Catalogue essay by Emily Rohr
Founder of Short St Gallery, Broome (who represented and worked with Roy from 1998 until he passed away)

Roy Wiggan with Emily Rohr (image courtesy of Short St Gallery, Broome)

Roy (Buggai) Wiggan was born on Sunday Island, off One Arm Point on the Dampier Peninsula north of Broome, in circa 1930 and passed away in 2015. He was a Bardi elder and the son of Henry (Boy/Little) Wiggan (d. 1963) and Katie Wiggan, and was trained in law with his cousin Billy Ah Choo. These two men were keepers of the ilma-making tradition and its songs and dances for many years for the Bardi.

Sunday Island was a missionary outpost, off the tip of the Dampier Peninsula, but the missionaries would only visit occasionally so it was maintained as a place that was isolated, and culturally strong. The people hunted using traditional Galwa or Biel Biel (Bardi rafts) catching dugongs, turtle, crocodiles, and fish. The rafts are made from special mangrove wood, and pinned in with wooden pegs, a very elegant and stable design. They were efficiently designed one-man canoes. Every Bardi man made his own Galwa, and it was his means to provide for the community.

They would travel to all the islands around Sunday Island, King Sound and the Buccaneer Archipelago, fishing, hunting dugong and collecting turtle eggs, also different types of pearl shell, coral and wood for making traditional objects. At night the community would gather to dance with the ilma and sing the songs of their ancestors. Roy used to say our TV was our dances and songs which we did every night, by firelight. When performed by moonlight, with dancers painted in white ochre, the ilma, floating in the blackness, take on an ethereal, esoteric, mystical appearance, just like the spirits who bring the new songs to each generation.

Roy was a senior law man, who had an intimate knowledge of his country and culture. He was a proud black man as he would repeatedly tell everyone: “I was born black and I will die black and that means something.” He was a man of great power and understanding of his culture and law. He was a stickler for these traditions, and repeatedly insisted on keeping the culture alive while living in two worlds. He often burst into song. He had an extraordinary memory. The elders came to Roy in 1945 and told him that he would be trained up with his cousin in ilma making and had been chosen to be the boss of this practise and the keeper of the songs. When he was young he was a “top singer” and he felt he was chosen because of this. Although I believe it was also his connection to the spirit world.

Ilma are essentially memory triggers, which are made from things at hand – the original objet trouvé. They have been made from coral dyes, hair strings, bush cotton, painted tin, carved wood and feather down, to what Roy used in most of his works produced as artworks, ply, coloured string, acrylic paint, wire and cotton wool, on wooden struts.

Ilma are pictorial representations of a song, which are usually connected to ancestral stories, and cultural knowledge of place, i.e. whirlpools, navigation, hunting, and traditional law practices. Interestingly, stringed objects are part of traditional law and culture from the Pilbara up to the Northern Territory, although the ilma are unique to the peninsula north of Broome.

Some ilma are associated with songs passed on to younger generations about the past or as lessons in navigating the sea in treacherous conditions or about seasonal changes in the land, and knowing when things are right to eat. These are taught to children so they can remember their history and place.

When you are chosen, as Roy was, to be a custodian for this practice, it is often because you have a special gift to see and speak with spirits. There is the Ingarrda, and the Rai (little people) spirits who bring songs and ilma in dreams or in quiet moments. For Roy many of his ilma were bought to him in such a manner, particularly the ilma associated with his fathers’ miraculous survival in a big storm out at sea.

These songs and ilma tell the story of Boy or Little Wiggan being swept out to sea, on a galwa (raft) and thinking he would die, and he was presumed dead. He was very thirsty with no water, and then rain came – the rain that is heavy and fills a vessel for water. He then caught some fish. He started to follow the sea birds to find his way back.

On the way he hits a sand bar, he is walking on it and treads on a law object. This is a significant sign, and felt it had some magic in it, he started to feel hope. He then headed back out, he saw the smoke signal the community had lit and finally saw a light house and made it back to shore. He had been presumed dead, and everyone rejoiced at his safe return. This story has songs and ilma associated with it – many are in this exhibition.

There is the Janjala ilma (cat. no. 8) which refers to the type of storm that took Roy’s father out to sea. The rainbow shape is the cloud, the small circle represents the wind spinning. Under the circle the cloud starts to break apart. The top cloud doesn’t move – it stays steady while the other clouds start to break apart with the rain. This Janjala is travelling over water and when the clouds break apart, it sucks up the water and makes a waterspout. These are represented on the bottom of the clouds.

The Mayargrangballa ilma (cat. no. 12) also refers to Little Wiggan’s story: Mayargranballa is a passage, or tidal rip. When the tide comes in it is referred to as Milimillo, when the tide goes out it is referred to as Mayargrangballa. The oval shape depicts on the top (Mayargrangballa) and Gardardin (on the bottom). The outgoing tide meets at the top. Incoming tide meets at the bottom. “Dad was taken by Mayargrangballa”. The half circles represent whirlpools. The rip causes these whirlpools to have the shape of a half circle. The other two are whirlpool, created by the two outside ones (the half circles) . They are called Booay Booay. These whirlpools often start small and then become very big: “you can feel it when you’re in your raft or catamaran or dingey.”

Roy said, that when at sea around the coast and King Sound area, “you can see hundreds and hundreds of white frothy circles, then you get close and you see they are little whirlpools, fighting against each other, these are called ‘galol’.” Roy’s father was taken by a very strong wind, made by the storm. He was dragged out to sea by the Mayargrangballa passage.

There is also the Rain Drop ilma (cat. no. 17) which in the words of the song “I am out in the open sea, not knowing whether I am going to get home, but I am cleansed and feed by the drop of rain.” In Bardi, there is not just one word for rain. There are many different words, and each describes a different type of rain. This ilma refers to the heavy solid rain drops that fill a cup with water. When Little Wiggan (Roy’s father) was lost at sea, he was very thirsty and just when he thought he may die from thirst this type of rain fell and saved his life.

Other ilma in the exhibition represent more generic songs such as the Magabala ilma (cat. no. 15) which is about the magabala or bush banana which grows all around Broome and the peninsula. It is a popular native food. The One Arm Point community dance and sing to the magabala using this ilma, to make sure there is plenty of magabala for the coming season. The circles around the edge represent the flower on the magabala vine, while the small oval shapes in the bottom circle is the young fruit and the large central half circle is the fully grown fruit. The top circle is the seeds. There is also the caterpillar ilma (cat. no. 23) which is sung to fatten the caterpillars, so they are plentiful and good eating.

Some ilma such as Swan Point (cat. no. 36) are based on more scientific phenomena. This ilma represents the rain falling at Swan Point. The semi-circle at the top represents the higher lighter cloud. The two shapes coming together are the darker rain clouds merging. The circle is the heavy dark cloud above the waterhole at Swan Point up on the peninsula north of Broome near Sunday Island.

Roy died on December 3, 2015, the same day and month his father died. Everyone has been so affected by the loss of songs and vast cultural knowledge – he had a huge IP, that left this world when he did. Although recently his daughter Elaine told me of grandchildren, born after the old man died, talk to their parents about seeing and talking to Buggai. The old man is coming to the next generations in order to keep the culture alive and strong. Roy was a force, I have never met anyone like him, he was unique and I for one am not surprised that he will defy death of the physical self to ensure that the culture he loved and lived for, lives on. It certainly is present in each of these ilma.