PROVENANCE: Executed in the late 1960s Sotheby's, Important Aboriginal Art, Melbourne, 24 June 2002, lot 27 Private collection
C.f. For related paintings and discussion about the artist see Ian M. Crawford, The Art of the Wandjina. Aboriginal Cave Paintings in the Kimberley, Western Australia, London: Oxford University Press, 1968; Tom McCourt, Aboriginal Artefacts, Australia, Rigby, 1975; Judith Ryan with Kim L. Akerman (eds.), Images of Power. Aboriginal Art from the Kimberley, Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1993.
Charlie Numbulmoore, a senior eastern Ngarinyin (Wula) cave-painter and artist, resided for many years at Gibb River Station in the central Kimberley until his death in 1971. Anthropologist Ian Crawford worked closely with Charlie throughout the 1960s and recorded many details of Wanjina art. Crawford documented Charlie repainting a Wanjina image in Mamadai cave on Karunjie Station. He also accompanied Crawford to the famous Wanalirri site on Gibb River. A detailed account of Charlie's approach to the retouching of these important images, and the techniques used, is given by Crawford in his book Art of the Wandjina (1968: pp.25-27).
In 1970, Charlie, along with other Kimberley artists including Wanjina painters from the north and central Kimberley were commissioned to produce examples of Kimberley art styles, by Helen Groger-Wurm on behalf of the then Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. These paintings are now part of the National Estate (Ryan with Akerman, 1993: pp.20-21).
Up to this period Charlie had produced individual works on request - the great surge in interest in Kimberley indigenous art was still nearly a decade away. However in 1971 Tom McCourt, a South Australian grazier with a great interest in indigenous art and material culture, visited the central Kimberley. At the time Charlie was resident at Gibb River station but visiting Karunjie Station, residents of a number of Kija-speaking people and McCourt identified Charlie with them as a 'Gidji' man. It should be noted that McCourt apparently misheard Charlie's Aboriginal name and called him "Numbulbor". At Gibb River, McCourt purchased a number of paintings, on plywood and cardboard, depicting Wanjina and 'devil-devil' (argula) beings that Charlie had executed (McCourt 1975: p.48, pp.52-53). McCourt also commissioned Charlie to paint a Wanjina figure on an archaeological millstone found on an adjacent station. Paintings of Wanjina on small stones were not common in the Kimberley, but they did occur. A number of these painted stones were recorded in a painted site during the Brockman expedition of 1901. Another, found in 1977 is now in the collection of the Western Australian Museum. In more recent years a number of stone plaques with Wanjina paintings attributed to Numbulmoore have come onto the market - unfortunately with little provenance. In 1975 Wunambal artist Wattie Karruwara also produced a number of stone slabs painted with Wanjinas and other mythic beings.
Charlie Numbulmoore's Wanjina figures are generally readily identifiable. The majority of images show just the head and upper torso. These are usually solid white (invariably derived from the mineral huntite) figures with details added in red, black and yellow. In the centre of the chest is a solid, black or occasionally red, oval form said to depict the sternum/heart or a pearl shell pendant. A very regular headdress that represents hair, or clouds, or a halo of lightning surrounds the almost circular heads. Solid, black round eyes with delicate lashes are like the orbits of a skull, deep, and black and absorbing the viewer in to the depths of the image. Indeed these eyes, along with the narrow, outlined noses suggest the silent crania of clan ancestors that still rest on shelves and in crannies of many Wanjina caves.
Numbulmoore's full-length figures are not as balanced, with large heads out of proportion with their often naturalistic doll-like bodies, quite unlike the massive grandeur of full-length figures found in shelters and caves. McCourt's photographs show other motifs used by Charlie to supplement these major images, however in most cases he simply filled in the white background with a carefully executed stippling that can be seen to follow the contours of the major figure or figures.
Some of Charlie's later Wanjina figures also depict the mouth and occasionally teeth. Traditionally the addition of a mouth to an existing Wanjina cave painting is believed to have the potential to create all manner of cataclysmic events. A further anomaly sometimes seen in Charlie's Wanjina faces is the addition of nostrils at the end of the narrow, well-defined nose. In 1982, Blundell, describing a picture collected in 1972, clearly painted by Charlie, and suggested that the inclusion of the mouth was evidence that it had been done by an 'immigrant' Aborigine, 'from a non-local tribe which does not have the Wandjina type of cave art' (Blundell 1982: fig 4, 13, 15). My own feelings are that, by painting the mouth on Wanjinas produced for sale, Charlie attempted to deconsecrate the images (see Akerman 2006: pp.96-99; 2007: pp.36-37). There is also some evidence that these anatomical additions were inserted at the request of the person or persons commissioning the work.
Unfortunately, as with many Wanjina paintings little was recorded at the time of execution as to the identity of Charlie's particular Wanjinas or their social and topographical associations. A brief survey reveals that there are at least one hundred and fifty individual Wanjinas recorded in the literature (Akerman nd. pp.119-133).
Kim Akerman, Adjunct Professor at the University of Western Australia
References: Akerman, K. 2006. Entry for Lots 61, and 62, Works by Charlie Numbulmoore. Catalogue for Sotheby's International July Sales, July 31st, 2006, Aboriginal Art. Sotheby's International. pp. 96-99. Akerman, K. nd. Wanjinas A Brief Synopsis of Knowledge to Date. Unpublished ms for the Kimberley Foundation of Australia. pp. 1-226. Blundell, V. J. 1982. Symbolic systems and cultural continuity in Northwest Australia: a consideration of Aboriginal cave art. Culture 2(1): pp.3-20. Crawford, I.M. 1968. The art of the Wanjina. Aboriginal cave paintings in Kimberley, Western Australia.London: Oxford University Press. McCourt, T. 1975. Aboriginal artefacts. Rigby, Australia. Ryan, J. with Akerman, K. (eds.) 1993.Images of Power. Aboriginal art from the Kimberley National Gallery of Victoria.