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. This bark painting was collected in 1918 and was 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 artists generally painted spirits or figures that they had seen in the landscape. This is an extremely unusual work with the view appearing to be the back of the figure, with no eyes painted on the head, and the abstract pattern in no way resembling a face, Typically the head and face of such figures are a particular and distinctive feature of paintings from this region. By contrast, the designs featured on the ancestor’s body are consistent with the western Arnhem Land painting traditions of ‘x-ray’ art, the spine being clearly visible. The positioning of the ancestor’s hands, arms and feet may indicate his movement or a turning motion. And while this ‘school’ of painting typically includes additional and exaggerated digits on both the hands and feet, this figure has five fingers on each hand and five toes on each foot of what would appear to be normal proportions.
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.