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 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 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 here is of a male 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 identified this as ‘Warraguk’. He walks around in the day looking for ‘sugarbag’ or honey from native bees, and rests, hanging like a bat from the trees in bamboo country. The painting is a front view of the ancestor but the head is in profile. Like most of the figures in the paintings collected by Spencer, the internal organs and skeletal elements are depicted here in the typical so-called ‘x-ray’ art tradition of 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 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 particular work featured in Art of Australia, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1941.