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Berbara Backstrom: Wandjina

Barbara Backstrom, Wandjina

The Artist

According to the Australian Art Print Network,  Barbara Backstrom identifies strongly with her Aboriginal grandmother who came from the Fitzroy River country in the north of Western Australia, commonly known as the Channel country.

Born in Derby, Western Australia in 1949, Backstrom has a rich heritage. Her mother is Aboriginal and Chinese whilst her father has an English/Jewish heritage. Her grandmother’s people were called Miangla of which there are very few people left.

Backstrom’s work often depicts the Dreamtime with the Wandjina looking over the people and the Rainbow Serpent who carved out the rivers and the gorges.

Backstrom’s first artistic endeavours involved carving boab nuts for which she won the Aboriginal artefacts section in 1992 at the Derby, West Kimberley Craft Festival. The line she uses in all her work, including her lithographs, comes from her Aboriginal heritage, indicating the natural channel system of small creeks and rivers.

Wandjina by Barbara Backstrom

The work of art

The Wandjina is the creation ancestor  of the Kimberley Aboriginal people. It's mythology dates from the same period as the Rainbow Serpent. Both were responsible for creating the features of the landscape and all plant and animal life. The Wandjina is a powerful fertility spirit who brings the monsoon rains. It keeps the spirits of unborn babies in special freshwater pools which are used by women during ceremonies. Young married women swim in these pools  in the hope of falling pregnant. The Wandjina is never depicted with a mouth for fear the heavens would open and the rain would never stop. It is considered the great nurturing spirit and the earliest of all the spirits ancestors  venerated by the people of Western Australia's North.

IN 1992 a small square stone coated with a thin layer of bitumen and a sharp engraving stylus was sent to Barbara by art dealer Adrian Newstead of Sydney's Coo-ee Gallery. Less than a month later it was returned unbroken and fully inscribed. The proofing and editioning too place at Studio One  in Canberra. The production was such a success, another small stone was sent to her, this time with the me of a firefly corroboree. A third stone, the largest and most ambitious was sent in  April of 1993 inscribed and returned again, but arrived in fragments.

Printmaking is popular among Aboriginal artists who are confronting the challenges of working with new technologies, seeking to participate in collaborations and cultural exchanges worldwide while at the same time moving towards economic independence.