Museum Victoria holds significant collections of artworks by Australian Aboriginal artists dating from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Museums are often criticized as categorising such works as ethnographic, however Museum Victoria is unique in that it has a history of collecting and exhibiting works by Aboriginal artists as art for a period of a century or more. This bark painting was collected in 1914 and was amongst the earliest consignments of works commissioned for the museum by Paddy Cahill on behalf of the director of the then National Museum of Victoria, Walter Baldwin Spencer. Cahill had established a pastoral station at Oenpelli in western Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory and when Spencer’s first visited in 1912, 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 male figure is associated with the Kunwinjku speaking people of western Arnhem Land. Shown as a front view, a style of portrayal is typical of the art traditions of this region. The head and face of such figures are usually a prominent feature of the paintings, and here the eyes are dominant and there is no mouth. It is these specific details that allow bining, the people of western Arnhem Land, to identify the likely ancestor featured in a painting. The name documented by Cahill was ‘Mununlimbir’, identified as one who roamed looking for ‘sugarbag’ or honey from native bees. The shapes emanating from his elbows are the baskets used to collect the honey. The designs on the ancestor’s body are consistent with the western Arnhem Land painting traditions of ‘x-ray’ art, the spine being clearly visible combined with very strong geometric patterning. The positioning of the ancestor’s hands, arms and feet may indicate a forwards movement, and this ‘school’ of painting typically includes additional and exaggerated digits on hands and feet. This figure has an additional finger on each hand and the feet are painted without toes.
The work originates from the first decades of the 20th century and is part of the earliest known bark paintings from western Arnhem Land. While the works associated with WB Spencer and Paddy Cahill are not the earliest bark paintings in existence, they are the earliest works produced as a collection with over 170 paintings being 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.