ears. (p.52)

Wandjina was the first image that people found and this why they call them Wandjina because they were the first people.  The Wandjina have their own different names but we do not know all of them anymore.

If you missed it, here is the video, the Wandjina comes in towards the end at about 10:30.

In his own words: Woolagoodja explains why he wrote this book:

I have been teaching the young generation, and I take them back to Country.  To show them.  I have represented my Country, my Culture and my understanding in different ways to aalmara (non-Indigenous people) in Australia and overseas so they can get an idea.  I have worked with researchers, filmmakers, mining companies, government people and I have created a tourism venture — all to help people understand.  I have worked with many people to make books, but now I want to put my own story in my own words.  (p.15)

In this book lavishly illustrated with stunning artworks and magnificent photography, Yorna explains what Country means to him, with detailed attention to the concept of Lalai.  He acknowledges that people often don’t really understand , so it’s best if I quote him directly:

Lalai is about the creation of Country, the finding of children spirits and many other kinds of spiritual things as well as our way of life and the future and what might happen.  All the Country and all the stories go to one meaning — Lalai.

Lalai has all different stories to tell and there are lots of places where you can see what happened.  We are not talking about spirits like a ghost.  The spirits are in the stories and are in the Country.

Lalai is our history of Wandjina and Woogudd creating the Country.  They are in the Country.  You can see them in the caves, the ocean and the clouds too.  I put Lalai into my paintings to help people understand what it means to us.  (p.42)

In the chapter My Woongudd and My Family, he explains the complex kinships and also the skin rules for marriage:

We have a different way of thinking about family.  We don’t just have one mother and one father or aunty or uncle.  All the sisters from our mother or from our mother’s skin group we call them mother and they have to look after us and we have to look after them.  Any of our father’s brothers we call our father and if someone finds your Woongudd spirit then they are your father too.  And it goes like that.  We have a lot of relations and we have to know who they are and who they married to really work it out. (p.116)

Like so many elders in so many cultures, he comments on young people not respecting cultural traditions.

Things are changing with the marriages these days with young people marrying all different kinds of people from different places and forgetting the rules.  It is getting more tangled up and harder and harder to straighten up.  It is too tangled.  If they keep marrying wrong way then its gets too hard to fix up and they lose their way.  When they have kids, now, we don’t know what to call those kids.  (p.121)

Perhaps it is just the way of the world for young people to do want do things differently!

The book covers the story of Namaralay (the name of the Wandjina used at the Sydney Olympics), and also explains the concept of ‘refreshing’ rock art.  Most of us, I expect, think of rock art that’s 40,000 years old as sacrosanct, but Yorna explains that after the Olympics when everyone had seen Namaralay made fresh at Sydney, he wasn’t fresh in his own home.  So they made a special trip to the cave where that image is, found that it was fading away, and repainted it.

When I go to the Wandjina in the cave, what I am trying to do is not like doing it on a canvas.

The Wandjina, he draws you towards him, pulls you into him and that image acknowledges what you are going to do to him.  He gives you encouragement to do that thing.


It makes me feel proud, painting him rather than just doing something on canvas because something in the cave is more important than the canvas.  The canvas is selling something.  Doing something inside the cave is better because it belongs there.  It will always be there.  it is not going anywhere.  (p. 192)

This book would make a lovely Christmas gift for anyone who wants to learn about Indigenous culture, especially if they have an interest in art.

Author:  Yornadaiyn Woolagoodja
Title: Yornadaiyn Woolagoodja
Publisher: Magabala Books, 2020
ISBN: 9781925936162, pbk., 256 pages
Review copy courtesy of Magabala Books

Available from Magabala Books or your favourite indie bookshop or Fishpond: Yornadaiyn Woolagoodja


  1. This sounds beautiful Lisa … I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Wandjina in Kakadu, though I may be wrong. I have been to the Kimberley too so maybe there!

    That’s interesting about young people and marrying the wrong people. My guess is that happened less in traditional days when there weren’t so many outside influences, though I think they still do have stories of people loving the wrong person. But now, with so many different ideas coming at them, you can see that they may not want to feel constrained by “old” rules. This is tricky for cultures – any cultures – when they meet other cultures, isn’t it?

    This comment – “We are not talking about spirits like a ghost. The spirits are in the stories and are in the Country.” I think it is this that makes conceptualising Indigenous beliefs so tricky for us brought up in a Judao-Christian tradition – the thinking is SO different. I often feel that I’ve nearly grasped Indigenous belief systems, and then away it slips again. I guess the point is to understand that it is different, that it is equally valid, and that it is important.


    • I think there are always going to be problems when older people stick rigidly to beliefs that are not compatible with new ideas that appeal to young people, especially when it comes to falling in love! Live and let live, I say, but they shouldn’t be surprised when their youngsters go their own way.


      • They shouldn’t, but theirs is a very different culture to our western culture. For a start, you respect elders and traditions! Our culture does not have that anywhere near as embedded. So, I think an older person in their culture is more likely to be surpnsed I think that one in ours.


        • Well, they used to say that about the Chinese, but we see cross-cultural marriages all the time: our neighbourhood FB group always shows us photos of the new owners when a house has been sold (because the group was set up by a local real estate agent) and both the last two houses have gone to cross-cultural Chinese-Australian couples, and they are not alone in our neighbourhood either.
          And in the Jewish community, (which I know quite well) and which postwar had more reasons than most to nurture its traditions by marrying ‘in’ rather than ‘out’, there have been plenty of marriages outside the faith.
          Love knows no boundaries!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. You’re quite right Lisa. I think I’ll give it to youngest daughter who buys Aboriginal art and has children who I’m sure will also be interested. And. Must buy more Magabala books.


    • They’re going from strength to strength.
      Do you ever get up that way, near Broome?


      • I would like to run to the Kimberley and NT but I seem to be stuck on east-west. I’ve probably only done half a dozen loads to Broome ever, and passed by – Broome is 20 or 30 kms off the highway – a few more times, the last being this April.


        • There was a time when I thought I might do a small ship WA coastal cruise that took in the Kimberley, but …um.. cruises seem like a really bad idea now.


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