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Australian Aboriginal Bark Paintings

Australian Aboriginal Bark Paintings

6 Australian Aboriginal Bark Paintings in World Museums

Australian Aboriginal Bark Paintings are painted on the interior of a strip of tree bark. Bark painting is a continuing form of artistic expression in Arnhem Land and other regions of Northern Australia.

Traditionally, bark paintings were produced for instructional and ceremonial purposes and were transient objects. Today, they are keenly sought after by Museums and Art Galleries.

The bark painting above was inspired by the myth of the origin of the fire. In the myth, the crocodile and lizard spirits decided to compete to be the first to provide fire.

The lizard got up in a tree to catch the fire from the sun, but the crocodile was first because it used a couple of fire drill sticks.

The lizard became angry and turned into a man so that he could take revenge on the crocodile ancestors. These fire sticks are received by a seated man, as shown in the center of the bark painting.

Humanity then used a spear and spear thrower to kill the kangaroo, which was a crocodile’s relative. The myth ends with the crocodile and his relatives pursuing the lizard and killing it.

Bark Painting

  • Title:                     Unknown
  • Artist:                   Unknown
  • Created:               1900 and 1970
  • Source:                 Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia
  • Materials:             paint on bark
  • Dimensions:         Width: 52 cm; Length: 97 cm
  • Museum:              National Museums of World Culture, Världskulturmuseerna, Stockholm

Kangaroo Totemic Ancestor – Bark Painting

Australian Aboriginal Bark Paintings

Kangaroo Totemic Ancestor – Bark Painting

The designs seen on authentic bark paintings are traditional designs that are owned by the artist or his clan, and cannot be painted by other artists.

These designs would traditionally be used to paint the body for ceremonies or rituals and also to decorate logs used in burials ceremonies.

While the designs themselves are ancient, the medium of painting them on a piece of flattened bark is a relatively modern phenomenon.

There is some evidence that in earlier times, artists would paint designs on the bark walls and roofs of their shelters.

Kangaroo Totemic Ancestor – Bark Painting

  • Title:                     Kangaroo Totemic Ancestor
  • Artist:                   Unknown
  • Created:               1915
  • Source:                 Alligator River, Arnhem Land, Noni, Australia.
  • Materials:             Ochre, red and white pigments on bark
  • Dimensions:         92.5 × 35.5 × 5.5 cm (36.4 × 13.9 × 2.1 in)
  • Museum:              Musée du quai Branly, Paris

Bark Painting – Arnhem Land

Australian Aboriginal Bark Paintings

Bark Painting – Arnhem Land

The earliest surviving bark paintings date from the nineteenth century. The modern form of bark paintings first appeared in the 1930s, when missionaries at Yirrkala and Milingimbi asked the local Yolngu people to produce bark paintings that could be sold in the major cities of Australia.

The missionaries were interested in earning funds that would help pay for the mission, and also to educate white Australians about Aboriginal culture.

As the trade grew, and the demand for paintings increased, leading artists started being asked to mount exhibitions.

It was not until the 1980s that bark paintings started being regarded as fine art, as opposed to Indigenous handicrafts.

Today fine bark paintings are valued on the skill and fame of the artist and the quality of the art. The degree to which the artwork encapsulates the culture by telling a traditional story can command high prices in the art market.

Bark Painting – Arnhem Land

  • Title:                      Bark Painting – Arnhem Land
  • Artist:                    Unknown
  • Created:                1900
  • Source:                  Arnhem Land, Oenpelli Region, Australia,
  • Materials:              Pigments on bark
  • Dimensions:          Height- 42 1/2 in. (107.95 cm)
  • Museum:               Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Bark Painting of Totem Creature

Australian Aboriginal Bark Paintings

Bark Painting of Totem Creature

The Bark painting symbolizes the transformed body of a totem creature, associated with a disease of the trachea. The myth tells the story of the disease, and the lines that cross each other symbolize the cough that characterizes the creature’s disease.

Bark paintings are based on sacred designs that include abstract patterns and designs. The cross-hatching and color schemes can identify a clan. The pictures also often contain elements of the Eternal Dreamtime.

Sometimes the elements of a story are obvious, but sometimes the details are symbolic. The wavy lines punctuated by dots may be telling a complex Dreaming story that describes the journey of a creator spirit and events that happened along the way.

An initiated person who paints a story, which has restricted knowledge that can not be shared with uninitiated people will only provide an incomplete version of the story to an outsider.

Bark Painting of Totem Creature

  • Title:                       Bark Painting of Totem Creature
  • Artist:                     Unknown
  • Created:                 1800 and 1967
  • Source:                   Central Arnhem Land, Australia
  • Materials:               Pigments on bark
  • Dimensions:           Height: 240 mm (9.44 in); Width: 900 mm (35.43 in)
  • Museum:                National Museums of World Culture, Världskulturmuseerna, Stockholm

Wambiddyer Anteater

Australian Aboriginal Bark Paintings

Wambiddyer Anteater

“Wambidbyer Anteater” was made by an anonymous artist belonging to one of the Kunwinjku or neighboring clans in Western Arnhem Land. 

Depicted on a roughly chopped segment of thick bark, the image of the anteater is almost life-size. Red and yellow ochres and white clay outline and accentuate its internal organs.

This depiction is typical of the X-ray style of drawing found in the rock art of Western Arnhem Land, with the backbone, heart, lungs, and intestines showing. The image is anatomically correct, including the toenails.

“Wambidbyer Anteater” was initially acquired by the anthropologist Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer. From 1912 Spencer collected bark paintings from Arnhem Land for the Museum of Victoria.

The neatly written inscription on the bark, with the animal’s Aboriginal and English names, is a link to Spencer, the first collector.

This bark painting is the earliest in the National Gallery of Australia collection. It is a rare painting that has remained in relatively good condition despite its age.

Wambiddyer Anteater

  • Title:                       Wambiddyer Anteater
  • Artist:                     Unknown from the Kunwinjku people
  • Created:                 1912
  • Source:                   Western Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia
  • Materials:               paintings, bark paintings, natural earth pigments and natural binder on eucalyptus bark
  • Dimensions:           49.8 h x 50.0 w cm
  • Museum:               National Gallery of Australia

Painting of Dream Figures on Bark

Australian Aboriginal Bark Paintings

Painting of Dream Figures on Bark

The spiritual relationships between Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders and the natural world are often described as totems or Dream Figures. These figures are usually an animal or other natural figure that spiritually represents a group of related people, such as a clan.

In some cases, such as the Yuin of coastal New South Wales, a person may have multiple totems of different types representing personal, clan, gender, and ceremonial.

Torres Strait Islanders have “auguds,” typically that be a kai augud (“chief totem”) or mugina augud (“little totem”).

Painting of Dream Figures on Bark

  • Title:                        Painting of Dream Figures on Bark
  • Artist:                      Unknown
  • Created:                  20th century
  • Source:                   Northern Australia, Australia
  • Materials:               bark and pigment
  • Dimensions:            26 x 12 1/2 x 2in. (66 x 31.8 x 5.1cm)
  • Museum:                Brooklyn Museum

Paperbark Tree

Paperbark tree belonging to the genus Melaleuca, in the myrtle family and is characterized by their whitish papery bark. 

The tree grows as a spreading tree up to 20 m (70 ft) tall, with its trunk covered by a white, beige, and grey thick papery bark.

Paperbark Tree has multiple uses and is widely used traditionally by indigenous Australians. A brew was made from the bruised young aromatic leaves to treat colds, headaches, and general sickness.

The paper-like bark is used traditionally for making coolamons, shelter, wrapping baked food, and lining ground ovens.


Yirrkala is a small community in East Arnhem Shire, Australia comprising predominantly Aboriginal Australians of the Yolngu people with a population of about 800 people.

There has been an Indigenous community at Yirrkala throughout recorded history. The population increased in size when the Yirrkala mission was founded in 1935.

Yirrkala is home to several leading Indigenous artists, whose traditional Aboriginal art, particularly bark painting, can be found in art galleries around the world.

Pioneer Bark Painters came from this region, and the National Museum of Australia considers the old masters include Mithinari Gurruwiwi, Birrikitji Gumana, and Mawalan Marika (see video below).

It is also a traditional home of the Didgeridoo, and some of the finest didgeridoos are still made at Yirrkala.

Narritjin Maymuru

Narritjin Maymuru, who died in 1981, was a Yolngu people artist noted for Bark painting. He began painting in the 1940s, and after decades of work in 1979 he, and his son, became visiting artists at the Australian National University (see video below).

His daughter Galuma Maymuru has become recognized as a significant Australian artist.

Milingimbi Island

Milingimbi Island is the largest island of the Crocodile Islands group off the coast of Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia.

Aboriginal people have occupied this area for more than 40,000 years. It was an important ritual center for the great ceremonies conducted by indigenous peoples of this area.

A settlement was established on the island in 1923 by the Methodist Overseas Mission.

English is a second, third, or fourth language for most Aboriginal residents of Milingimbi. The Island has a long tradition in Aboriginal Bark Paintings.


“Dreamtime” is a term devised by anthropologists to refer to a religious-cultural worldview attributed to Australian Aboriginal beliefs.

The Dreaming is used to represent Aboriginal concepts of “Everywhen” during which ancestral figures with supernatural abilities inhabited the land.

These figures were often distinct from gods as they did not control the material world and were not worshipped, but only revered. The Wandjina can punish those who break the law with floods, lightning, and cyclones.

Dreamtime stories tell how the Wandjina created the landscape and its inhabitants, and continue to influence both. When the spirits found the place they would die, they painted their images on cave walls and entered a nearby waterhole.

Creation is believed to be the work of culture heroes who traveled across a formless land, creating sacred sites and significant places of interest.

In this way, “songlines” were established, some of which could be used to travel right across Australia, through as many as six to ten different language groupings. The dreaming and traveling trails of the Spirit Beings are the songlines.

The concept of the Dreamtime has subsequently become widely adopted beyond its original Australian context and is now part of popular culture.


A “Songline,” also called “Dreaming,” records the tracks across the land or sometimes the sky within the animist belief system of Aboriginal Australians.

The paths of the songlines are recorded in traditional song cycles, stories, dance, and art, and are often the basis of ceremonies. They are a vital part of Aboriginal culture, connecting people to their land.

Aboriginal Australians

The term “Aboriginal Australians” refers to the people who are members of the several hundred Indigenous peoples of Australia.

The category “Aboriginal Australia” was coined by the British after they began colonizing Australia in 1788.

The term was used to refer collectively to all the people they found already inhabiting the continent. It later also included the descendants of any of those people.

The Constitution of Australia, in its original form as of 1901, referred to Aboriginals twice, but without definition.

Before the British colonization of Australia, there existed several hundred groupings of Indigenous peoples of Australia with their own defined territory.

Within each region or country, people lived in clan groups: extended families defined by various forms of Australian Aboriginal kinship. Inter-clan contact was frequent, as was inter-country communication, but there were strict protocols around this contact.

The Australian Aboriginal languages, before colonization, consisting of over 300 languages belonging to an estimated twenty-eight language families.

Australian Aboriginal Bark Paintings

The Kangaroo on this Australian $1 Bill shows the x-ray painting style used on Aboriginal Bark Paintings.

Australian Aboriginal Sayings and Quotes

Virtual Tour of Aboriginal Artifacts and Stories

Virtual Tour of Prehistoric Art and Artifacts

Bark Painters. Aborigines Of The Northern Territory.

Old Masters: Australia’s Great Bark Artists

Australian Aboriginal Bark Painting

Old Masters bark paintings conservation


“Traveler, there are no paths. Paths are made by walking.”
– Ancient Aboriginal Saying


Photo Credit: 1)Unknown author / Public domain; Musée du quai Branly / Public domain; Los Angeles County Museum of Art / Public domain; The National Museums of World Culture / Public domain; Brooklyn Museum / No restrictions; Gordon Andrews & David Malangi / Public domain; National Gallery of Australia / Public domain

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