Arnhem Land Art ‘detectives’ help uncover who painted these priceless works

More than a century after anthropologist Sir Baldwin Spencer collected bark paintings from Arnhem Land, research is underway to identify the artists who created the work.

These are some of Australia’s oldest and most prized bark paintings, and they have been kept in a vault nearly 4,000 kilometers away in Melbourne.

A group of artists and a cultural adviser from Arnhem Land flew south to see the paintings in person for the first time.

A 110 year old bark painting from Arnhem Land of Kinga with hand stencils.(Provided: Museums Victoria)

In 1912, Spencer acquired bark paintings in exchange for tobacco near Gunbalanya, then a mission known as Oenpelli, in western Arnhem Land.

Over the next decade he commissioned another 120 bark paintings for money through his local contact, buffalo hunter Paddy Cahill.

The paintings received national and international acclaim, especially in Houston, Texas, USA.

But the artists responsible were never recognized.

Today, Gunbalanya artists are working with scholars to name those who painted the irreplaceable barks from 1912 to 1922, document their stories, and give descendants a say in what happens next.

“It’s real detective work,” said lead researcher working on the project, Associate Professor Sally K May.

Four smiling Arnhem Land men, two with thumbs up, face masks down, stand outside the building.
Artists and a cultural adviser from Arnhem Land traveled to Melbourne to try to match works with artists.(Provided: Alex Ressel)

“Amazing snapshot in time by master artists”

Oral histories, historical records, measurements of handprints, and comparisons to painted rock art at the time are all part of the research.

The paintings feature x-ray depictions of fish, kangaroos, echidnas and ancestral beings in a range of styles.

“It’s an incredible snapshot in time of the master artists of the day,” said Dr May.

She said Spencer wanted “the best artists of the time painting for this collection”.

“[The barks] are so unique and there is clearly a great story behind them. We’re working with the community to see what the story might be.”

A story emerged in Melbourne last month when cultural adviser Kenneth Mangiru saw a three-metre bark of a kinga (Kunwinku word for crocodile).

He immediately recognized the work of his great-grandfather Majumbu.

“My great-grandfather – my mother’s father’s grandfather – he did a crocodile painting, on rock art, and he did it on bark, a big one,” said he declared.

An Arnhem Land man sits on a rock next to a large aboriginal crocodile painting on a large rock face, photo taken in the 1970s.
Look closely for the Kinga on the rock with artist Majumbu near Gunbalanya, photo circa 1970s.(NT Museum and Art Gallery: George Chaloupka)

Professor Joakim Goldhahn, another researcher working on the project, said an identical image was painted on a rock half a day’s walk from Gunbalanya along with the bark.

“We can see his family in the art, the handprints of his youngest sons, aged around four and eight. We’re almost working with a family portrait,” Professor Goldhahn said.

Old Arnhem Land bark painting of crocodile with white stencils of children's hands.
“A family portrait”: Stencils of children’s hands from 1912.(ABC News: Simon Tucci)

As research continues, first-hand testimony has surfaced from one of the artists Spencer commissioned in 1912, Paddy Compass Namadbara.

It was discovered in the archives of art collector Lance Bennett, after parts of a book he wrote for an exhibition in Japan were translated into English.

“He is the only one – in his own voice – who tells us about his experience, in his own words and memories, from the Indigenous perspective,” Professor Goldhahn said.

The artists would like to take the priceless barks home, but there are no plans to do so.

“The works are very crumbly. When ocher is painted on rocks, it tattoos almost below the surface: when on bark, it sits on top,” said researcher and PhD student Alex Ressel. .

Bark painting of a 1912 fish and swamp hen on a cart in the museum storeroom.
Paddy Compass Namadbara’s Bream and Swamp Hen of 1912 on reserve at Museum Victoria.(ABC News: Simon Tucci)

While adhesives are used in art today, a mixture of sap, kangaroo blood and saliva was used in 1912 to bind ocher and clay.

Among visitors to Melbourne last month, artist Shaun Namarnyilk spoke of a strong connection to the artwork.

He saw variations in the thickness of the cross-hatching of the crocodile bark as evidence that Majumbu was mentoring a young artist – a practice that continues today.

“So it’s like really thick lines and I see in the legs there it’s different. They both work, father and son,” Mr Namarnyilk said.

Artists perpetuate a legacy

Back in Gunbalanya, Namarnyilk painted a dolobbo (bark) inspired by the visit, with the same story of the Kolobarr (a male red kangaroo) and the spirit Mimih.


At the Melbourne Museum with the artists last month, Dr May called the visit historic and emotional.

“We’re going to be digging through the archives, and whatever artist names we can find, we can start working on their biographies, moving them away from the Spencer/Cahill collection and into a collection that represents Indigenous peoples and those incredible artists who produced the works,” she said.

And the research has the backing of the institution that holds the priceless collection.

“Every action we take now to decolonize our institution will have incredible and ongoing impacts for future generations,” said Head of First Peoples Department, Museums Victoria, Dr Shannon Faulkhead.

As for an exhibition of the work, Museums Victoria specified that it would only be at the request of the families.

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