Summary

Museum Victoria holds significant collections of artworks by Australian Aboriginal artists dating from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This painting is amongst the earliest works collected by the director of the National Museum of Victoria, Walter Baldwin Spencer, who went to Oenpelli in 1912. Oenpelli was a pastoral lease taken up in 1906 by the legendary Northern Territory figure Paddy Cahill. Spencer returned to Melbourne with thirty-eight works on bark that had been removed from the wet season shelters in the area of the East and South Alligator Rivers. The collaboration between these two men over the following decade would result in the commissioning of over 170 bark paintings for the museum. The imagery in the works derive from a vast array of animals that are depicted in the rich rock art of the region, as well as a significant number of spirit figures known to bining, the people of western Arnhem Land. The bark paintings in the Spencer Collection and the Paddy Cahill Collection are considered the most significant historical art works from western Arnhem Land, and often feature in national and international exhibitions and publications. These paintings take pride of place amongst the extensive and significant holdings of Aboriginal art in the Indigenous collections at Museum Victoria. The only earlier known bark paintings are in the Macleay Museum in Sydney and date from 1878 and were collected at Port Essington.

Physical Description

A single sheet of eucalyptus bark, stringybark (Eucalyptus tetrodonta), painted with natural pigments. The image is of a spirit figure.

Significance

This spirit figure lives amongst the hills associated with the country of the 'tribe' that Baldwin Spencer identified as 'Geimbo'. These are Erre, Mengerridji and Urningank people and traditional owners for the area around Oenpelli. Spencer identified the figure as 'Auuenau' and Kunwinjku visitors to the museum in recent years noted that it is known by different names, but 'yuku yuku' is the Kunwinjku term and relates to a glowing insect. This spirit figure walks around at night time in search of the recently deceased who he eats. Spencer remarked that the spike projecting from the back of his head is called 'Marigik' and that 'he can erect and rattle so that all in camp can hear him'. The tail-like features are lightning that can often be seen at night time along the tops of the hills. The depiction here is unusual in that it is a side view rather than the typical front view of the figure. It does however have the prominent and distinctive head, face and hair. The treatment of the arms, hands and feet with bones through them distinguishes this particular figure, and like one other painting in this collection, black pigment has been to exaggerate the eyes. This work was included in the 'Dreamings' exhibition that travelled to Asia Society Galleries in New York, the David and Alfred Smart Galleries at the University of Chicago and the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History, as well as being shown at Museum Victoria and the South Australian Museum.

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