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David Malangi used to joke that he was the most popular painter in Australia. His image of the burial of Gurrmirriŋu the Ancestral Hunter was reproduced on the $1 note when decimal currency was introduced to Australia in 1966. As Malangi used to say, most Australians carried his painting in their wallets.

Malangi paintings show aspects of the story of Gurrmirriŋu, who died from the bite of a venomous snake. The Manharrŋu clan performed the first burial ceremony for him while a mortuary feast was prepared beneath a wurrumbuku (white berry tree). Gurrmirriŋu’s body was painted with the Manharrŋu clan design. Waterhole Life shows totemic animals surrounding the clan waterhole, which contains the souls of clan members. The central positioning of the waterhole reflects its significance to a person’s identity. When a clan member dies, a diver duck descends into the waterhole and plucks their soul from the circle of life.

Malangi had a unique way of drawing dangerous spirit figures. He often incorporated elements of X-ray drawing to show the skeleton and internal organs of his subjects. X-ray is normally associated with painting in western Arnhem Land. The Dead Gurrmirriŋu depicts the hunter’s body in a state of decay as birds eat at his flesh in a symbolic act of purification.

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.
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