On Wednesday 18 July 2012, Mary Anne Jebb (The Australian National University) presented research in a paper entitled “Vernacular Histories: Agency and Challenge in Jack Wherra’s Carved Visual Narratives”.
Permission to publish these photos has been granted by Mowanjum Aboriginal Community and Gwen Puemorra, Jack Wherra’s granddaughter.
In this presentation I explore the encounter between Aboriginal artist Jack Wherra and American anthropologist John McCaffrey in the 1960s. I combine analysis of Wherra’s visual imagery and his recorded interviews to investigate the idea of vernacular histories. Jack Wherra was born in the bush in the remote north Kimberley in about 1920. Because of his involvement in four ‘tribal’ murders between 1940 and 1945, he spent 19 years in Broome gaol where he had access to Phantom comics, and where he developed a high profile for his miniature framed story friezes carved into boab nuts. By 1963 he was being compared to Namatjira, and was released from prison in 1964. He died in 1978.
In 1964, six months after Wherra’s release from prison, John McCaffrey came to the Kimberley to research the notion of eidetic imagery in Indigenous art. He commissioned Wherra to carve more than 60 boab nuts and recorded more than 80 hours of interviews with him. The interviews and many of the carved images present unusually graphic and explicit information about the Kimberley frontier including Wherra’s dreams and visionary experiences. These stories traverse the edge of historical imagination, oral history and memory. Wherra who did not read or write, created his own visual narrative code, or vernacular historical language to communicate significant and sometimes challenging elements of his culture and autobiography and his people’s history.