Gwion Gwion figures occur in rock art throughout the central and west Kimberley. They are also called Bradshaw figures after Joseph Bradshaw, the first European person to describe them in 1891. They usually appear as thin and elegantly drawn figures in mulberry red ochre. They are of great age and are regarded by Aboriginal people of the west Kimberley as an important part of their cultural heritage.
This ancient image has two names or forms according to the Ngarinyin lawmen of the west Kimberley in whose country they abound.
“Gwion Gwion started up Stone Age. He made those paintings when he was a man. Before he was a bird. He made that gimbu – stone point, and tomahawk. Cracked open that rock, made spear and gimbu. Started up the Law from this time. Made knife. That’s how they get ‘im out of that string (vein), that blood, initiation. Use that gimbu to get out that blood. Those Djinarrgi Djinarrgi dancing together, in a row, a circle, ceremony. That’s why ceremony keeps going today, from those images. The Gwion Gwion bird has a long nose. It’s hard to find him because he walks around at night. We know how to find him. I’m Gwion Gwion Man” (David Mowaljarlai (d.1997) in conversation with Paddy Neowarra, Paddy Wamma and Laurie Cowanulli (d. 2000)
Gwion Gwion is the name of a long-beaked bird which pecks at the rock face to catch insects, and pecks into tissue, sometimes drawing blood. In Ngarinyin cosmology the Gwion Gwion started out as a spirit-man. He cracked open rocks to reveal the stone tools locked inside, the gimbu (knife), spear point and axe. The gimbu was then able to be used for initiation, and with the other stone tool technology, for hunting and gathering.
As ‘spirit-man’, Gwion Gwion is also known as ‘Djinarrgi Djinarrgi’, or ‘Messenger’. When in the presence of the Djinarrgi, people have to be very quiet and reverent. In some images Djinarrgi Djinarrgi appear to be dancing in circles, and in lines, often passing objects from one to the other. In this form they represent the gift of ceremony, and the sharing system that ceremony celebrates. To this day, Ngarinyin men dress in the same way as the Djinarrgi, for ceremony and dance.
All the rock art images appear as stains on the rock surface with no trace of any surface pigments. Blank spaces in some of the paintings suggests that they were originally painted in more than one colour. The depiction of multiple-barbed spears suggests that they were painted before the development of modern pressure-flaking techniques and they are often painted over by other images, indicating that they are of considerable age.
The image on the right side of all pages on this Web site is based on a Gwion Gwion figure in a rock shelter in the west Kimberley on country of the Ngarinyin people. The image is used with the permission of the traditional owners.
Joseph Bradshaw was obviously impressed with the paintings he first saw in 1891 while walking in a gorge in the Prince Regent River area. His notes from the trip were subsequently published in the Transactions of the Royal Geographical Society of Victoria in 1892:
We saw numerous caves and recesses in the rocks, the walls of which were adorned with native drawings. coloured in red, black, brown, yellow, white and a pale blue. Some of the human figures were life size, the bodies and limbs were attenuated and represented as having numerous tassel-shaped adornments appended to their hair, neck, waist, arms and legs; but the most remarkable fact in connection with these drawings is that whenever a profile face is shown the features are of a most pronounced aquiline type, quite different from the native we encountered. Indeed, looking at some of the groups one might think himself viewing the painted walls of an Egyptian temple. These sketches seemed to be a great age.
Dating the rock art images is difficult. So far, two different techniques have been used (at different sites). One analysis of single quartz grains embedded in a mud wasp nest using the luminescence method gave a minimum date of 17,500 (±1,800) years before present (BP). Another analysis using the radiocarbon method gave more a recent date of 1,450 to 3,900 years BP. The disparity between these dates may reflect problems with the dating techniques, or it may reflect the fact that the images are part of a very long art tradition in the Kimberley stretching across hundreds of generations.