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 century. The director of the then National Museum of Victoria, Walter Baldwin Spencer went to Oenpelli, the pastoral station established in western Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory by the famous buffalo shooter, Paddy Cahill. In 1912 Spencer 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 Gaagudju people and identified as Namarnde, Painted in profile in the classic style of western Arnhem Land art, the face and head are a prominent feature. He lives seeks out the dead and human bones hang from his elbows in this work. The use of black is very unusual in paintings from this region. The painting 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.