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Figures in the landscape

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.


Figures in the landscape

Figures in the landscape is a genre of painting in the western European tradition that seeks to express the connection between people and their environment, and its influence on a person’s identity. The ancestral figures in bark paintings not only inhabit the country, they also created it; they metamorphosed into its features and they deposited their ancestral forces within the earth itself.

Chief among these creator beings is the Rainbow Serpent, commonly known as Ngalyod, who may appear in several guises. Ngalyod creates sacred sites by burrowing its way through the earth to emerge on the surface, where it encircles and swallows spirit beings. These may be taken into the ground or regurgitated as features of the landscape. The Rainbow Serpent is sometimes drawn as a composite of several creatures, with the head of a crocodile or kangaroo, an emu’s crop and the tail of a fish. Ngalyod the Rainbow Serpent by Bardayal Nadjamerrek depicts Ngalyod beneath the surface of a billabong. Images of ‘seated’ beings indicate they are giving birth to particular sites.

The artists in this section all lived in and around the township of Oenpelli (Gunbalanya) in the 1960s and 1970s, when most of these paintings were made.

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.