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Wanjina Wunggurr rock art and archival materials return to country from Germany after 80 years

Historical ethnographic collections can be of great importance for Aboriginal communities today. The processes of repatriation and efforts to make materials in overseas institutions accessible to Aboriginal Traditional Owners can be a long and challenging. This is the focus of a current project jointly coordinated by researchers from the University of Western Australia and the Frobenius Institute (Frankfurt am Main, Germany).

Portraits and paintings were displayed on large tables during the meeting. Lisa Bundamarra, Lillian Karadada and Rosa Margna (left to right) are viewing the materials (Photo: Kim Doohan)

Earlier this year, archival materials from the German expeditions to the Northwest Kimberley in 1938 and 1955 were returned to Wunambal Gaambera Traditional Owners by Kim Doohan and Joh Bornman in Kalumburu. These materials came from the Frobenius Institute and the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt (Germany). They had been digitised, translated and recorded in a database the previous year. This visit gave Wunambal Gaambera Traditional Owners the first opportunity to view drawings, photos and images of bushcraft either as copies of the original documents or in the database itself on a big screen.

Two separated spaces enabled appropriate cultural protocols to be observed during the meeting. These images show WGAC members inside the building and others sitting on the veranda outside (Photos: Joh Bornman)

Over 20 Traditional Owners inspected the materials on display in Kalumburu and a general overview of the history of the expedition and the current project’s progress was provided. Of particular interest was information on relatives depicted in the materials and contained in the database, especially for the portraits that were drawn in 1938 by the expedition artists, Gerta Kleist and Agnes Schulz. Names were not always recorded, and so it was not always possible to establish the identity of depicted persons, but this will be a focus of future work.

“Rosa, Lisa and I really enjoyed seeing the old photos and portraits of our family. There was a photo of our grandfather with a young Jack Karadada – our father and it is probably the only one which exists. That’s very special for us to see.” - Lillian Karadada, a Wunambal Gaambera Traditional Owner

The Wunambal Gaambera people are keen to develop further opportunities with the materials recorded by the Frobenius project team. Discussions have started about a possible collaborative exhibition in Germany in 2024 which could include historical materials and contemporary artworks made by Traditional Owners. In this way, the work with the historical archival materials supports and revitalises the continuation of cultural traditions.

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