The mystery of bark painting gives the artist an important place in the family tree

The mystery of bark painting gives the artist an important place in the family tree

Credit: Griffith University

Griffith has sent a research team to the top and bottom of Australia — and to Paris — as a result of a remarkable quest to discover the identity of a prolific 20th-century indigenous painter and has finally given the artist new recognition and meaning for his modern- . day family.

Published in Australian ArchaeologyDistinguished Professor Paul Tacon from the Griffith Center for Social and Cultural Research analyzed the distinctive artistic style of a series of bark paintings collected more than 100 years ago and then housed in the Melbourne Museum.

One of the paintings with a unique curved style instead of a straight hatch (an artistic technique to add brightness and Ancestral power to works of art) was even found in a collection in Paris.

The creator of these particular works of art, including one of a large crocodile, has been a mystery for almost a century – until now.

Along with three of Griffith’s colleagues and staff from the University of Adelaide and the University of Western Australia, Professor Tacon worked with members of the Aboriginal community from Arnhem Land and museum curators to collect the collections of British anthropologist W. Baldwin Spencer and buffalo shooter Paddy Cahill. to investigate. , who since 1912 collected 163 bark paintings made by artists who also painted in rock shelters in western Arnhem Land, Northern Territory.

Sifting through Cahill and Spencer’s notebooks and letters relating to the artwork collection, Professor Tacon noted references to a person called “Old Harry” and a connection between Old Harry and a particular bark painting with the spirit of the crocodile.

“Through scouring old ethnographic records and building genealogies we realized that Majumbu was the Aboriginal name of Old Harry, a person who also made rock paintings,” said Professor Tacon.

“We analyzed Majumbu’s distinctive artistic style from the known spirit painting and then looked for evidence of the same features in the rest of the collection, identifying seven more paintings.”

Some of the human figures have an extra digit on their hands. Majumbu X is also often painted on the hands and/or feet of people and certain animal people. When eyes are shown as stalks or rectangles, human-like figures have diamond patterns for some of their inflections and there is a central division between limbs and bodies.

The largest bark in the Spencer-Cahill collection is led by the painting of a crocodile which measures 2.94m x 1.03m. It is almost identical to a rock painting Majumbu is known to have painted in a rock shelter where his family regularly camped.

The mystery of bark painting gives the artist an important place in the family tree

Frank Nalowerd at Djumuban with a crocodile and other rock paintings (photo by George Chaloupka, November 1974, courtesy of the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory). Credit: Australian Archaeology (2023). DOI: 10.1080/03122417.2023.2177949

“No one had been on that site since the 1980s, so in September 2022 we went looking for it,” said Professor Tacon.

“And we found it, on a very hot day – it was 41 degrees. But the public was excited about the rediscovery.”

Professor Tacon has been working in western Arnhem Land for over 40 years, documenting pictures and exploring their correspondence.

Some of the earliest bark paintings found in the region date back to the 1830s, but Professor Tacon said it was extremely common for their creators to remain unattributed.

“That’s true for most ethnographic material around the world, especially from Australia,” he said.

“Museums have millions of objects and they don’t know the person behind them.

“Therefore, in this research we are identifying a series of artists who made paintings and published on each of them individually.

“Together with Aboriginal research partners, including two of Majumbu’s grandchildren, we reviewed the paintings held at the Melbourne Museum and relocated some of Majumbu’s known rock paintings to further confirm him as the artist behind of eight Spencer-Cahill barks.

“This collection has always been seen as a valuable piece of Australian heritage. But now, by connecting it to living people, to communities, it is also a valuable piece of family heritage. It brings it to life.

“These are no longer random works of art made by anonymous people. They are incredible pictures made by people who had interesting lives that we can now learn more about.”

More information:
Paul SC Taçon et al, Majumbu (‘Old Harry’) and the Spencer-Cahill bark painting collection, Australian Archaeology (2023). DOI: 10.1080/03122417.2023.2177949

Available at Griffith University

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