Dawidi Djulwarak was born into a Liyagalawumirr family on the Arnhem Land coast in 1921. Though based on Milingimbi, an island just off the mainland, Dawidi moved extensively throughout Arnhem Land, particularly after the death of his uncle, Yilkari Kitani in 1956, when he was made the senior leader of the Wagilag Sisters ceremonies – the major ceremonial cycle and painting tradition in this region. At first Dawidi was considered too young to conduct his traditional responsibilities in full, and was guided by mentors. However, from the early 1960s he became the principal authority in recording this story.
The small bark painting, Snakes and fish anticipating rain, was probably created in the mid-1950s, before Dawidi assumed his full ceremonial and artistic position in the community. The significance rests in the display of many qualities that distinguish his later, larger works, including his free handling of figurative elements and a very controlled, subtle use of colour.
Snakes and fish anticipating rain is divided into two fields. In one section two fish, placed between compartments of the ‘fresh water grid pattern’ common in central Arnhem Land iconography, swim in one direction. In the other section, seven snakes travel the opposite course, and an errant fish boldly pushes its way into this field. The dotted background, which almost fills the bark, suggests the breaking of the monsoonal rains. The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, purchased this work in 1962 from the Rev. Edgar Wells, who acquired it from the artist when Wells was superintendent of the Methodist Mission at Milingimbi from 1949 to 1959.
Most of the paintings made by central Arnhem Land artists represent the universal themes of the creation stories, sometimes obliquely denoted through more commonplace creatures and plants. Snakes and fish anticipating rain relates to the cycle of the seasons, which demarcates life in the monsoonal north. The work also has resonances with the story of the Wagilag Sisters, which tells of the day the two Wagilag Sisters ventured into the sacred place of Yulungul, the great python. Angered, he rose from his slumber in the lagoon, sucked in the waters, spewed forth a fierce thunderstorm and then devoured the Sisters and their children. The story records the arrival of the first monsoon season and the flooding of the earth. More importantly, it documents the foundation of the laws of social and ceremonial behaviour, and provides a means for the continued transmission of cultural knowledge.
Steven Miller in 'Tradition today: Indigenous art in Australia’, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2014