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 is amongst the earliest works collected by the director of the National Museum of Victoria, Walter Baldwin Spencer. He first went to Oenpelli, the pastoral station established in western Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory by the famous buffalo shooter, Paddy Cahill. After Spencer’s first visit there 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 bark laid over frameworks that provided shelter during wet season rains.
The male figure is associated with the country around Oenpelli now known as Gunbalanya. Spencer identified this as the country of the ‘Geimbo’ – the Erre, Mengerridji and Urningank people – and traditional owners for the Oenpelli region. Spencer recorded the name ‘Auuenau’ for this figure that lives among the caves and walks around only at night time.His body is covered with hair and 'a great bunch' protrudes from the back of his head. When erect, the curved spine projecting from the back of his neck is shaken producing a rattling noise that warns bining, the people of western Arnhem Land, of his presence in the vicinity as he searches for the dead to eat. The distinctive lines through his ankles, knees, wrists and elbows are the bones of the dead. Only ‘medicine men’ or sorcerers can see him. The tail-like structure represents lightning, which can often be seen at night time along the tops of the hills. The ancestor is depicted in profile and typically for the art tradition of this region, the head and face are a prominent feature. It is these specific features that allow bining to identify the likely ancestor featured in a painting. The use of black to exaggerate the eyes is unusual.
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 those commissioned by Cahill subsequent to Spencer’s visits, 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. This work was included in ‘Dreamings, The Art of Aboriginal Australia’, the exhibition travelled to the Asia Society Galleries, New York, The David and Alfred Smart Galleries, University of Chicago and Los Angeles Museum of Natural History, Los Angeles, as well as being shown in Melbourne and Adelaide.