Nym Bunduck, a leader in the Wadeye (Port Keats) community, and his son Kevin collaborated on the impressive bark painting, Emus feeding, 1961. It depicts ancestral country during the dry season. The painting celebrates the fecundity of the natural environment and the regen-erative power of the land in a region of climatic extremes. Human intervention in this process is acknowledged by the inclusion of black and green patches around the edge of the painting – these represent the scorched earth that remains after fires clear the dry undergrowth and generate new shoots. The annual burn-off is a feature of the dry season in northern Australia, where countless generations of people have continued the practice of controlled burning.
The artists depict flocks of emus feeding on flowering foliage and gathering close to the waterhole, a remnant of the creek that flows during the wet season. The dry creek bed meanders, serpent-like, around the whole landscape. Boab trees grow along the banks of the waterhole and the billabong, shown to the right. Three snakes inhabit the area around the waterhole: a female, pregnant with many eggs, a male and one of their offspring. Waterlilies and flowering vegetation are scattered across the whole field of the painting. Dotted outlines and circles indicate ceremonial connections between the Wadeye region and the East Kimberley, and also resonate with references to the ceremonial imagery of desert areas to the south of the region.
Nym Bunduck’s early life coincided with the unrest caused by colonial activity in northern Australia, following the founding of the port of Darwin in 1869. To the east and south of Wadeye, pastoralists were establishing cattle stations, mining activity was underway and agricultural enterprises were starting up. The mission at Wadeye was established on Nym Bunduck’s land in 1935 to halt the drift of Aboriginal people away from their traditional lands and offer sanctuary from violent frontier conflicts. Situated on the coast, midway between Darwin and the East Kimberley, the mission promoted Christianity and discouraged Murrinh-Patha ceremonial practices. However, Murrinh-Patha people were encouraged to paint on bark and produce cultural artefacts for sale. W. E. H. Stanner, an anthropologist who was associated with the establishment of the mission, befriended Nym Bunduck, and many years later, in the 1950s, showed him topographical maps of the country. Bunduck, in turn, used paintings such as Emus feeding to instruct Stanner in Murrinh-Patha cultural values.
Ken Watson in 'Tradition today: Indigenous art in Australia’, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2014