The figures in this painting present an enigma. The image has been described as a group of pregnant mimih or spirits who inhabit the rocky country of western Arnhem Land. To date, the only known comparable painting, probably by the same artist, was collected by the ethnologist C P Mountford in 1948 on the famous American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land. Mountford describes the figures in his painting as mimih men and women, distinguished only by the depiction of their genitalia. However, all are depicted with distended bellies and arms and legs akimbo, as in this painting. In Mountford’s painting, one of the male figures plays a didjeridu while other men and women dance. By comparison we can assume that the figures in Mimih spirits c 1948 may represent female spirits, but whether they are pregnant is questionable.
The stylised, figurative manner of depicting the human form against a monochrome ground colour is typical of early bark paintings from western Arnhem Land. The images are similar to those found in rock paintings in the region. Indeed, the first bark paintings to be collected in the area, by Sir Walter Baldwyn Spencer in 1912, depict naturalistic figures set against a background that imitates the surface of rock. These early paintings feature ancestral and spirit beings in human and animal form, and paintings of hunting and ceremony were also common.
 C P Mountford, Records of the American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land, volume 1: Art, myth and symbolism, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1956, p 184, pl 49C.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Franchesca Cubillo and Wally Caruana (eds) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art: collection highlights National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010