Playing on

Ancestor figure, male

Unknown artist, Western Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia1912 - 1913

Museums Victoria

Museums Victoria

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 the bark that was laid over frameworks that provided shelter during wet season rains.

The image is of an ancestor associated with the country around Oenpelli. 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 ‘Nangintain’ for this figure that lives among the caves in the hills around what is today the community of Gunbalanya. Only ‘medicine men’ or sorcerers can see him. The ancestor is shown in profile and, in the typical style of this region, the head and face are a prominent feature. Spencer noted that the ‘double projection from the back of the head represents two very long ears’, Features like this allow bining, the people of western Arnhem Land, to identify the likely ancestor featured in a painting. The use of black to exaggerate the eyes is unusual. The geometric patterning here represents the backbone and rib cage, and is a fine example of the classic tradition of ‘x-ray’ art from western Arnhem Land.

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.

Show lessRead more


  • Title: Ancestor figure, male
  • Date Created: 1912 - 1913
  • Physical Dimensions: w830 x h1845 x d70 mm
  • Type: Object
  • Rights: Copyright expired; Source: Museum Victoria; Indigenous or Cultural Rights apply, Copyright expired: Source: Museum Victoria / Artist: unknown. Indigenous or Cultural Rights apply
  • Medium: Natural pigments on Eucalyptus bark
  • Artist: Unknown artist, Western Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia


Translate with Google