The Ngarinyin are the largest and central language group of the plateau region of the north-west Kimberley, Australia. With their neighbours the Worrora and the Wunambal–Gaambera, who share the same Wanjina–Wungurr law, they are custodians of the region. Thousands of years of living have accumulated a dense layering, of multiple generations, of imagery throughout the land. These symbols of inherited identity mark country with images of local identity that divide the landscape under Wunan law.
Wunan law began when visionary artist Wilbama created the sacred object of justice. One day, the two heroes, Wodoi and Jungan visited the artist Wilbama, but he was away hunting. Wilbama’s wife, Nyamanbiligi, gave the men permission to look at the artist’s workshop but the men took the sacred object. When Wilbama returned and discovered it gone he chased Wodoi and Jungan; he found their tracks in the stone ground. Once they met, the three men decided together that since the object was now liberated it must be shared out amongst the people and they called a conference. These men were Kamali nomads; the ancestors of the Ngarinyin. The conference brought people from the desert; Arnhemland and all north Western Australia into the Kimberley. The seventeen clans that gathered decided the moiety kinship groupings that share land though marriage and thereby divide the landscape under Wunan law. On return to their homelands the people adopted the cross marriage agreement between Wodoi and Jungun thus originating moeity kinship. This seminal conference, that began the Wunan, created localised sedentary identity thereby ending the nomadic era for the Kamali ancestors.
The positions of the seventeen clan representatives remain symbolically marked with signal stones that encircle the Wunan table at Dududu.ngarri. From this early time began the marking of law and land through art. This function of art to perpetuate ideas of law, enduring time, is powerfully evident in the numerous Gwion Gwion rock paintings and Wanjina icons throughout Ngarinyin country. The narrative of the Wunan embedded in the rock art speaks a united history of social evolution common to numerous Aboriginal language groups embracing about one third of the Australian continent.
Many painted images are established legal documents in themselves; their actual presence and location signify each of over forty dambun or inherited districts that subdivide the country under Wunan law. The complex patchwork of binary population distribution between two moeity ‘skins’ across the Kimberley region demanded a great variety of human images to reflect moiety kinship relationships. The Wunan restriction to identity connecting person and place in perpetuity is the key to reading most images of human form (If you do not know the country you cannot understand the rock art).