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Australian aboriginal art in Western Arnhem Land
The main aboriginal artistic communities
(click on the district or the community you're interested in)

Carte des communautés aborigcnes
Aboriginal bark painting

Stretching between the Alligator River in the east and the Liverpool River, this region is famous for its bark paintings, the technique of which is reported to have been transmitted to the first Aboriginals by the Mimi Spirits themselves (air deities living in the coastal caves the walls of which they covered with their own willowy figures).

These works of art were first known only by the missionaries settled in Arnhem Land and then by the anthropologists (Baldwin Spencer as soon as 1912, and then Charles Mounford and Ronald and Catherine Berndt in the 1940's-1950's). Between the two world wars, they attracted the attention of western artists like French poet André Breton, who owned a few of them in his personal collection. In 1932, he wrote a monograph about them, entitled "Main première" ("Primeval hand"), which was used as a preface in the book of the great discoverer of this culture, Karel Kupka, Un Art à l'état brut (Lausanne: Clairefontaine, 1962), published in English as Dawn of Art: Painting and Sculpture of Australian Aborigines (New York: Viking Press, 1965). This monograph, insisting on the "creative act" that the making of these works of art really is, has been included in Perspective cavalière, a collection of essays by André Breton (Paris: Gallimard, coll. "L'imaginaire", 1970).

These paintings, the background of which is generally made with natural ochres, have always played an important part in the religious ceremonies inherited from the Dreamtime, like the Wubarr. By evoking the legend of the Great Ancestors, they work as media for the transmission of the secrets to the initiated, that is to say how the world was created, how this creation is carried on from season to season; how its mysteries are passed on and often symbolized by the acts of swallowing and regurgitating. Besides, these paintings are decorated with rarrk and take from these streaked motifs laden with clan value the energy they symbolise and are, therefore, magic objects.

As far as the scenes depicted are concerned, bark paintings most often combine the figurative style of wall art with the abstract style (streaks) of ritual bark paintings. They are also characterized by the "X-Ray" style which reveals the inside of the bodies. They are those of the Great Ancestors, like Nawura, who taught men how to fish in fresh water or Yingarna, the original Mother and her children, the fish-women Likanaya and Marayka and Ngalyod the Python-Snake with a crocodile head. They can also be spirits who still live among the Aboriginals, either benevolent or malevolent, such as the Mimi or Warraya Spirits – Spirits of the dead, living in trees. Or else, they can be sacred animals of the region: birds, kangaroos, varans, turtles, alligators, seals, fish – which lived 10,000 years ago, when the sea level increased and the water invaded the coastal valleys where the Aboriginals lived and forced them to integrate these new water elements in their land mythology. Naturally, the flora has also its place in the iconography of the region: yam, flowers, ferns, eucalyptus.

However, in this part of Arnhem Land, art is not represented only by bark painting since many artists also make sculptures inspired by the same subjects as those of bark paintings, in particular the Mimi Spirits, sculpted in tree branches, which is perfectly adapted to their spindly shape. These sculptures are covered with ritual motifs, reminiscent of the paintings the Aboriginals cover themselves with during their religious ceremonies, as well as feathers, and, as such, they can be considered as totem poles.


Although many contemporary artists remain anonymous, like the oldest bark painters, as early as the 1950's-1960's a few people became famous, coming came from the Minjilang School. Minjilang is a small island on the north coast where, in the 1950's-1960's, several artists had lived, like Jimmy Midjaw Midjaw or Yrawala, who were also great religious leaders. Among the next generation, Bruce Nabekeyo or Robin Nganjmira, who studied with Bobby Nganimira, carried on the tradition of a painting combining a picturesque figurative style with nearly expressionist intensity. Finally, we can mention Crusoe Kuningbal, who paints and sculpts Mimi Spirits.


80 kilometers north of Australia, opposite western Arnhem Land (National Park of Kakadu), Bathurst and Melville Islands were for a long time cut off from continental life. The first attempted settlements date back to the 1820's and, were resumed early in the 20th century (in 1900 on Melville, in 1911 on Bathurst) to no avail. This is why the culture of the Tiwis – the Aboriginals living on these Islands – is different from the Aboriginal civilization that can be found in the rest of Australia. What makes it special is a ceremony of fertility and a funeral ceremony, dating back to the Dreamtime, when an old blind woman, Mudungkala, was born from the very soil of Melville. She bore three children, who were the ancestors of the Tiwis. One of them, Purukuparli, married a woman called Bima, who gave him a son, Jinani. But, because his mother had not looked after him properly, he died and provoked the wrath of Pukuparli against Bima and his own brother, who had seduced her. After cursing them, he condemned all the so far immortal Tiwis to experience death and disappeared in the sea with the corpse of his son.

On the other hand, Bima's father instituted the first funeral rite to honor the dead and purify the living. This rite consisted in the making of wood poles (tutini) bearing the effigy of the dead hero, of ritual weapons and ceremonial plaited baskets (jimwalini). This ceremony, still carried on today, is the source of the Tiwis' art, evoking their dead, their Great Ancestors and of course the gods, without whom they would not exist, through totem poles in human, animal (especially inspired by the sea birds of the region) or abstract shapes. These poles, some of which can be as much as 4 meters high, are painted with natural pigments (ochres, kaolin or charcoal) and represent ritual or tribal motifs (dots and lines to draw the bases of the tutini and the bodies) or more realistic motifs (to evoke, for example, the features of the face, the eyes, the beard, etc.). They are sometimes decorated with feathers or fringes of natural fibers, or with "windows" in which to lay offerings, and are planted in great number on the dead person's grave. As they are left in the open air, at the mercy of bad weather, they deteriorate and finally disappear, which marks the end of the mourning period. These poles were originally made with a religious purpose only, but since the 1960's they have become, without losing their ritual significance, objets d'art coveted by the greatest museums and private collectors because of their esoteric character. They have also greatly influenced the few Tiwi painters who, since the 1980's (and on the initiative of one of the first great artists of Melville, Declan Apuatimi) have represented them in their works, which were first painted with natural pigments (like the sculptures). Since the end of the 1980's, the Tiwi painters have been using the richer palette of gouache and acrylic painting. Nevertheless, most of the painters resort to the same abstract motifs also present on the Pukumani poles, even if some of them managed to create a more figurative imagery, inspired by the fauna and the flora of their island (see for example the works of Thecla and Fiona Paruntatameri, where birds of prey spread their wings on multicolored backgrounds, made of stripes that take up ritual motifs). They are also inspired – as is the case of Cabrini Wilson – by the other great Tiwi ceremony, called Kulamana (a feminine ceremony intended to celebrate rites of fertility when yam is being picked up). Finally, Tiwi artists are also interested in other techniques, like the batik (printed fabrics), lithography, ceramics or pottery.


Bathurst and Melville artists live in a few communities, the biggest of which being Milikapiti and Pularumpi in Melville. In the first one, we can find painters and sculptors who follow the tradition of abstract motifs painted with natural pigments while the second one has specialized in acrylic painting and more figurative subjects. In Bathurst, famous for its Tiwi Designs cooperative, founded in 1969 at Nguiu, artists mostly make batik and resort to diverse printing techniques, on fabric or paper, without mentioning traditional sculpture.

  Some references:
Musée du Quai Branly, Musée des Confluences à Lyon, Musée d'Art Contemporain les Abattoirs à Toulouse, Musée des Arts d’Afrique et d’Asie de Vichy, Musée de la Musique, Museum d'histoire naturelle de Lille, Musée de Rochefort, Fondation Electricité de France, Fondation Colas, Banque Dexia ...

We are members of the Chambre Nationale des Experts Spécialisés en Objets d'Art et de Collection (C.N.E.S.)*
We are members of the Comité Professionnel des Galeries d'Art
*National French Chamber of experts specialized in artworks
Comité des Galeries d'Art
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