Skip navigation
The Australian National University

Cyclo-Creatia Ethnographica – Discussed by Bruno Jordanoff

Elisa deCourcy and Martyn Jolly had a fascinating conversation with Bruno Jordanoff, and the following is based on that conversation

I was born and spent a fantastic portion of my life growing up in the Kimberley, so I have always found myself drawn to collecting many forms of physical, visual and aural artifacts relating to the region. Early in 2013 I procured a lantern slide which, based on other examples I had seen, I believed would have been in circulation around the 1920-30s. The slide was labeled 'Y33'. I guessed from the types of artifacts in the scene that the image came from the Kimberley region. I forwarded a digital copy of the slide to my friend Kim Akerman. I asked Kim about the headdress worn by the character shown kneeling in the composition. I wondered if it was connected to the pelican headdress I knew to have been worn by Butcher Joe Nangan in the Kimberly right up until the 1980s. Kim replied that he had previously come across another version of the same image in a book from 1928. The caption to the book’s illustration ‘Moth, Bugong and Caterpillar Totem-Men’ suggested that the image was from Eastern Australia, but Kim told me he had shown the illustration to ‘Butcher’ Joe who confirmed it was of himself, Joe, as a young man, and was taken close to the time that 'Pelican Dance’ was created.

Kim wanted a high-resolution image of the slide for his records, but I only had a domestic grade scanner. My father, who incidentally as chief librarian of the Broome Public Library and Art Gallery had helped organize an exhibition of Joe’s works back in the 1980s put me in touch with Patrick Baker from the WA Maritime Museum who was able to produce a high quality copy of the slide. Patrick, in-turn, had plenty of anecdotes for me from his time on the Kimberley coast some 35 odd years earlier. A short time after I asked Kim if he would like the slide. I thought it would be more useful in the hands of someone who knew what they were doing. He traded me a hard-to-find book on Kimberley rock art for it, one article born of the Kimberley for another. When I was asked by Heritage in the Limelight to write on ‘My Favourite Slide’ I asked Kim Akerman to confirm the details we had initially discussed in 2013. He confirmed that the photograph from 1928 showed Joe as a young man dressed in the pelican headdress which had been shown to him by Kintimayi (see further reading). He is accompanied by two other dancers dressed as balangan, spirits of the dead. Joe performed the mayata nula that recreated the original visitation until 1985, with the distinctive niwalki thread-cross pelican headdress becoming a local icon of Aboriginal culture. Kim told me he had shown the 1928 book to Joe and Paddy Roe at their home at Mamabulandja in Broome and they identified Joe in his pelican headgear. In my mind, this slide, along with its mysterious label ‘Y33’ is important to illustrate the point that even though we are presented with seemingly small and obscure images, which are often initially offered up with large helpings of ‘red herring’, the perseverance of more oral and physical traditions still continually help us to grow a bigger picture from them, even after ninety years.

Picture of Joseph ('Butcher Joe') speaking about the Pelican Headdress. Image Supplied courtesy of Bruno Jordanoff. 

Further reading:

Kim Akerman, ‘Joseph (‘Butcher’ Joe) Nangan’ 1900-1989, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre for Biography, Australian National University. Accessed online, 22 February 2017.

‘Butcher Joe Nangan: An Introduction’, Desert, River, Sea Project, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth.


Updated: 27 February 2017/ Responsible Officer:  Head of Office / Page Contact:  Web Publisher