Donny Woolagoodja was born in 1947 at Kunmuya Mission in the far north-west of the Kimberley. While he was still a child, the community relocated to Mowanjum, just out of Derby, and well south of Worrorra homelands. As a teenager he watched the older generation carving boab nuts and painting on bark and boards and in this way he learned the ‘stories’ of the Wanjina and Lalai. After his father Sam passed away in 1979, Donny took on his responsibilities for the land and for passing on traditions of his culture. When Donny began painting the Wanjinas on paper he quickly became one of the Mowanjum’s most successful contemporary artists. People worldwide saw the giant Wanjina he designed for the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. “My father, Sam Woolagoodja, was the last of the Worrora Tribe Banman (healer, witch doctor). He lived at Widjinuddibudbud in Larinyuwar (Doubtful Bay). It was his calling to paint the Wandjinas to keep their spirits alive. You can see him painting in the Michael Edols film “Lai Lai”. The great Wandjina Namarali was killed by a spear at Larinyuwar. There are a lot of tall rocks in the sand that represent Namarali and many other Wandjinas at Larinyuwar. The portrait in the painting is of my father Sam, and was done by Mark Norval, who is a TAFE lecturer at the Mowamjum Community where we all paint. There is a big painting of the Wandjina Namarali in a cave above the cliffs at Widjnuddibudbud. It was my father’s job – and now is my job – to keep this painting alive. The first person to paint this painting was Namarali himself.”
Donny, Mowanjum Artists Spirit of the Wandjina Aboriginal Corporation (MASWAC) chairman, is the fourth eldest of ten children. His father, Sam, was the last of the Wororra banmen (lawman and medicine man). Donny’s remarkable upbringing bridges the white Christian beliefs of which he became aware at the mission churches, and the ancient Wandjina laws his father taught him. It allows him to move easily between his Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people.
The influence of his father and grandfather can be seen in Donny’s art, which illustrates the many stories of the land to which he belongs. Soon to be a fully certified teacher of fine art, majoring in Aboriginal Art, Donny was a finalist in the 1999 Telstra National Indigenous Art Award and won the WA State Images Art Award 2000. His work was a feature of the Sydney Olympic Games opening ceremony.