• Yornadaiyn Woolagoodja with his new biography. (Supplied: Katie Breckon)Source: Supplied: Katie Breckon
Kimberly artist Yornadaiyn Woolagoodja hopes his knowledge of Country, passed down to him by his old people, will carry on forever through his new biography.
Keira Jenkins

8 Nov 2020 - 11:13 AM  UPDATED 8 Nov 2020 - 11:13 AM

Yornadaiyn (Donny) Woolagoodja grew up in the bush watching his Elders painting the Wandjina on bark and learning the creation stories of his people.

While his family was moved to Mowanjum, in Western Australia’s Kimberley region, south of their Woddordda homeland, Donny stayed connected with his people’s culture throughout his life.

“I grew up, I learned to hunt and things like that,” he told NITV News.

“It was sometimes a hard life but it was a better life than what we’re doing now.”

Now a renowned artist in his own right, Donny has released a book about his life, his art, the importance of Country and some of the cultural traditions passed down to him.

“My great-great grandfather, my father, were real artists, storytellers so I learned from them,” he said.

“I learned from the bush because I grew up in the bush. That’s something that the younger generation, they don’t know about that stuff now.

“I put it together, the stories and paintings that belong to that Country. You don’t just write a story - the stories are there in the Country.”

'Carry on forever'

It wasn’t just art that he learned from his Elders; Donny's father Sam Woolagoodja was one of the last remaining Woddordda law and medicine men. 

After his father’s death, Donny also took on responsibility for the land and educating younger generations in cultural law.

One of the most prominent of Donny’s responsibilities as both an artist and cultural knowledge holder is looking after the Wandjina, which are depicted in rock caves on his Country.

His giant Namaralay Wandjina featured in the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympic games in Sydney.

It was a moment of immense pride for Donny and his Woddordda people, watching Namaralay represented as people all over the world watched the opening ceremony.

Seeing Namaralay featured in the opening ceremony inspired Donny to do something else - visit the Namaralay Wandjina in the cave he is painted in.

He took some young people back to Country to refresh the images of Wandjina painted in the caves.

“If you want to go to a cave or something, you have to respect what’s in the cave,” Donny said.

“You smoke the Country and when you go there you show what’s in the cave respect.

“Paintings go up in the cave because that’s how our old people did it, so we’re doing the same thing as what they did.

“It’s something that we’ll carry on forever.”

For Donny, going back to Country when he can to refresh the Namaralay Wandjina is part of his responsibility to both Country and ancestors.

Donny said it gives him more pride than just painting on canvas, because he knows how important it is to keep the Wandjina happy and fresh.

While he can’t do it as often as his old people would have when they were walking out on Country, Donny said it’s still important to pass this tradition to the next generation.

“I take them (young people) back to where I grew up but it’s a very remote area so it’s very hard,” he said.

“I tell them stories about Wandjina and all that so they know about it.”

His experience growing up in the bush, learning culture from his Elders and visiting Country was Donny’s inspiration to tell his life story, with the help of Kim Doohan.

He wants his new book - titled Yornadaiyn Woolgoodja - to help future generations continue the cultural knowledge that Donny was taught by his own Elders.

“It makes me feel proud to write something I’ve never done before,” he said.

“I’ve done books before but this one is about me. It feels like this book can be something my great-great grandchildren can read when I’m gone.

“It’ll be something they can keep and they can learn something about me and about this country and things I put in there.

“It made me proud to write this book.”


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