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The painter’s eye, the painter’s voice: language, art and landscape in the Gija world


Language Gija
Depositor Frances Kofod
Affiliation Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring, Kununurra, Western AustraliaWarmun Art Centre, Warmun, Western Australia
Location Australia
Collection ID 0098
Grant ID MDP0190
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Summary of the collection

The project aims to document significant aspects of the encyclopaedic knowledge of the natural and cultural world of the Gija, with a focus on the mythological, historical and ecological knowledge associated with sites depicted in artists’ paintings, and on the language used to describe paintings, dance and song performance.


Group represented

Gija people whose traditional country is in the East Kimberley region. Today, 800 or more Gija people live in Warmun Community (Turkey Creek), Kununurra, Halls Creek and some other small outstations including Bow River, Frog Hollow and Imintji. Only people over sixty are fluent speakers of Gija, and still frequently use it among themselves. Some people aged 40-60 have a reasonable but not complete fluency in Gija. Young people identify as Gija and frequently express pride in their country and language affiliation but generally do not use the language in their daily lives. All younger people use Kimberley Kriol as a lingua franca. In communication with non-indigenous people, English is used to varying degrees, depending on the degree of formal education. Only English is used in education and the media except for special “Gija Days” in Warmun and occasional broadcasts through the community radio station in Halls Creek. There have only been occasional language programs at some of the local schools.


Language information

Gija is a member of the non-Pama-Nyungan Jarragan language family from the East Kimberley in north western Australia. The other Jarragan languages are Miriwoong and Gajirrabeng. Gija has two dialects with clear lexical and phonological differences, one spoken in and around Warmun and one spoken at Halls Creek. A linguistic feature of Gija distinguishing it from the languages of surrounding groups is a three-gender nominal system marked by suffixes, interacting with a singular-nonsingular distinction.

Gija is not used in writing in daily life. Existing linguistic and teaching materials have been produced in two slightly different orthographies; the one to be used in this project corresponds to the one also used to write the related language Miriwoong, and the one that Gija people familiar with written English tend to use these if writing their own language.


Special characteristics

This collection includes examples of Gija from up to 40 different speakers with many painting stories from artists who are leading figures in the East Kimberley art movement.


Collection contents

The collection includes earlier recordings digitised from other formats and new audio and video recordings and Toolbox text transcriptions.


Collection history

Three senior Gija people have passed away during the past year. With the loss of each Gija elder another volume of the encyclopaedia of Gija knowledge is lost for ever. It is a matter of urgency that recordings of their language in all kinds of contexts be made before it is too late.

The main researcher of the documentation project, Frances Kofod, is the linguist with the longest experience working on Gija (almost continuously since 1987) and the only linguist currently working on the language. Her work on languages of the Jarragan family dates back to 1971; her MA dissertation (Kofod 1978) is a grammar of Miriwoong. Some documentary, descriptive and applied work on Gija has been done in collaboration with the Kimberley Language Resource Centre (KLRC) in Halls Creek and the Ngalangangpum school at Warmun (Turkey Creek). During 1995, Kofod produced an intro­ductory, non-technical grammar of the language (Kofod 1996) for the KLRC.

Over a period of almost two decades, Kofod has made many recordings with Gija artists to produce painting documentation for two local Arts cooperatives, Waringarri Arts (1989-1996) and Jirrawun Arts (1999-2006). In 2002, she provided the bilingual texts in Gija and English for the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition ‘Blood on the Spinifex’ at the Ian Potter Museum (Melbourne, 2002-3). The most recent project involving a Gija artist was a catalogue for the retrospective exhibition of work by the late Mr Bedford at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Sydney, 2006). This included edited Gija texts with recordings made available for visitors to the exhibition.

In 2001 and 2002, Kofod worked with the celebrated Gija singer, dancer and painter Peggy Patrick as linguist, cultural consultant and community liaison person assisting the production Fire, Fire Burning Bright staged during the Perth International Festival of the Arts (February 2002) and the Melbourne International Arts Festival (October 2002). In 2006, Kofod successfully obtained funding for one year (August 2007 to July 2008) from AIATSIS to record and prepare Peggy Patrick’s Autobiography in Gija with an English translation and accompanying edited audio files.

In addition to this substantial corpus of Gija recordings, approximately 60 hours of which have been transcribed and translated, Kofod’s long-term work has also resulted in a Gija lexical database with 2,500 entries. These recordings embody a wealth of Gija people’s knowledge on many areas of historical and cultural significance for the Gija people.


Acknowledgement and citation

To refer to any data from the collection, please cite as follows:

Kofod, Frances. 2013. The painter’s eye, the painter’s voice: language, art and landscape in the Gija world. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

In addition, the individual speakers should be acknowledged by their initials and the date of recording if known.

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