Geraldton goes Wajarri
A city revitalises its endangered Aboriginal language
— A project by Pia Lanzinger



The slow extinction of the languages of the Aboriginal people, persecuted and exploited by Australia’s “civilised” conquerors, was until recently the declared goal of the colonial power. In Geraldton, a harbour city on the continent’s west coast, Wajarri is the main Aboriginal language – albeit spoken fluently by less than 50 persons.

The project aims to give the language a larger forum by smuggling Wajarri into the city’s public spaces. Geraldton’s residents were invited to adopt a Wajarri word and special T-shirts featuring the imprinted word functioned as a communicative signal. This shall not only put a halt to the vanishing of a language but also serve as a reminder of the ongoing repression Australia’s indigenous population are still exposed to.

Adopt a Wajarri word

Residents of Geraldton, surrounding neigbourhoods and individuals across Western Australia and beyond are invited to adopt a Wajarri word. Each participant should be willing to learn to speak that word, use it in day-to-day life and effectively be a mentor for the language in public. Through this approach, the language of Wajarri will become alive and present in the lives of the citizens of Geraldton. The ambassadors as a whole – each with their one word – will “talk the language” and allow it to become a part of daily life.

How to adopt a Wajarri word

  • Click here and find a list of Wajarri words which are available for adoption.
  • Choose a word which you would like to take care of. Consider that every word is part of a topical group which goes together with a
    specific colour (see T-shirt).
  • Membership to adopt a Wajarri word includes a T-shirt printed with your adopted word and its translation.
  • When you click on your selected word an email template to Pia
    will open. Please include in your email the city or area you live in, your phone number, and T-shirt size.

Wajarri Elder Leonie Boddington has adopted the word for "go and look"

Words on T-shirts

Every person who adopts a word will get a T-shirt that carries their chosen word and its translation. The T-shirts will be available in five different colours that represent particular groups of words:


for words that express the environment.


for people and their feelings.


for objects and categories.


for all animals.


for words of action.

These T-shirts and their bearers will help pave the way for the Wajarri language to flow into the public image of the city.

A meeting with Gloria Merry, a Wajarri Yamaji Elder, at Mount Wittenoom Station in the Murchison region, October 2014


Throughout 2013–14 Perth based arts organisation Spaced has held an ambitious program which has brought together 14 international and national artists with 12 regional communities throughout Western Australia, to create new artworks in partnership with local organisations and residents.

Berlin based artist, Pia Lanzinger, chose Geraldton and came for the first time in 2013. During her stay, she focused her research on Wajarri, which despite being the most commonly spoken Aboriginal language in the Midwest of Western Australia, has less than 50 fluent speakers remaining.

The project Geraldton goes Wajarri is designed to provide a forum for the conservation of this language by smuggling Wajarri into the public spaces of the City of Greater Geraldton in a way that is both playful and enjoyable. Instead of obligating people to engage with Wajarri, this project will make people aware of how beautiful the language is and how it breathes life into the fascinating culture that was created of this land.

Across the world, language diversity has taken a hit in the face of the homogenising factors of globalisation. Locally, Wajarri has not been valued in the local schools as one of the world’s oldest living languages. Geraldton goes Wajarri aims to support those efforts that are attempting to keep this language alive.

The basic resource used in this project is the Wajarri Dictionary* (published in 2012 through a partnership between the Yamaji Language Centre and the Bundiyarra Irra Wangga Language Program) with a lot of input from local Wajarri speakers to establish correct usage and pronunciation of words and phrases. It took 25 years of research and struggle to create this dictionary, a fact which reflects the problems of preservation of languages that have an oral rather than a written tradition.

A meeting with Wajarri Yamaji Elders Dawn and Colin Hamlett, November 2014


Spaced is a recurring event of internationally socially-engaged art that showcases newly commissioned artworks developed in response to the distinctive characteristics of Western Australian sites and communities. The second editon of the project, spaced 2: future recall has seen the creation of 12 new commissioned art projects which will be showcased in an exhibition at the Western Australian Museum Perth, 19 Feburary – 29 March 2015.

Participating in a Wajarri course with the teacher Edie Maher at the Irra Wangga Language Centre, November 2013

Future view

Amangu and Naaguja are the languages traditionally spoken in Jambinu (Champion Bay). Wajarri has survived as the most common spoken Aboriginal language in the Midwest, while geographically Wajarri country is centred in the Murchison with Mullewa in the south, Meekatharra in the east up to Mount Augustus in the north.

This project will initiate a process where the people of Jambinu (from Champion Bay) will use long forgotten words of Wajarri and publicly communicate and play with them. In the ideal case, some words will be established in daily life and be ever present in the life of the city. Along with the mentors themselves, their ongoing memory of the words constitute a reservoir of knowledge and a living archive, and with that the consciousness of the citizens and the cityscape itself will change and grow.

Indigenous people as well as people of migrant backgrounds in Jambinu are invited to participate in the project. As access to this language is often very limited, this project will facilitate a new way of communicating, a shared learning experience and a fun way to express respect for a culture that is too often invisible in our town.

Pia's experience has been that the City of Greater Geraldton has very strong preconditions for this artistic endeavour as it has long encouraged the participation of its citizens into decision-making processes. This project could serve as a model for similar projects in the future and attract attention to our city across the country and the world. It will also focus attention on a topic that has strong awareness in Australia and generate interest in a new problem solving approach.

At the Irra Wangga Language Centre with Wajarri teacher Leonie Boddington and linguist James Bednall, December 2013

A chat with Clarrie Cameron, the author of the book "Elephants in the Bush", December 2013