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Old Masters: Australia's great bark artists

Caution: This website includes images and names of deceased people that may cause distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.


Mithinarri Gurruwiwi depicts the male and female Rainbow Serpents of his clan, the Gälpu. They feature in the Wäwilak Sisters story, in which Wititj the Rainbow Serpent swallows the sisters at Mirarrmina (see Dawidi’s paintings), then stands erect in the sky and boasts of his deed to ancestral Rainbow Serpents belonging to neighbouring clans, including the Gälpu. These serpents make Wititj aware he has broken the law by devouring beings who belong to the same moiety as him — a metaphor for a marriage between kin that is forbidden by law.

Wititj becomes ill and expels the women, as Mithinarri suggests in Wititj the Gälpu Python by depicting the legs of one of the sisters emerging from the snake’s anus. Just as Wititj at Mirarrmina created the first monsoon, the Gälpu snakes also make rain clouds, and their flickering tongues become lightning. In Male and Female Wititj the extraordinary fertility of the snakes is emphasised by the depiction of eggs within the female’s body. The background Gälpu clan pattern represents paperbark trees.

In Wititj the Gälpu Snake, a goanna carries a rectangular quartz axe-head to make the connection between Gälpu country and Ŋilipitji, a site near Mirarrmina where quartz is quarried to make blades and knives.

Paintings in the exhibition

Click on the images below to see a larger version and more information, including dimensions. Please note these images are not to scale.

All these bark paintings are part of the National Museum of Australia’s collection. © the artist or the artist’s estate, licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency 2013, unless otherwise specified. These images must not be reproduced in any form without permission.