South Australian Museum Sends Rare Artefact to London Show

20 September 2013

A rare and valuable Australian Aboriginal bark painting is on its way to London from the South Australian Museum, to appear in an exhibition showcasing the best of Australian art to the world.

London’s Royal Academy of Arts will present the exhibition Australia from 21 September – 8 December 2013. Institutions from around the country have supplied works to be exhibited, to illustrate the social and cultural story of Australia over the past 200 years.

The bark painting, Nadubi SpiritWoman, with Possum, Magpie Goose and Fish, c.1884. is part of a series collected by Captain Frederick Carrington during a coastal  survey of the Northern Territory during 1884, on behalf of the South Australian Government.

 Nadubi Spirit‐Woman, with Possum, Magpie Goose and Fish, c.1884.

Nadubi Spirit‐Woman, with Possum, Magpie Goose and Fish, c.1884.

Bark paintings were first collected in the Western Arnhem Land region in the late nineteenth century. They contain similar illustrations to Dreaming stories painted on cave rocks. The Field Island Bark Paintings were collected at a riverine setting where Aboriginal people had used the bark for shelters. They were later acquired by the South Australian Museum from the state branch of Geographical Society of Australasia.

South Australian Museum Anthropologist and Curator of Australian Aboriginal Cultures Dr Philip Jones will give a presentation on the collection on 25 September at the Menzies Centre Symposium, held at Australia House in conjunction with the Australian High Commission, the National Gallery of Australia and the Royal Academy of Arts. 

He says the bark painting is the most fragile in the series of five.

“It is of immense interest in terms of its artistic content. This painting, and others in the suite, have several unique features which seen only rarely or not at all in Arnhem Land bark painting or rock art.

“These paintings are the only documented bark paintings to show birds in flight, with outstretched wings. Evidence of these elements has almost disappeared from the bark’s surface during the past century, but it is firmly established. The animals on the bark are also delineated in distinctive ways not seen on other barks, and the ‘spirit woman’, corresponding to Nadubi figures well documented in the Gagudju region, is an extremely sophisticated example.”

The National Gallery of Australia chose the works to appear in the London exhibition.

The Head of Australian Art, Anna Gray, says she was keen to include the bark painting in the Australia exhibition, as “it will assist us in communicating to the British public the importance of displaying ancestral beings and animals as landscape painting – several ancestral figures that symbolically and totemically connect the landscape to people.”

The Gallery’s Senior Advisor in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, Franchesca Cubillo, says: “what the earliest (well-provenanced) barks signify is that these works existed within an Aboriginal cultural context prior to any external pressures and influences.

“What is paramount is that the rich visual language existed on multiple media (rock surfaces, bodies [design for ritual] and ceremonial objects) prior to European influence and this aesthetic existed for thousands of years and was refined across the generations by highly skilled artists, so to focus on the use of a particular media at a certain time in history (sheets of bark), is minor in comparison to the bigger picture.”

Nadubi SpiritWoman, with Possum, Magpie Goose and Fish would have been used as an instructive tool for people to learn about their animal‐ancestors and their links to the river site.

Australia runs at the Royal Academy of Arts, London from 21 September – 8 December 2013. For further information and images, please contact:

Johanna Bennett
Royal Academy of Arts Press Office
+44 207 300 5615