Aboriginal Bark Painting

If asked to name Aboriginal artistic achievements, most Europeans would firstly say boomerangs, followed, after prompting, by painting on bark. In fact, the art of bark painting has flourished over the last two decades and has become the most widespread form of Aboriginal artistic expression throughout northern Australia. The origin of the practice of painting on bark cannot be determined, although it is clear from scant references in the writings of explorers and nineteenth-century settlers that Aboriginals have painted on bark for over a century, probably much longer.


Bark paintings are designs painted in earth ochres on the smooth inner surface of sheets of bark from stringybark eucalyptus trees, usually Eucalyptus tetrodonta. The bark is stripped off in the wet season; a sheet is cut off the tree and the outermost layer of rough bark is removed with an axe blade.! Shop Mizuno Team Sports! Never Settle!

After further stripping back to the point where only the inner layer of smooth fibre is left, the bark is placed over an open fire, outer side down, and it slowly uncurls in the heat. This also chars the outer bark and stripping can then be completed. The bark is then laid in the sun and compressed with heavy stones. Once flat and dry, the bark surface is ready and painting can begin. The materials used for painting on bark are red, brown, rust, yellow, black and white earth pigments, fixatives as well as a range of brushes and applicators.  

Magpie, geese and water lilies at the water hole, central Arhnem Land.

The source of the ochre varies with each area. At Yirrkala the cliffs along the sea coast are multicoloured, providing ample supplies of red, yellow and white pigments. At Oenpelli, on the other hand, brown and white are readily available, but other colours, notably yellow, are obtained by trade from other areas. black, apparently difficult to obtain, is seldom seen in the bark paintings of this area.

Throughout Arnhem Land, the pigments are ground with water on rough, flat stones and a fixative is added. One of the stones may be reserved for the white, or if the clay is sufficiently friable, it may be mixed with water to a slip in a tobacco tin or other receptacle. The painters do not mix their primary colours to obtains secondary colours; the different colours of the ochres account for the varying shades in the bark paintings. The resulting tones are as many as the natural colours of the earth itself. When the intense primary ochres, deep red and brilliant chrome yellow, are not to hand, artists use the nearest colours found locally. The colours therefore include pinks gathered from the ground where seams of dull red ochre meet white, and orange-brown where yellow ocher meets red. Deep rich brown, natural pigments are also used, notably at Ramingining. The artists use a variety of simple brushes: a narrow strip of bark chewed at one end and held in the hand is used for the broader lines, and a think stick about seven centimeters long and softened at one end is used for the dots. The fine lines are drawn with a brush made from a few straight human hairs seven to ten centimetres long, bound onto a thin twig. This brush is held delicately between the fingers, coated with ochre and then laid onto the bark and drawn away from the body. fine cross-hatching is achieved with this brush.

Bark painting of the full moon.

Up until the last few years, older, more skilled painters preferred to use the traditional fixatives from plant sources, notably the wild orchid. The sticky wet stem of the orchid was rubbed across the surface of the background colour and also pounded and mixed with the ground colours used in the designs. Modern fixatives have now usurped these natural binders. When used sparingly, these chemical fixatives have ensured a longer life for the paintings by lessening the degree of flaking. It is very likely that wherever bark was available for shelters, ornaments and utensils, Aboriginals used it as a paintings surface. The simple bark shelter still used by Aboriginal families in Arnhem Land outstations once had designs painted on their smooth interior surfaces, and occasional examples can still be found. Sketches of animals, birds and hunting scenes were also observed on bark shelters in Victoria. Bark paintings were seen on ceremonial grounds in western Arnhem Land, and their use in ceremonies in south-eastern Australia has also been noted in early literatures. Bark painting has disappeared in the southern areas but it still flourishes on Bathurst Island, throughout Arnhem Land and the islands off the coast of the Northern Territory.

The themes in Aboriginal art are expressed in a complex system of symbols and patterns given to the first people by the creation ancestors. Each clan has its own Dreaming or mythological origin and its own symbols to express this. Through the act of painting scared designs on the bodies of ceremonial dancers, on cylindrical coffins or on specially constructed ritual emblems, the participants, both painters and dancers can receive some of the ritual power inherent in these designs. The ancestor is somehow present in them and by restating them the artist is reaffirming his Dreaming and his connection to and ownership of lands. The designs are owned by clans, not by individuals.

Katjailen the serpent devouring the child.

In traditional Aboriginal society there was no separate group of men or women classed as artists by virtue of their occupation; all adults were expected to remember and to reproduce correctly the clan designs appropriate to their level of ritual training and knowledge. Therefore, when speaking of the artist in Aboriginal society, one is simple referring to the person who is performing the task, creating the work. Very little of Aboriginal material art was done to last for long periods of time - it was in the act of painting itself that the spirit power came to be activated. Most of the ritual items, including emblems, rangga, waninga, sacred dilly bags, feathered string and headdresses, were usually disp0osed were erased or covered. The only permanent Aboriginal sculpture could be seen in the form of burial poles among the Tiwi of Bathurst and Melville Islands, and in the lorrgon hollow log coffins of Arnhem Land; even these were left the elements after ceremonial used.

"Mimis" by Milaybuma of the Gunwinggu group, western Arnhem Land.

Body paintings range from crude ochre smearing to the most finely detailed clan designs. The detailed body designs are very often exactly the same as those painted on bark or on wood coffins. These fine clan designs may be painted on a man's chest on several occasions in his life: at his initiation as a young man, at a major ceremony during his life, and at his death. At other times, elements of them, or sometimes th3 whole design, may appear in bark paintings. Young men therefore have ample opportunity to learn and to view these clan patterns. Every line and mark within the design has symbolic meaning. Not only the patterns and visual symbols are learned but the complex and detailed meanings and song cycles that go with them. These meanings are conveyed to initiates by degree according to their status and it is only after full integration into the deepest secrets and knowledge of the clan that a man (usually by then middle-aged) is permitted to know the sacred meanings and allowed to paint them 'art' objects themselves, whether bark paintings, ritual emblems or painted log coffins, may perish, but the designs live on in the memories of the clan. It is of fundamental importance to each clan that the designs be passed intact from generation to generation and by constant use in ceremonies remain a source of cohesive strength. 

Black-headed python and fruit bats central Arnhem Land.
During the flowering season in September, flying foxes are attracted to the blossoms on certain trees.
When they root, their droppings fall to the ground and smell as sweet as the blossoms they feed on.
The black-headed python waits nearby to eat the old and sick as they fall.

It is common to observe in the camp of Aboriginal painters that their sons, daughters and other relatives are shown the barks as they are painted. It is clear that the mature artists use the European demand for bark paintings to provide an important traditional educational aid. This educational function often also determines the subject and the amount of sacred symbolism in the paintings done. For example, if a young man is about to participate for the first time in an important ritual, the artist responsible for his education and instruction (whether father, uncle or other kin) could certainly ensure that he sees the bark paintings that illustrate the level and stage of knowledge he is expected to attain. The duty of teaching the young men therefore directly influences the choice of subject matter by the artist making bark paintings for sale.

Wandjuk Marika, a senor painter and ceremonial leader from eastern Arnhem Land, rec4ntly spent six months in a southern city quietly painting, away from the distractions of home and the pressures of life on the settlement. During that time he completed ten paintings in a ceremonial sequence comprising many of the important symbolic revelations of knowledge about his creation ancestors. He put these on display in a major art gallery, but, before the public was invited, he personally paid for several members of his family to fly south. One of the men who came was at that time preparing to go through and learn the deepest series of ceremonies concerning these ancestor figures. For two days the artist and the 'student', a man in his forties, studied the works. The artist and his apprentice returned to Arnhem Land where the song cycles and memory feats began again, this time secure in the knowledge that the visual elements had already been taught. (Fortunately, the paintings wee purchased by the Australian National Gallery and will remain together.)

Long-necked turtle, western Arnhem Land

In many families of eastern Arnhem Land today, it is also common for the women to paint on bark. Often the father or husband will 'sketch' the outline of the design, and it is then left to the family members to fill in the detail in order to complete the painting. The 'owner' closely supervises the work. women also paint their own designs, which commonly represent aspects of life related to their traditional role as food gatherers. Subjects along these lines include paintings of food plants and vegetation or occasionally weaving. In some cases, where there is no man in the appropriate position within the clan to carry on the paintings of major designs, a woman is selected, and she holds the designs until others are old enough to receive the knowledge. Having considered the religious and educational aspects of bark painting, it is also important to mention the way in which the designs function as clan property, with myth and song cycles and the land. In traditional Aboriginal society, a person's most important possessions are the clan's sacred objects, designs and knowledge of the accompanying ritual song cycles. Anthropologists have recorded that in order to please another or to initiate a relationship in which goods or labour were to be exchanged, a man might offer to share his designs on another man's chest. The sharing of the design and the recital of the story were considered important. The man who was painted did not in any sense regard himself as the new owner of the painted design, and the body painting soon wore off. He would be expected to give goods, food or labour in return or perhaps share his designs in the same way. When Aboriginal bark painters sell their art to local craft buyers, art galleries or the public, they never feel they are selling their designs to a purchase who will then have a claim on them. They are simply sharing the paintings in exchange for money, in the same way as they might have expected other reciprocal favours before Europeans became involved.

When an artist sells his work, he usually gives a brief 'story' to go with it. This is generally the simplest explanation of the designs, such as he might give to an uninitiated child. The deeper levels of meaning, the actual references to sacred symbols used and other details reserved for tribal elders who have reached ritual maturity, are never passed on at the sale of the painting. There is, in a sense, an unspoken understanding on the part of the artists that the buyers will act as responsible custodians of the paintings. when this is obviously not the case, the reaction is generally deeply felt anger and  outrage. For example, the Riratjingu leader Wandjuk Marika has spoken publicly many times about his anguish and anger when he saw his designs on a tea towel. He claimed that his lack of desire to paint over the preceding five years had been due to the 'stealing' of these designs, much as a sorcerer 'steals' something that belongs to his would-be victim to use it to cause him harm. When official copyright action was taken against the offenders, Wandjuk began to paint again, having found the cause of the draining of his powers.

All the Australian state museums and some art galleries, notably those of New south Wales and south Australia, have acquired large collections of bark paintings. European penetration of the remote northern areas came relatively late in the history of contact across the continent. Early accounts record bark paintings in the Darwin area from 1834, and on Melville island painted barks in a geometric style were reported by major Campbell. Sporadic collecting began in the late nineteenth century. Small collections of these remain in southern museums, including Field Island paintings in the south Australian Museum and Port Essington paintings in the Macleay Museum, Sydney.

Hunting scene. Three men in a canoe have harpooned a large turtle.

The most notable early collection was made in 1912 by Spencer and Cahill. It was from the Kakadu tribe at Oenpelli and is now housed in the Museum of Victoria. These paintings were acquired over a period when Spencer, then Special Commissioner for Aborigines, visited paddy Cahill, who had commissioned them for Spencer from the local people. Cahill is remembered as a colourful character in the history of Arnhem Land. The first white settler to take up a pastoral lease, he spoke several Aboriginal languages and lived at Oenpelli, running a dairy, orchard and garden from 190 to 1916.

Totemic creatures, eastern Arhnem Land. Animals include the devil ray, goanna and octopus.

The most comprehensive and significant early collection of bark paintings was made by the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land in 1948, sponsored by the National Geographic Expedition society and the Australian government under the leadership of C.P. Mountford. The attention of the National Geographic Society had been caught by two of Mountford's films, Tjurunga and Walkabout, both of which were made in 1942. They made the possibility of further research in this remote part of north Australia seem enticing. During a lecture tour of the United States Mountford proposed a scientific research expedition to Arnhem Land, and the National Geographic Society agreed. Seeing a good opportunity to further scientific research and to extend amicable relations with the United States, the Australian government offered to pay for a comprehensive group of American and Australian naturalists and ethnologists to participate.

Although the expedition included many more natural scientists than ethnologists, to those interested in art the collections made by Mountford have become perhaps the most important and significant. The expedition throughout the north of Australia lasted eight months, leaving Darwin in March 1948 and returning in November. The logistics of moving a team of ten scientists and their supplies and equipment across Arnhem Land in the 1940s were extremely complex. Twice the Australian Air Force was asked to help with the delivery of supplies when barges broke down. Three major camps were made: at Groote Eylandt, Yirrkala and Oenpelli. At Groote Eylandt, the first base, the lengthy but unplanned delay in the arrival of supplies allowed Mountford to make an extensive collection of Aboriginal art from Umbakumba. The paintings on Groote Eylandt were soon to diminish and change in style when the manganese ore mine began, and this collection made by the 1948 expedition is now an invaluable record of the area's unique art style and mythology. At Yirrkala the expedition commissioned paintings and carved figures.

The third camp brought the group back 960 kilometres west to Oenpelli on the east Alligator River, where the abundant flora and fauna in the lagoons excited the naturalists. The team excavated a series of cave floors at Unbalanja Hill, and Mountford and Basset-smith, a photographer, made films of the environment and recorded extensive galleries of the area's magnificent cave paintings. To the Australian public searching for a national identity, these paintings became the ideal symbols for 'authentic' Australian design. The simplicity and immediacy of the x-ray kangaroos as painted at Oenpelli became in the 1950s the universal symbol of Aboriginal art and hence of Australia. Several hundred bark paintings, thousands of implements and weapons and hundreds of string figures as well as numerous drawings and photographs of cave paintings were collected ruing this expedition. It is refreshing to look at some of these early paintings once again. Although some have cracked and deteriorated with the years and the delicate ochres have faded, their beauty remains. 

Just before the American-Australian Scientific Expedition was in Yirrkala, anthropologists Ronald and Catherine Berndt completed two years' field work there. They had made a detailed study of the religion, ceremonial practices and art of the clans gathered in the small community. The works they collected included many by the great Riratjingu artist Mawalan and his son Wandjuk, both of whom worked with Berndt. The Mountford and Berndt collections of these artists' works are the most extensive of any works by individual artists and provide a broad illustrative view of the mythology of the Riratjingu. The Berndt collection is now housed in the University of Western Australia's Anthropology Museum. The art community's burgeoning interesting Aboriginal art and the particular sympathy and interest of tony Tuckson, then Deputy Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, led to his expedition through Arnhem Land in 1958 with Dr Stuart Scourgall. Tuckson and Scourgall made a small but striking collection of work that formed the basis of an exhibition which then toured Australia - the first of its kind.

By this time, the paintings collected were showing some significant adaptations and developments, due to European influence and contact. In her succinct and interesting account of the European influence and contact. In her succinct and interesting account of the European influence on bark paintings in Yirrkala, Williams indicates that eastern Arnhem Land bark paintings in their present form apparently originated in the second half of the 1930s after the visit of anthropologist Donald Thomson, who requested some paintings on stringybark. Evidence from missionaries tells us that the insides of bark dwellings were painted with designs and that pieces of bark were cut from these, painted and then discarded. In 1936 the marketing of these paintings was introduced by Wilbur Chaseling, the first missionary in the area, who in turn sold all goods produced to museums in the southern cities. In western Arnhem Land bark pain tings were collected by early explorers and ethnographers well before this time, but the marketing of the art was delayed. For a brief period during the war, the work was encouraged by missionary officers whose criteria for payment were the amount of time they involved and the degree of 'workmanship' - European judgments one still hears applied to Aboriginal works of art.

The marketing of bark paintings in eastern Arnhem Land did not significantly increase until the mid-1950s. At this time another missionary art officer introduced innovations that significantly affected future bark paintings of this area. He aimed at making the work more saleable so that it would fetch higher prices. He introduced barks in shapes other than rectangular, encouraged 'miniature' barks and introduced the technique of inciting fine parallel lines on open surfaces of carvings. Ina response to his complaints about the bark paintings "curving" to the shape of the tree, split stick binders devised by the artist were fixed to both ends. From the early 1960s, art dealers and collectors began showing interest in barks and commissioned older artists to do major art works for them. Jim Davidson collected Yirrkala paintings, Dorothy Bennett collected art from all over Arnhem land and Sandra Homes began her interest in and patronage of the great Gunwinggu bark painter Yirawala. American ethnographic collectors also began to take notice and bought either from Australian collectors or direct from missions and settlements. The paintings became larger and more complex, both in their patterning and in the degree of mythiological information conveyed.

Most Australian museums bought direct from the artist's communities and from private collectors. The beautiful Yirawala series on the ubar and maraian ceremonies of the Gunwinggu is now in the Australian National Gallery and the Bennett collection forms the core of the national ethnographic collection of the Museum of Australia. In 1973 the Aboriginal Arts board was established and the next decade substantially altered the sporadic purchase and display of Aboriginal art. The board began to commission the artists to make pieces specifically for exhibitions to be shown in Australia, America and Europe. It provided funds for Aboriginal councils to employ people who would help the artists produce and market their work, and a national company was established to market Aboriginal art in all states. The 1980s have seen the emergence of individual artists in the north who have their own direct contacts with private Australian galleries. Having personally observed the private gallery system of the wider art world, these artists have benefited from the increase in status and economic returns when paintings are hung in these venues rather than the usual small ethnographic outlets. 


Although in some areas paintings have altered since the early collections wee made, stylistic differences in each region are still clearly discernible.


The Tiwi people of Bathurst and Melville Islands must have been isolated for an unknown length of time from all influences of mainland Aboriginal culture. Tiwi mythology refers to the mainland as the Home of the Dead. The Tiwi, therefore, did not have intensive contact with the mainland peoples or their artistic traditions and the art that developed is quite unlike any other in north Australia. Here the simple paintings, human figures and animals familiar in Arnhem Land are absent; many paintings contain no recognisable forms but are symbolic designs. The style of painting is vigorous, with broad, strong linear patterns; Tiwi paintings have less intricate detail than those from other areas. The use of dots applied with a Tiwi invention, a multi-pronged comb, is also integral to the work. A short burial ceremony is held after a person dies, and two months later another more complex ritual takes place, sometimes lasting for several days.

Aboriginal bark painting

A few weeks before this, specific people are commissioned to make grave posts: many posts if the dead man was old and important, one or two for a woman or a man of lesser status. Using a simple axe, the posts are cut and shaped from the round trunk of an extremely hard tree. They may be 90 to 250 centimetres high, always abstract in shape. Often they are pierced with rectangular or circular holes, with other sections cut out from the round pole in powerful asymmetrical forms. The surfaces of the posts are completely covered with painted designs. When erected for the ceremony, a group of these grave posts of different heights and thicknesses and vividly painted in the characteristic patterns is very impressive against the quiet grey-green of the bush. After the funeral has finished, the posts are left by the grave and gradually weather in successive bushfires and wet seasons.

Also associated with the pukumani rituals are bark baskets, armbands, feathered and painted ornaments and ornately carved and decorated spears. In more recent times, the original meanings of some of the designs seem to have been forgotten, but the bark baskets hold an important place in the pukumani ceremonies. Frequently containing possessions of the deceased, they are placed at the grave, leaning against the poles. On completion of the dancing they are inverted over the top of the poles to mark the end of the ceremony so that the spirit will stay quiet and not trouble the living. A most interesting aspect of Tiwi art is the fact that many of the painters are women, practising their art as individuals in the same way as men. The women paint the remembered patterns of their heritage, derived from their family and the things they see around them, in the prevailing geometric style. All bark painters the author recently observed on Bathurst Island were women, the men confining themselves to carving and painting on carvings.

Painting on bark occurs on single flattened sheets, two-sided baskets and bark armbands. Most of the Tiwi bark painting was traditionally associated with bark baskets, formerly used as the principal carrying bags. These baskets, called tunga, are constructed from one long sheet of flattened and scraped stringybark bent double at the base. The interior is blocked with sticks to support its shape and the two sides are sewn together by threading strong pandanus strips through punched holes. The upper rim of the basket is frequently decorated with pandanus stitching. Typically the baskets were painted on one side with a central circular design with radiating spokes, or with a geometric pattern, the decoration on the other side being limited to a few simple lines. When asked what the patterns on the bark paintings mean, the usual reply is, 'body paintings'.

C.P. Mountford's descriptions of the beautiful bark paintings he collected in 1956 give details of the complexity of symbolism involved in each circle and dot. Circles may be camps, fires or trees, and small dots may be fallen flowers.


Western Arnhem Land encompasses communities from Oenpelli to Maningrida, including the outstations of the Liverpool and Alligator River regions. The art rests now mainly with the Gunwinggu, Mialli and related people, the Kakadu people who painted many of the paintings collected by Mountford having since, sadly, dispersed and died. Croker and Goulburn Islands must be included in this area, as the Gunwinggu and related groups are also resident thee. The people of these areas are united in ceremonial chains and most speak or understand the Gunwinggu language. Great artists from Croker Island have included Yirawala and Mijau Mijau. In western Arnhem Land, the bark paintings are closely related in style to the ancient cave art of the escarpment area. Here during the long wet season when the rivers overflowed, Aboriginal families retreated to higher ground and camped in sandstone shelters, where they created innumerable ocher paintings. These provide a magnificent historical record of the continuous occupation of the area by successive generations of Aboriginals for possibly 30,000 years, as well as the importance of art in the lives of the people. The subjects of these rock paintings are many and varied.

Many bark paintings collected by Mountford in 1948 and reproduced here are very similar to the cave art of the same area and these artists probably also painted on rocks and caves. Today cave art is no longer practised in western Arnhem Land; bark painting has taken over as the major art form. The bark paintings still strongly resemble the cave art and major art form. The bark paintings still strongly resemble the cave art and include x-ray animals and figures, Mimi spirit paintings and strong images of powerful ancestral spirits. These are painted finely, usually in white pipeclay on a dark, plain background. Interiors of figures are cross-hatched or reveal x-ray features. In the 1940s the art of western Arnhem Land consisted predominantly of single figures or groups of isolated figures on a plain ground. Unlike the painters of eastern Arnhem land, the artists of Oenpelli did not fill the background with linear patterns but concentrated instead on the interior of the figures. Here the famous x-ray features can be seen in which the intestines, heart, liver, lungs and spinal column are shown, along with the external form of the animal. However, few paintings of this era show the fine cross-hatching the Gunwingugu now prefer.

The older paintings have an immediate appeal, with their rough texture and simplicity of design. The bark has been hacked from the trees and left untrimmed, the shape then determining the placement of figures. The figure of Garkain straddles the uneven lower edge of the bark, while Wilia Wilia hunting the kangaroo is positioned so that the movement of the hunt is captured on a most irregular piece of bark, with Wilia Wilia hidden behind a tree on the narrow end and the kangaroos leaping prominently in the foreground at the wider end. The positioning of the hunter at the cramped end of the bark gives the work another dimension and suggests the stealth and camouflage necessary when spearing game.

Some of the natural appeal of the unselfconscious older art has given way in the newer examples to precision in execution and minuteness of detail. The background is prepared perfectly, the bark edges are neatly squared and fine lines are painted over the entire surfaces of the figures. The simple patterns of the old paintings have been replaced by complex and elaborate cross-hatching. At the time of Mountford's visit, Oenpelli was a mission station run by the church Missionary society, active there until very recently. As well as creating training opportunities for the local people and running stock and agriculture projects, by the 1960s the mission was concentrating on reinforcing the traditional values of Aboriginal society through bilingual literary programs and the encouragement of traditional paintings which is sold through its own retail shops in Sydney.

Many paintings were accumulated by the church Missionary Society in Sydney from the 1950s to the early 1970s. The paintings had been set aside for many reasons, both Aboriginal and European. The Aboriginals said that some were sacred paintings that should not be seen by women; the missionaries thought others were distasteful, grotesque or sexually explicit and unsuitable for public display. The Aboriginal Arts Board purchased all these paintings and mounted an exhibition that toured Australia and Europe for six years, from 1977 to 1983. A survey of these paintings, together with others acquired by galleries and museums from the 1950s to the present, indicates some clear changes in the art. The hatching on the early figures is seldom polychrome and layered as it is today and until the late 1960s thee were still paintings with interior patterns comprising strong geometric blocks of colour areas filled in with dots, and generally a greater range of decorative patterns. Some artists continue the x-ray style of painting, mostly depicting the animals hunted for for food; others occasionally paint more important works that incorporate complex patterning with cross-hatched lines imitative of body paintings and termed rrark. The sequence of application of each colour in the rrark is most significant. The paintings are of animals and bush creatures, 'story barks' showing aspects of mythology, spirit creatures of the rocky escarpment and, most importantly, Dreaming ancestors.

Lengthy sacred ceremonies recall the events of the Dreaming with ancestors such as Ngalyod the Rainbor Serpent, Luma-Luma the giant, and the spirit kangaroo known as Kolobar, kalkberd or Nadulmi, as well as other names. The images of these creatures are painted on bark. The young children sit beside the master painters as they work and hear the stories; some older boys are taught and rrark patterns and help with the painting some time before they are told the full details of the ceremony. The Rainbow Serpent has a significant role in all western Arnhem Land sacred ceremonies, and occurs frequently in the bark paintings. Associated with fertility and the coming of the wet season, it is a custodian of tribal law and will kill or devour offenders. The Rainbow Serpent appears in different stories in different manifestations, with a kangaroo's head, a serpent's body, buffalo horns or a fish's tail. As a serpent it tunnels underground, but it also inhabits special waterholes and lagoons. The water lily leaves on the surface are associated with its Dreaming. Numerous other spirits, both evil and benign, live in western Arnhem land, including the mischievous Mimi.

With the increased interest of Europeans in Aboriginal paintings, many artists in remote communities are able to earn a living from sales of their art. The best of these contemporary painters bring a new strength to Oenpilli art. The imaginative spirit images vary in individual interpretation and extend the emotional content and impact of the paintings. Frightening and forceful faces and shapes trip one with uneasy apprehension about death, the spirit world and the psychic life of the artist. Artists such as the great Gunqinggu painter Yirawala and others, including Mijau Mijau, Maralwanga, Milaybuma, Mawunjal and Njiminjuma, became well known, their work in demand by major galleries throughout the world. Yirawala, who died in 1976, was an outstanding artist with a wide range of subjects and a prodigious output. He was perhaps the finest draughtsman. His figures are agile, vital and mobile; they leap and dance around the bark. In 'Katjailen the serpent devouring the child' the coils of the powerful, flowing serpent fill the painting and surround the startled figure, who seems frozen with terror. The freshness and sureness of line in his abstract clan patterns are evident in 'Sacred body painting designs' and the small frog at the bottom of the painting has a fragile charm.

Preferring to work in series, Yirawala compiled visual representations of the main myth cycles of the Gunwinggu. These are episodic, illustrating not only the physical nature of the events portrayed featuring, among others, Luma-Luma the giant man and Kundaagi the kangaroo, but also the sacred patterns that represent each aspect of the story and are used as body designs in the dances. Most of his work is held in the Australian Natiuonal Gallery, although most museums and galleries have several examples. Picasso, shown the old man's paintings in 1971, is rumoured to have said, 'Ah, this man is an artist, I wish I could paint like that.' That does not seem an unlikely statement for the great European artist to have made when one sees a group of paintings by Yirawala.


Much early writing about bark paintings divided the work into eastern and western styles. The people of central Arnhem Land did not fit easily into either classification; although their mythology related to the east, the paintings had a separate identity and clear differences. Central Arnhem Land encompasses both a geographical area and a group of related people. Broadly, it includes the clans and language groups whose land lies east of the Liverpool River through to Ramingining and its outstations on the mainland and Milingimbi, an island just off the coast adjacent to Ramingining. The main gatherings of central Arnhem Land artists are therefore at Maningrida, Ramingining and Milingimbi, with numerous outstations in the bush being serviced from these centres. These artists are also related to the clans of the far north-eastern tip of Arnhem Land, although the paintings are quite different. Along the coast the landscape is lush and tropical. In the dry season people travel great distances hunting and food gathering, whereas in the wet the river swell and flow across the plains, forming vast swamps and making road travel impossible. Small family groups gather to join outstations that may include any number of simple dwellings from two upwards, Some accommodating up to 150 people. The camps are made close to rivers, lagoons or other fresh water supplies on land that, through mythology, is owned by the resident families. No outstation is ever made on land not owned by the people who camp there. 

There are prominent artists in most clans of central Arnhem land, but work is most frequently seen from the Djinang, Liyagalawumirri, Ganalbingu, Djambarbingu and Gubarbingu. Other clans are resident in the area and their paintings, as do those of each clan, show both mythological and stylistic differences. However, the impression that one clan paints more than another is usually due to the work of several prominent and productive individuals. Another group, the Rembarrnga, whose paintings are very different in style, are included in this category, not because of kinship and mythological connections but largely because their outstations, deep into mythological connections but largely because their outstations, deep into the interior of Arnhem land, are serviced from Raningining and occasionally Maningrida, so the work is displayed and sold as central Arnhem Land painting.

The art of Bulu Bulun and Milpurru, both Ganalbingu, is characterised by excellent draughtsmanship, curved flowing lines and close intertwining forms. The motifs create an overall curvilinear pattern on a plain background, usually of red or yellow ochre. To the eye accustomed to Western art values, there is strong decorative appeal in the best paintings by these artists because of their elegance of line and composition. Both Bulu Bulun and Milpurru paint the totemic animals and plants of their clan country, occasionally executing a more elaborate and formal painting with additional mythological information in the subject matter. As paintings reveal more ceremonial information, they tend to tighten up; the artist is more concerned with placement and decoration of animals and human figures and adds representations of ceremonial emblems. Some clans arrange the composition into halves or quarters or organise the totems, animals or figures around an emblem or waterhole.

A group of central Arnhem land paintings recently acquired y the Australian Museum were all on the 'bush honey' theme. In central and eastern Arnhem land the gathering of bush honey is not only one of the delights of hunting, being one of the very few sources of natural sugar, but the finding of bush honey in the creation era is commemorated in myth and ceremony. The songs recount that 'the creation ancestors of the Yirritja moiety were travelling across Arnhem land from east to west. One man used his sacred stick to prise off some bark from a tree and when he did so, the "sugarbag" honey came out. The finding of bush honey as commemorated in a ceremony. But a fire broke out and a quail, picking up a burning twig, flew west. As he flew, a spark fell down and ignited the tall grasses of the plains so that there was soon a raging bushfire. The bees in the paper bark trees were frightened so they flew further west to Gubarbingu country'. The paintings of the 'bush honey' series were all collected from painters around Ramingining and Milingimbi, although the bush honey design is also known in Yirrkala. Two Yirritja paintings, painted by Niwuda, are purely symbolic representations of the '[honeycomb'. Other paintings show a simple scene of the hunter and the sugarbag tree with some of his implements; in others, some sacred rangga appear.

Observing the group of honey paintings before they went to the museum, Ray Munyal, a senior Dhuwa artist, contrasted his own painting with that of his son, Andrew Marrgalulu, saying, 'This is my painting, and this is my son's painting. I am teaching him. My painting is the interesting painting. He is learning, painting little more interesting, putting tree, axe, hunter. I am giving him little bit more interesting.' Munyal's use of the word 'interesting', more informative and more important. One of the central myth cycles for the people of this area is the Warilak story. The Warilak are ancestors of the Dhuwa moiety and their story is enacted in ceremonies throughout eastern Arnhem land, as well as being the subject matter for numerous bark paintings incorporating snakes, waterholes and other creatures.

The Wawilak sisters travelled over the land from east to west, giving names to birds, animals, plants and fish. when the younger woman was about to give birth, they camped beside a clear lagoon in which the Rainbow Serpent lived. After they had made a shade from stringybark, the baby was born. As the older sister went to collect paperbark in which to cradle the baby, she accidentally polluted the waterhole with her menstrual blood. The Serpent was very angry and, rising into the sky as a rainbow, he made a thunderstorm and caused lightning, rain and thunder to fall. Then he devoured the women and the newborn baby.* The lengthy cycle of songs and dances that tell of the Wawilak sisters recounts many side incidents and encounters with other animals in the course of the sisters' journey.

A great many central Arnhem land paintings concern mortuary themes, the funeral ceremony in which the bones of the deceased are placed in a hollow log coffin and the spirit is sung safely of the home of the spirits of the dad, the island of Baralku. When a Dhuwa person dies, he or she is taken over the sea in a spirit canoe that travels early in the morning along the light cast by the morning star. The light is actually a feathered string tethering the star to Baralku. An old spirit woman, Marlumbu, keeps the star in her dilly bag and if you could see inside it would appear as a glowing ball of light. Each morning the old woman opens her bag and lets the star loose into the sky, soaring like a kit. She unravels more and more string so that star can bring the morning light to the mainland. Then the old woman pulls the star home as night falls. She heaves on the feathered string as though pulling in a shark, and hides it in her bag again. As the pale morning star light appears at dawn the people are reminded of the journey their spirits must take when they die. Singing at funerals often lasts all night, culminating at dawn with the coming of the morning star.

David Malangi is a central Arnhem land artist whose paintings deal predominantly with two themes, the Djankawu sisters (in this area synonymous with the Wawilak sisters) and the ancestral hero Gurrumirringu. When he was asked to explain his paintings, he began, 'Even you see the many pieces, and the people staying thee - this is no ordinary place - this is my country. They (the people) are really from the country - they didn't make it but came from it. Our ancestors - big people - strong people, stuck to it and then we grew up and this is our story and our country. This is our traditional area and that is why we don't want mining or balanda (white men) fishing there.'

David Malangi is an important man who owns three tracts of land on the mainland opposite Milingimbi: Dhamala and Ngurrunyuwa on the western and eastern banks of the mouth of the Goyder River and Dhabila about sixteen kilometres along the coast from the mouth of the river. On the eastern side is the country of the ancestor Gurrumirringu and on the western side is the country of the Djankawu sisters. The two areas of country have special rocks and waterholes created by these ancestral heroes, and their stories, including the animals they encountered as well as the natural features of the landscape, are the subject of Malangi's paintings. In 1983 he executed a series illustrating the mythology and topography of these two places. He planned the series and its exhibition at the Art gallery of new south Wales with consideration of the way in which viewers would perceive his message. The Gurrumirringu series consists viewers would perceive his message. The Gurrumirringu series consist of six paintings and the Wawilak series of three, with one large focal painting linking them. The focal paintings, which is the largest and most detailed, shows an aerial view of the Goyder river with to the left the Gurrumirringu story shown in symbolic form, and to the right the Warilak story. The animals of the stories are shown, together with the symbol of the rock at the mouth of the river, which is the metamorphosed body of Gurrumirringu, and the abstract symbolic clan pattern denoting the Djankawu waterhole. The smaller paintings Malangi designed to hang on either side of the 'map', each telling a segment of the story. These paintings differ from the central important map. They are simple compositions freely painted, sometimes just two lizards or two catfish, denoting animals in the story.

The Gurrumirringu story has become famous; sections of Malangi's designs for it were used as Aboriginal art on Australia's $1 note. Perhaps because of Malangi's subsequent fame, he paints this design frequently, fully elaborating in a naturalistic fashion on the tree under which the hunter rested, and on the birds and plants of the bush. In some paintings he extends his ordinary range to paint kangaroos with x-ray features like those of western Arnhem land. Malangi included one large Gurrumirringu 'story' painting in the series, together with other related 'not much story' paintings. Among the more remote Rembarrnga, paintings are often abstract representations of the landscape of the artist's own area. Bark pieces are roughly cut and the brushwork is broad and unrefined. Occasionally the overall surface of the bark is left unpainted, with figures, trees and dotted lines forming the images. Rembarrnga artists seldom use yellow ochre, creating dramatic abstracts with deep red, black and white ochre against the natural texture of the bark, the broad white dots giving the work its fresh, distinctive and immediately recognisable style. 


In eastern Arnhem Land bark painting is a flourishing activity, though thee is no tradition of cave painting. Here the paintings are complex, highly involved patterns of grids and lines, diamonds and other geometric symbols used as a codified design language. figures are superimposed on these all-important, clan-owned patterns. In this Web page, the area of eastern Arnhem Land includes the whole of the north-eastern land surrounding the coastal mining town of Nhulunbuy, with Yirrkala being the main Aboriginal settlement. It includes the outstations of Yirrkala, Lake Evella on the mainland to the west and Elcho island. (Although the clans of Milingimbi and Ramingining are related, their art has been discussed as central Arnhem land painting.) the people of this area all refer to themselves as Yulngu, which means 'person' or 'we people' and they speak related languages which are mutually understood. The clans are divided into two moieties or haves, the Dhuwa and the Yirritja, membership of which is traced through the father to different creation ancestors, and these are depicted in the paintings. Great spirit ancestors of the Dhuwa are the Djankawu, the Wawilak sisters and the thunderman Djambuwal. The Yirritja ancestors are Barama and Laintjung. The great song cycles of the clans tell of these ancestors and form the central focus of ceremonies for each moiety. The paintings illustrate episodes in the great sagas.  

The stylistic features evident in Yirrkala paintings are clear in the older works collected by Mountford, as well as in contemporary examples. The area of the painting is frequently delineated by a rectangle placed just within the edges of the bark. This is then filled with the design. The artist may divide this area yet again or arrange the figures and patterns as one unit. He uses all the space available to him, filling gaps with cross-hatching patterns. Representations of the great ancestors in human form are common, as are fish, birds, animals and sea creatures. Individual figures are seldom painted showing any realistic movement but appear simple and static, sometimes clumsily drawn; the pattern and subject matter are important, not refinement of line in the representational figures. One of the outstanding painters, whose work as collected by Mountford and Berndt in the 1940s, was Mawalan of the Riratjingu clan, who acted as a principal informant to the Berndts.

An immediate difference can be observed between the older Yirrkala paintings and contemporary examples. The older ones are rough in comparison and the ochre colours softer. Today painters from Yirrkala and its outstations frequently use intense black pigment that was not available at the time of Mountford's visit. Their works are starling in contrast to the older pieces. Cross-hatching has developed to the point of extreme detail with symbolic linear patterns filling all spaces, both around the figures and on them. The importance of th4e art's mythological content has remained, although Yirrkala is undergoing radical change in response to the huge neighbouring bauxite mine and town at Nhulunbuy. Artists continue to produce the traditional patterns and to depict the stories owned by their clans. The ancient designs have altered little, though their execution, placement and composition have, with the result that the paintings now appear quite different. The designs or paintings are in Yulngu eyes independent of the surface on which they are painted. The same design appears as a bark painting, as decoration for sculpture, as a painting on the body of a dancer, the lid of a coffin or a memorial post.

The ancestors gave the designs, songs and associated ritual to the Yulngu by performing them in creation times; the shark ancestor of the Djapu clan travelled from the sea to Wulwulwuy where he became a tree that still stands. The activities of the shark not only form the subject of Djapu paintings and ceremonies, but their own homeland's housing plan is based on the shape of the shark. Each member is related to a part of the shark's body, the leader at the head and others at the tail and fins. The main Dhalwingu clan centre is at Gangan where the ancestor of the Yirritja, Barama, first appeared. Paintings by Dhalwangu artists illustrate the river at Gangan as well as the freshwater tortoise Minala and crayfish. The diamond motif prevalent in these paintings represents the pattern made by the reeds on Minala's back as she swam.  Similarly, Manggalili clan paintings represent topographical features of Djarrakpi, their homeland centre. Such paintings may contain a lot of mythological information or comprise only one segment of the story. To the artists, the whole story is summoned to mind by even a single appropriate image.

The Riratjingu homelands centre at Yelangbar is the beach on which the Djankawu ancestors of the Dhuwa clans first landed when they came by canoe from Baralku. There were three of them, Djankawu himself, the elder sister Bildiwuwiju, who had already borne children, and the younger sister Maralaidj. They paddled to the wide beach at Yelangbara, singing, and the waves carried their canoe to the shallows, where it changed into a rock. Djankawu plunged his mawalan or walking stick into the sand; water appeared and a well was formed. His stick is now a she-oak tree. They heard the cry of the black cockatoo and then, glancing at the sandhills, they saw the tracks of an animal. It was a goanna and Djankawu named it djunda.

They left many children in the caves and then travelled on to Bilirri, Borkinya and Ganungyala. At Bilirri, Djankawu saw the sun rise over the hill, spreading its rays across the sky. (Bilirri means 'the spreading rays of the sun'.) Djankawu named the places he saw and all the animals they found. At Borkinya he named the wild turkey, and at Ganungyala Djankawu stayed until dawn and saw the morning star. All these places are in the country of the Riratjingu people.

The paintings of Wandjuk Marika, who told this story, closely follow those of his father Mawalan. However, there is some personal style in the placement of figures, shape of the heads and overall composition. Most of Wandjuk's work illustrates the Djankawu, Wawilak and Djambuwal stories. In his important one-man exhibition held in Sydney in 1983, he chose to fully demonstrate his clan's ownership of and connection to their lands at Yelangbara and painting a series that not only told the story of the Djankawu in states but also contained detailed symbolic references to all the specific natural features of his land that the Djankawu had made: the sunrise on the water became a particular pattern of cross-hatching, the sacred canoe an abstract shape, the three large rocks, which are the metamorphosed brother and sisters, became three humped shapes. The mawalan (sacred digging stick) and the hills and animals that the Djankawu found on the land were also variously symbolised. 

The paintings were important to the artist on many levels. They were a declaration and manifestation of his ritual leadership in Djankawu ceremonial mattersThey were a revelation of the formation, meaning and associated symbolism of the features of the land at Yelangbara. They wee a statement that he, with his clan, owned that land and they were a means of preserving the visual cultural knowledge in a museum for future generations, as well as teaching existing members of his family deeper levels of meaning. Lastly, by their sale to a museum, they were intended to finance Wandjuk's move with his family away from the destructive influences of Yirrkala to the seaside peace of Yelangbara, sixty kilometres away, enabling them to build houses, sink bores and begin life in the bush again.


Groote Eylandt is a large island lying off the eastern coast of the Northern territory in the gulf of Carpentaria. Its people are linked to the mainland people through mythology and language, although the Groote Eylandt myths place a much greater emphasis on the importance of the winds. The winds aided the islanders' canoes on their voyages to the mainland, and rituals calling up Mamariga the south-east wind, Bara the north-west wind and Demboru the north wind were performed at various totemic sites on the island.

many of the great Australian museum and gallery collections contain examples of old Groote Eylandt paintings, but few have been seen in recent years. The paintings done today have absorbed features of the mainland art with the introduction of more detailed patterning and the inclusion of the background as part of the design. Old paintings collected by Mountford in 1948 show a markedly different and distinct Groote Eylandt style. The immediate impact is one of space and dramatic simplicity, or a few small and delicately delineated forms against a deep black or occasionally yellow background. Patterns on the figures are frequently made up of chevrons and broken lines. The division of the bark into many separate areas, common in the art of Yirrkala, is limited in Groote Eylandt to two or three simple strokes across the width of the painting, in no way interesting with the spaciousness of the design. Human figures are not prominent in the art of Groote Eylandt, usually playing a subsidiary role to animals, birds, fish and reptiles. The most common subjects refer to the activities of mythological ancestors always represented in their animal form: for example, kestrels, mud crabs, doves and sharks. Boats, both dug-out canoes and Macassan praus, obviously played an important role in the island economy and are usually shown with with tiny figures hauling in fish of exaggerated size. Here, as in many parts of Arnhem Land, Macassan fishermen who visited the coast in traditional sailing vessels for centuries before Europeans arrived intrigued the artists of Groote Eylandt; Macassan subjects were painted.

The Macassan sailing boats travelled to Groote Eylandt on the wet season's wind, Bara. They collected trepang and pearl shell, then returned to Macassar with the south-easterly monsoon wind, Mamariga. The winds give each season its particular character and are therefore major factors in the life of the people. The dry season wind, Mamariga, blows from the east or south-east from about April to September. As it gets hotter towards the end of the dry season, the north-east wind takes over, and finally about mid-November Bara begins, bringing with it thunderstorms and torrential rain. Mythology and art emphasize the winds, symbolising their origins in totemic rites. Designs incorporate rectangular areas representing the trees or rocks that are the totemic centre of each wind.

An outstanding feature of the Groote Eylandt paintings is the rich black so often applied to the background. This intensifies the lighter red, yellow and white ochres painted over it. Black pigment is made from manganese, found extensively on the island but not on the mainland, where until recently colours were lighter unless black had been obtained through trading. The most striking feature of the Groote Eylandt paintings is the very positive attitude to the space around the fixtures; this space has a dynamism very sympathetic to sensibilities attuned to modern art. The animals and especially the birds have a particular elegance with their full, swelling and pattern-filled bodies contrasted with their tiny heads. On chasm Island, off the coast of Groote Eylandt, cave paintings are found, some of the few in the north-east. The cave paintings of Groote Eylandt show more emphasis on human features and must be considerably older than the bark paintings. These paintings were some of the first Aboriginal art works ever seen by Europeans, for they wee sketched by Westall from Matthew Flinders' ship as he charted the coastline of the gulf of Carpentaria in 1803. The cave paintings and more recent bark paintings of Groote Eylandt share many similarities in subject matter, including a series of fishing scenes showing disproportionately large fish being caught by a line. The simple silhouettes of animals and men in the cave paintings are less intricate in detail than in the bark paintings. In 1963 a manganese mine was established on Groote Eylandt and this development, together with the growth of an associated township, has led to a decrease in the number of artists actively involved in bark painting. The delicate, spacious early style has gone, but Groote Eylandt art remains distinctive.


The style of bark paintings can be affected by individual variations from within Aboriginal society, by the exigencies of the market and by the artist's perception of what the buyer wants. Notwithstanding, bark painting as a commercial activity has become fully integrated into Aboriginal social and ceremonial life. It is the main means of imparting mythological information and the meaning and relationship of the clan to special features of their land. Paintings have been used in land rights court cases, standing as title deeds, and they are also seen as property that can be used as a form of exchange. In this context, only some individual variations in paintings are permitted. In most of the areas discussed, an artist learns and follows his father's designs, occasionally his mother's and his maternal grandmother's. This system is determined by the complex kinship rules of Aboriginal society, and mistakes or 'stealing' of another clan's designs are serious offences.

An artist who learns the designs from his father must retain the important appropriate clan symbols and patterns exactly. however, in superimposed figures and animal shapes and in the overall composition of the painting, each artist tends to being his own personal style into play. Thus bark paintings do not remain exactly the same from generation to generation. In eastern Arnhem land one man may paint the ancestor figures with rounded heads, another with triangular heads. The eyes, mouths, and limbs of animals may vary, but the patterns on their bodies and in the background will be the same.

In western Arnhem land, individual variations in bark painting are also seen. In the areas around the alligator and Liverpool Rivers, strong imagery is used to convey the menace and ferocity of spirit creatures and the power of ancestral heroes. In the distant past, the Rainbow Serpent sometimes metamorphosed from snake to kangaroo to crocodile. Today, paintings can show the Serpent with features of some or all of these creatures; an antler-like headdress, for example, and a barbed snake tail. Similarly, the lightning spirit is shown with a multitude of facial expressions and physical attributes. Each artist gives his interpretation.

Cautionary tales told to the artist in childhood and verbal descriptions of the physical features of spirit creatures can inflame his imagination and still influence his own version of his subject matter. There appears to be more scope for the depiction of fearsome imagined spirits in the west than in the east, though, of course, individual artistic variations occur in all painting areas. Another means by which traditional bark paintings change is through dreams. Dreams play a significant role in the religious and imaginative life of Aboriginals and can be the means whereby a new design elements is introduced into an artist's work. There is no doubt that the quantity and upsurge in bark paintings in their present form has emerged through the interaction of Aboriginal society and outside influences; firstly anthropologists, followed by missionaries, government administrators and more recently by art missionaries, government administrators and more recently by art historians and art galleries. Painting is now a major economic activity and the demands and criteria of the buyers have been integrated into the work. At centres where there is an adjacent market in the form of a European town (for example, Nhulunbuy in north-east Arnhem Land), small bark paintings are produced to provide a souvenir trade for the workers and visitors to the mine. The arts centre at Yirrkala, the Aboriginal community, only eleven kilometres away, sells up to sixty per cent of the work locally and some artists sell direct to the people in the town. Major and important ceremonial paintings are also painted alongside this art, supplying a growing demand for the paintings in the wider art market. In one sense, it is hard to separate the two styles of painting; the smaller souvenir paintings may actually be segments or episodes of the larger ones. They will then have mythological importance and may be well painted. On the other hand, despite the mythological relevance, they are sometimes simply 'rough' paintings, quickly executed on inadequately prepared bark, with either flaking paint or too much fixative, resulting in a hard, glossy and unappealing surface.

It is obvious that both the disposition and motivation of the artist affect the work. A well known middle-aged painter was in Sydney and observed several of the paintings and display in a gallery. These were, to European eyes, rough, crude paintings with little aesthetic appeal; they wee priced accordingly. Interested to know the master painter's reaction, the author asked him his opinion of the works, which were both from his own cultural area. The first depicted a single large black image of a fish on a simple cross-hatched background. The artist commented, 'This one's a bit rough. I think he need the money so he could go to Nhulunbuy for drink. It comes from Yirrkala, not the homeland centre. some lines are missing, something is left out.'

The second painting showed a black crocodile against an irregular diamond pattern. his comments were, 'I know the crocodile who owns that story. This man is very old and has passed away - his hand shaking badly never do good painting. These supposed to be little diamonds. He's left out things. he has left out the black, the ashes of the fire. If the young people want to know the righty way to paint (this story), they have to go to another old man.'

When asked to value the works, the commentator predictably placed a higher value on the old man's crocodile, out of defence not only to his age but also to his ritual standing in the community, despite his worry that the painting was not a good educative tool.

One interesting feature of the development of marketing bark paintings has been the emergence of artists whose paintings are perceived to have more individual style and to be more attractive and desirable than others by the European collector. Whereas in his traditional society the artist is not a separate figure, today some who have been able to earn their living and support the family well on the proceeds of their paintings are now seen by their community as artists. Being a recognised artist carries with it some status. However, unless the artist is an important man in ritual matters, having achieved a high level of knowledge of design, songs and ceremony, this increase in status is limited to temporal things. Clan ceremonial leaders continue to exhibit complete authority over their designs, songs, rituals and use of their lands and designs on a coffin or burial post are inspected to ensure their accuracy. 

*In western Arnhem Land, the Rainbow Serpent is often female, whereas in the central and eastern Wawilak story, it is male.  

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