Nut carving, boab wood, carved by Jack Wherra, Derby, Western Australia, Australia, 1950 - 1960
This boab nut was carved by Jack Wherra in Western Australia during the 1950s.
By the time McCaffrey was in the Kimberley, boab nuts were carved in a range of styles that included the traditional geometric and traditional figurative modes as well as an advanced naturalistic style. McCaffrey collected more than ninety decorated boab nuts. This collection includes thirty-nine nuts carved by Ngarinyin artist Jack Wherra; at least nineteen of which are documented on tape or in McCaffrey's notes.
There is a great deal of material on the manner of carving, tools used, sequences followed in the carving process and finally a rationale created by Jack to create a narrative after the nut is completed. The stories that Jack creates call upon his own life history as well as both secular and ritual knowledge. Transcriptions of the data on eight of the nuts are to be found in McCaffrey's handwritten notes. A further forty-one nuts are carved by other artists, including Wattie Karruwara, in a more traditional fashion that reflects either the geometric or figurative style.
Jack Wherra a Ngarinyin man who had spent eighteen years in jail and was only released in early 1964 from Broome Regional Prison, was probably the best known of all Kimberley Aborigines. His skill as a tracker won him the respect of the authorities. He also won fame as a carver of boab nuts. According to one report Jack used a three inch nail and pieces of broken glass to create his works. Pocket knives were possibly forbidden to him in prison. Jack had also taken boab nut carving to a further dimension, by dividing the surface of the nut into a series of discrete and regular compartments in which he could develop a narrative sequence. His inspiration for this technique came from comic books that he accessed in prison. Not all of Jack's narratives flowed sequentially through the run of cameos that he had delineated on a nut. Depending on what he 'saw' and subsequently carved, the space could contain images of people and events or views of the Kimberley landscape - the 'environment' in which the action of the narrative occurs.
It is apparent from McCaffrey's notes that Jack developed the narrative after he had completed the carving. It is in the recording of these narratives that one finds a vast body of information about a wide range of aspects of Indigenous experience. It is as if each of his images has acted as a mnemonic trigger that permits Jack to transmit orally a body of knowledge not apparent in the imagery itself.
McCaffrey was interested in this knowledge and in the manner in which Jack developed the narrative. He was also vitally interested in learning how jack perceived images in the surface of a nut, prior to executing the work. A number of records contain dialogues or information on what it is Jack sees or does not see before he commences carving. While McCaffrey in one brief essay nominates Wattie Karruwara as an 'Eidetic Artist', it is clear from his notes that he certainly saw Jack as an artist who sought and used eidetic imagery.
Sotheby's Catalogue, The John McCaffrey Collection of Kimberley Art, July 2003
Pg 70 - 71