for the first time we can name an artist who created bark paintings in Arnhem Land in the 1910s

This article by Joakim Goldhahn, Rock Art Australia Ian Potter Kimberley Chair at UWA, Gabriel Maralngurra, Co-convener, Injalak Arts, Indigenous Knowledge, Luke Taylor Adjunct Fellow, Place, Evolution and Rock Art Heritage Unit at Griffith University and Australian National University, Paul SCTaçon, Rock Art Research Chair and Director of the Rock Art Place, Evolution and Heritage Unit (PERAHU) at Griffith University and Sally K. May, Associate Professor at the University of Adelaide was originally published in The conversation May 11.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains images and names of deceased persons.

For Australian art students and art collectors around the world, Arnhem Land is synonymous with bark painting: sheets of tree bark carefully prepared as a canvas for painting by Aboriginal artists.

Bark painters such as John Mawurndjul and Yirawala are among Australia’s most renowned and internationally sought-after artists.

When the market for bark paintings emerged in the early 20th century, recording the names of individual artists was far from the collector’s mind. Museums and art galleries are full of ancient works of art, sometimes attributed to particular “clans” or geographical areas, but rarely featuring the names of the artists.

These collections are usually named after the collector rather than the creators. One of these collections, the Spencer/Cahill Collection at Museums Victoria, is the focus of our ongoing research project.

The Spencer/Cahill collection is extensive and includes many valuable objects collected by Sir Baldwin Spencer during his visit to Oenpelli (Gunbalanya), Northern Territory in 1912. He later acquired other works of art and objects through his contact “in the field”, buffalo shooter Paddy Cahill. .

The main focus of our project is the approximately 170 bark paintings commissioned from Oenpelli between 1912 and 1922.

Earlier bark paintings in museum collections were usually removed from bark huts found by explorers and collectors on their travels. Spencer and Cahill went a step further by commissioning bark paintings from artists: these works represent the birth of the Aboriginal art movement of bark painting.

Spencer’s early collecting experiments had been conducted to document – as Spencer and others have described it – a “doomed race” before it died out.

In Oenpelli, Spencer was mesmerized by local artists who decorated their stringy bark cabins with paintings of animals and spirit beings, which resemble paintings found in nearby rock shelters.

He compared the delicate lines of the artworks with “civilized” Japanese or Chinese artworks and concluded that the local bark paintings were:

“so realistic, still admirably expressing the characteristic features of the drawn animal, that anyone familiar with the original can immediately identify the drawings”.

Meeting Spencer led him to reconfigure his perception of Aboriginal art towards a more aesthetic appreciation. At Oenpelli, he selected a handful of the most skilled artists to paint him a series of bark paintings.

He left with 50 works. Over the next few years, around 120 more barques were sent to Melbourne.

Spencer did not record the artist’s name for each painting. But, thanks to an unpublished interview from 1967, we can now successfully link the bark paintings in this collection to an individual artist.

Paddy Compass Namadbara

Paddy Compass Namadbara (c. 1892-1978) is remembered by people of western Arnhem Land as a skilled artist, a “clever man”, a strong community leader and a family man.

During the 1950s and 1960s he spent much of his time in Minjilang (Croker Island), where he often painted alongside contemporary artists such as Yirawala and Jimmy Midjaumidjau.

In 1967 he was visited by researcher Lance Bennett, who was there to collect bark paintings and information for a book he was writing on contemporary Aboriginal art.

During these interviews, Namadbara casually identified his own works in a book published by Baldwin Spencer in 1914, Native tribes of the Northern Territory of Australia. One work features a barramundi, another a swamp hen, black sea bream and hand painted stencils.

Bennett commissioned Namadbara to recreate this 1912 painting, a painting now in the Bennett Collection at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra.

Bennett took the time to ask Namadbara about his personal experiences of Spencer’s visit to Oenpelli in 1912. Namadbara said Spencer had selected artists create bark paintings on small, portable sheets of bark , which they had never done before. This transformed traditional bark hut paintings into a new medium: bark paintings.

Cahill, who acted as a go-between, is remembered by Namadbara as asking Aborigines to get rid of their Western clothes so that Spencer could film and photograph “properly old-fashioned” ceremonies.

Spencer asked Namadbara to cross his hands when he created his bark hand stencils featuring the swamp hen and black seabream, which the artist found peculiar. They asked the artists to leave some of the paintings undecorated, so the designs would show up better in the photographs.

Payment for the 50 bark paintings consisted of one sack of tobacco and two sacks of flour.

Continuous connection

The master artists who created works for early collectors deserve recognition, as do the vital links that remain between the paintings and the communities from which they were acquired.

Gabriel Maralngurra, Namadbara’s grandson and one of the researchers on this project, explains:

these paintings they remain part of us, part of our community. No matter how far away they are, we always keep them close.”

Being able to identify artists in this collection and other museums revitalizes the importance of these works of art to contemporary First Nations communities, artists and their families.

It also helps cultural institutions better understand the significance and ongoing cultural connections to these collections – collaboratively charting a path for this invaluable Australian heritage.

Caption for painting at top of page: The barramundi barramundi painting that Namadbara created for Spencer at Oenpelli in 1912 and identified in the interview with Lance Bennett in 1967, now in the Victoria Spencer Museums/ Cahill Collection (object X 19909).

Homepage thumbnail caption: Paddy Compass Namadbara recreating the 1912 bark painting on Minjilang (Croker Island) in 1967, photographed by Lance Bennett. Estate of Lance Bennett, courtesy of Barbara Spencer.

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