Museum Victoria holds significant collections of artworks by Australian Aboriginal artists dating from the 19th and early 20th centuries. While museums have been often criticized as categorising such works as ethnographic, Museum Victoria has been collecting and exhibiting works by Aboriginal artists as art for a century. This work is amongst the earliest bark paintings works collected by the director of the National Museum of Victoria, Walter Baldwin Spencer, who first went to Oenpelli in 1912. Paddy Cahill, the famous buffalo shooter, had established this pastoral station in western Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. After Spencer’s first visit there, he returned to Melbourne with 38 works on bark collected from the region of the East and South Alligator Rivers. These, he removed from the bark that was laid over frameworks that provided shelter during wet season rains. The figures in this work were identified as an ‘adult with a snake’, and differ markedly from the other works given they are entirely abstract in form. Spencer noted that the ancestor featured largely in traditions of Gaagudju people and is ‘especially associated with medicine men who alone can see it.’
The paintings collected by Spencer in the first decades of the 20th century constitute the earliest collection of bark paintings, while a small number from Port Essington predate these. Those collected by Spencer together with those commissioned by Cahill subsequent to Spencer’s visits total over 170 paintings produced between 1912 and 1922 for the museum in Melbourne Mostly imagery is derived from animals depicted in the rich galleries of rock art found in this region; however so-called ‘spirit figures’ are the most intriguing and beguiling artworks. Bark paintings in the WB Spencer and Paddy Cahill Collections are considered the most significant historical art works from western Arnhem Land in existence. As such they have featured and continue to feature nationally and internationally in exhibitions and publications. These paintings take pride of place amongst the extensive and significant holdings of Aboriginal art in the collections of Indigenous art at Museum Victoria.