The stolen Wandjina totem takes Cultural Appropriation to a new level

Protection: To explain current protection simply, an Aboriginal Artist is protected against people copying their specific works, but as far as current laws are concerned - anyone can abuse and misuse cultural icons/totems whenever they choose. Artists in Black, which represents First Nations artists, communities and arts organisations have been working on getting a commitment from governments to provide cultural protection, but have so far been unsuccessful. More here

Wanjina Watchers exhibition by Gina Sinozich at the Governor's Palace in Rijeka
Vesna Tenodi at the 'Wanjina Watchers' exhibition by Gina Sinozich at the Governor's Palace in Rijeka, Croatia.

21 January 2017 (Updated in 2017 & 2018)

A Croatian born artist Vesna Tenodi who has an Art Centre in the Blue Mountains stole the sacred image of the Wandjina in 2009 and commissioned a large Wandjina sculpture at the front of her gallery and has produced many contemporary works misusing the sacred image ever since.

Vesna Tenodi
Vesna Tenodi invited Artists to paint 'Wanjina' (Wandjina) as a Sydney protest to censorship of her commissioned Wandija sculpture.

Many of the local First Nations people objected strongly and a Worora Tribal custodian of the Wandjina travelled over 4,000 kilometers from West Kimberley to tell her the statue seriously offended his people, but she discarded what he said by saying her actions were a "revival of Aboriginal spirituality", even though she was born on another continent and the culture of the sacred Wandina is still practiced by its peoples.

It took many months and strong protesting by local people before the statue was finally ordered to be removed by the New South Wales Land and Environment Court over a permit technicality.

Tenodi has had online and Sydney Street protests regarding what she calls inappropriate censorship.

The Wanjina Spirit

The Worrora, Ngarinyin and Wunambal people from the Northern Coastal region of the Kimberley can trace their ancestry directly back to the Wandjina spirit ancestors. Dreamtime stories say the Wandjina created the landscape and its inhabitants, the many stories associated with the Wandjina are represented in these paintings.

The 'Wandjina' are cloud and rain spirits who, during the Dream time, created and influenced the landscape and its inhabitants - their spirit is kept alive with stories, dance and painted images by the 3 Tribal Nations in the North Eastern coastal region of the Kimberley, Western Australia.

Only people who know the stories about the Wandjina are permitted to produce these sacred images and in current times the people from these tribes maintain the many ancient cave images and paint Wandjina'a on bark and canvasses.

Under the guidance of the people, the Wandjina was used in the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics and more recently at 'Lighting The Sails: Songline', Vivid Live 2016, at the Sydney Opera House on Bennelong Point. The Wandjina being used at the Sydney events were not taken lightly and carried out under the supervision on Donny Woolagoodja, a senior Worora cultural custodian.

The Cultural Appropriation

Definition: Cultural Appropriation is when a person or persons take an important element from a culture or race other than their own and use it outside its original context, or in a way that ignores its cultural significance. More

Ms Tenodi is the owner, together with her husband Damir, of the ModroGorje Wellness and Art Centre in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales.

Originally from Croatia, Tenodi ruffled feathers in 2009 when she published her book "Dreamtime Set in Stone: The Truth about Australian Aborigines", an exploration of Indigenous culture that was dedicated to "the Aboriginal people and to the Aborigine in each of us". But the book offended many local First Nations people, not least for its illustrations of Wandjina, the sacred creator.

Vesna Tenodi 'Wanjina Watchers' Whispering Stone, sclupture by Ben-Osvath
Vesna Tenodi and artist Ben-Osvath producing what they call 'Wanjina Watchers' Whispering Stone in 2009. (Images obtained from various Newspaper reports)

According to Vesna Tenodi, her unauthorised and inappropriate representation of the carved Wandjina (using the spelling 'wanjina') was meant to be the Dreamtime set in stone, a celebration of reconciliation and a "revival of Aboriginal spirituality".

"It's totally inappropriate for a non-indigenous person to be doing Wandjina's, especially without permission," said Chris Tobin, a member of the local Dharug people who works as a guide with the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

"Aboriginal law is very specific on what you can and can't do with Wandjinas."

A spokesperson from Blue Mountains City Council confirmed a development application was required to be lodged for the sculpture because the property contains a building of heritage.

She said council understands a development application from the gallery owner is forthcoming, but no such application was received.

Work began on the sculpture within the property in December 2009.

Kimberley cultural elder Donny Woolagoodja and local Dharug man Chris Tobin standing in front of 'Wanjina Watchers in the Whispering Stone', when Donny traveled to the blue Mountains in an attempt to stop this abuse of his culture.

When the sculpture was complete, the owner of Coo-ee Aboriginal Art Gallery in Bondi, Adrian Newstead, said local First Nations people have every right to be disgusted. "Only a few Aboriginal artists ever win the right to depict Wandjina, and only then after years of initiations and ceremonies. And then this artist rocks up and says, 'Bugger all that; I'll just do whatever I like'."

Dharug man Chris Tobin warned her about the cultural misappropriation, but she ignored him out of hand, and matters escalated after she commissioned the Sydney artist Ben Osvath to sculpt the sandstone mural of a Wandjina. She describes the work as a "magic stone" with "special healing powers". The night before its unveiling on March 6 it was attacked with an axe.

Contemporary Wandjina Dummy
Works degrading the sacred Wandjina are still being created, commissioned, encouraged and promoted by Vesna Tenodi. An exhibition of a clown like figures based on the 'Wandjina' were used in Botany Bay in 2012. She writes that these artworks form part of the ongoing 'DreamRaiser' project, in which both Australian and international artists explore the idea of the sacred and the divine in a number of ancient traditions, especially the Wanjina and Bradshaw themes as created by the Pre-Aboriginal races of Rajanes and Abrajanes. More here (including Wandjina's dressed as clowns).

"Some of the locals are going on with the whole 'you are stealing our culture' routine," Osvath says. "But I am an art teacher, and in art it's anything goes."

Osvath, who was teaching at Matraville Sports High School, says there was a "vigilante thing" going on in Katoomba. The sculpture's opponents set up a website, which criticised Tenodi for holding in contempt "important spiritual beliefs".

Tenodi, who then temporarily moved to Sydney after the fiasco, claimed her Katoomba house had been vandalised. "The police advice was to cut my losses and move away while we can," she says.

Asked if she had sought permission to use the image, Tenodi says she did not need to. "It was actually the other way around - the spirits asked me to do this. They asked me to revive the tradition which has turned into dead knowledge, and I agreed."

When Donny Woolagoodja a leading elder of the Kimberley 'Worora' tribe found out about the Wandjina being misused he was shocked, and he traveled to Katoomba on March 13 2010 to express his concern over the "inappropriate use" of Wandjina images, which he said are an integral part of the living sacred tradition of three tribes who live at *Mowanjum Community near Derby, Western Australia.

Mr Woolagoodja, chairman of Mowanjum Artists Spirit of the Wandjina Aboriginal Corporation, claimed attempts to engage Vesna Tenodi in meaningful conversation were unsuccessful.

He said she directed him to read the plaque near the sculpture and to read her book called 'Dreamtime Set in Stone: The Truth About Australian Aborigines', as this would explain everything.

"We feel we are being disrespected by what the lady is doing," Mr Woolagoodja said.

"She is taking the spiritual being that belongs to the three tribes at Mowanjum — the Worrorra, the Ngarinyin and the Wunambul.

"When she rang Mowanjum Art Centre they said no to her, she did not get any agreement and put all these things up without our permission.

"Culture is very important for our community, especially for our young generation. If they see something like this happen, it's very bad.

Wanjina Watchers exhibition by Gina Sinozich at the Governor's Palace in Rijeka

"The people in NSW, they've got totem that we don't go and copy — we respect them and any other people should respect our way of life, our images."

According to Mrs Tenodi's book "those who matter" were consulted, but when it came to being more specific she refused to answer any questions.

Threats were made regarding the sculpture and it was vandalised the night before its official launch on March 6th 2010.

Regarding the threats to the gallery owner, Chris Tobin conceded that such threats may have been made "in the heat of the moment" but "we do believe there will be spiritual repercussions for Vesna for doing these things".

Misappropriation of Aboriginal culture is hardly new. In 1997 the Aboriginal artist Eddie Burrup was unmasked as being a non-indigenous painter, Elizabeth Durack; a year later, one of the brightest stars in Aboriginal art, Sakshi Anmatyerre - whose buyers included the Sultan of Brunei, the Brisbane Broncos, Paul Hogan and the Packer family - turned out to be an Indian artist named Farley French.

More recently, Mayvic, a wholesaler of household goods, was forced to withdraw "authentic" Aboriginal rock art magnets after the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission raised concerns.

But Vesna Tenodi has been unmoved. "And we'll keep on doing it no matter what the local community might say. Besides, the stone has become a landmark. Soon it will be better known around the world than the Three Sisters."

The inadequate colonial Laws of Protection

The Arts Law Cenre of Australia said the Dharug and Gundungurra Aboriginal people of the Blue Mountains area were mortified that this conduct was occurring on their traditional lands and felt embarrassed and responsible. All five groups were upset by the unauthorized and disrespectful appropriation of important cultural imagery.

The NSW Land and Environment Court ruled for the sculpture to be pulled down in 2011. - Happy with ruling was local Aboriginal people, Willingin and Ngarinyin Aboriginal Corporations director Gordon Smith, Ngarinyin Aboriginal Corporation public officer Heather Winter, traditional owner from Gundungurra Tribal Council (GTC) Kathleen Brown, Blue Mountains Aboriginal Culture and Resource Centre manager Jennifer Wilkins, GTC chairwoman Sharon Brown and GTC claimant officer Elsie Stockwell.

(Blue Mountains Gazette)

They contacted the group 'Artists in the Black'.

They stated on their case studies page that although the sculpture was clearly a Wandjina, it did not appear to be a copy of any particular artwork by a known artist and therefore no complaint about infringement of copyright could be made. Copyright protects individual creators of artwork – this situation concerned rights regarded as traditional or communal rights to an aspect of Indigenous culture (also called Indigenous cultural intellectual property or ICIP). Artists in the Black has long been advocating for protection of ICIP but legislative reform is yet to occur. We looked for another solution.

They went on to say that this case highlights the current gaps in protection provided to Indigenous cultural and intellectual property (ICIP) under Australian laws. It also illustrates how sometimes other laws can be used to protect cultural heritage.

'Artists in the Black' hopes that this case can be used to demonstrate the need for stronger legislation to protect ICIP.

Sharing the culture

Donny Woolagoodga
Donny Woolagoodja seen here at the Blue Mountains gallery in 2009, Donny carries the stories of Wandjina as a Worora cultural caretaker, community leader, artist and art manager.

Donny Woolagoodja is a renowned Kimberley artist whose giant Namarali Wandjina featured in the opening ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games and Vivid Sydney 'songlines' projection show in 2016. He is the chairman of the Mowanjum Artists Spirit of the Wandjina Aboriginal Corporation.

Born at Kunmunya Presbyterian Mission, Donny was moved along with his family to Mowanjum (meaning 'Home at Last'), well south of their Worrora homeland. There he watched his elders paint the Wandjinas on bark and boards, and learnt the stories of Lai Lai (creation).

His father was Sam Woolagoodja, one of the last law and medicine men of the Worora people. After his father’s death in 1979, Donny took on responsibility for the land and for the passing on of cultural traditions. He leads walking and camping tours in the west Kimberley, educating younger generations in cultural law and the importance of the land.

Donny co-wrote Keeping the Wandjinas Fresh with Valda Blundell, published by Fremantle Press in 2005. It traces the story of his cultural inheritance, as well as the role his father played in maintaining sacred Wandjina cave paintings.

The Wandjina featured in the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Summer Games in Sydney (Mowanjum Artist and Worora cultural adviser, Donny Woolagoodja)

'Lighting The Sails: Songlines' was a spectacular light installation at the Sydney Opera House at Bennelong Point as part of Vivid Sydney 2016. These images were provided by Donny Woolagoodj, Mowanjum artist and Worora cultural adviser, Donny Woolagoodja)

Location Map of the Worrorra, the Ngarinyin and the Wunambul lands (AIATSIS Tribal - Language Group Map 1994)

* Although many of the Worrorra, Ngarinyin and Wunambul peoples now live in Mowanjum near Derby, West Kimberley, some members of the three tribes also live at Kalumburu (East Kimberley) and in Homeland outstations throughout the Kimberley northern coastal region. (some of these tribal names have varied spellings - generally understood pronunciations are: wor-ora, narin-yin, wunam-bool.)