With their radically unique appearance, and occupying a liminal space between painting, sculpture and performance objects, Roy Wiggan’s ilma are amongst the most original artworks made in Australia. Beautifully crafted using painted plywood, nails, thread and cotton, the ilma are rare hand-held objects that were used in traditional dances and ceremonies by the Bardi people in North-Western Australia. Roy Wiggan, an elder of his community and custodian of many sacred Bardi stories, decided to create these beautiful objects to preserve the ilma for future generations.

We are pleased to present some of the largest ilma that Roy Wiggan ever made as part of the public installation programme of Sydney Contemporary from 7-10 September 2023, with further works in our booth (A02). Request a price list here.


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.

We would like to acknowledge Roy’s daughter, Elaine Wiggan, and Emily Rohr for their assistance in the preparation for this exhibition. We strongly recommend reading the catalogue essay kindly provided by Emily Rohr, which speaks to the incredible legacy that is still felt within his community.