Roy Wiggan was from the Bardi group in Western Australia. Ilma is a term that references open ceremonies performed by the Bardi people and the objects used in these ceremonies. The Bardi’s country is situated north of Broome on the Dampier Peninsula, Western Australia. Ilma ceremonies are composed and owned by individuals. These men are said to have received the songs, and the form of the dances from rai spirits of dead men.
(Extract from Western Desert Appeal catalogue / assoc. with Papunya Tula exhibition 2000)
Bardi totems are complex in design, and are distinctively different from the more basic string cross designs in other areas of the Kimberley. The Bardi and neighbouring Jawi were a truly seafaring people who built flimsy rafts from light mangrove poles fastened together with wooden skewers. The people lived largely off marine products and had an unparalleled understanding of the intricacies of the treacherous tides, rips, whirlpools and overfalls for which the Buccaneer Archipelago is infamous.
Roy Wiggan, an elder of the Bardi tribe who lived many years on Sunday Island, is disappointed that his people are now prepared to dance only for tourists when a transaction of money is involved. He has therefore decided to make totems for sale, and hopes to promote a greater appreciation and understanding of his culture through this means. Lord McAlpine initially commissioned Roy Wiggan to make totems, known to the Bardi as ilma, for special occasion dances in Broome and Kooljiman at Cape Leveque. Roy turned out hundreds of ilma which were stored in a warehouse in Broome, and through the auspices of Mary Macha, these eventually went to the National Maritime Museum in Sydney. Most of Roy’s ilma designs come to him through the spirit of his deceased father, Henry Wiggan, who skippered the Sunday Island Mission lugger. Indeed, there is whole series of dances based on the life and adventures of Henry Wiggan.
During the war, the mission on Sunday Island closed down and the Bardi and Jawi people who had lived there were transferred to the Derby Reserve. Here they subsisted in abject conditions surrounded by mudflats, continually dreaming of a return to their beloved blue-water islands. Anthropologist Michael Robinson worked with these people during this crucial period, and presented a Masters Thesis to UWA.
Billy Ah Choo, one of the refugees from Sunday Island, was working on Camballin Station chasing birds off the rice fields when a series of songs came to him centred around the life of his close friend Henry Wiggan who had died. Billy’s son Sammy is continuing with these songs and traditions, and Roy Wiggan, the eldest son of Henry, regularly has spiritual visits from his father who brings designs for the ilma Roy now creates. Many of these designs revolve around an epic saga when his father was washed out into the Indian Ocean on his raft which broke in half. He survived for three days before miraculously being carried back to Sunday Island by freak tides – and helping spirits. One of the ilma represents the flashing lighthouse at Cape Leveque. Others feature fish, birds, jellyfish, a seaweed that gives protection to pearlshells, a smoke signal, a waterspout, whirlpools and many more.
Another misadventure with a happy ending occurred while Henry Wiggan was skipper of the Mission lugger. The vessel, which was under sail and had no engine, was becalmed and swept away in a fierce tidal rip. After being trapped in a whirlpool, the lugger was dashed against Mid Rock, a jagged outcrop located between East and West Roe Islands. The mast was broken and Henry’s shoulder injured, but they nevertheless survived due to his singular power as a medicine man. He was able to conjure up a huge turtle which swam under the lugger and carried it back to the safety of Sunday Island!
The artist passed away in late 2015.