Jabarrgwa Wurrabadalumba was in his early fifties when he painted the bark, 'Dugong hunt', 1948. It is likely that the work was made at the request of anthropologist Charles Mountford, leader of the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land in 1948. The published records of the expedition acknowledged a vigorous and distinctive art tradition at Groote Eylandt. Little effort was made to gather information on the artists, however, even though the expedition's intense campaign of collecting was inspired by a belief that it was assembling the work of a final generation of master artists. Like so many others, Wurrabadalumba is therefore known to us in only the barest biographical detail.
Wurrabadalumba, more widely known as Kneepad, belonged to the Bara, or north-west wind people, and was born on Groote Eylandt, near Bartaluma. This area is celebrated as a breeding ground for dugongs, a sea-mammal especially valued by Aboriginal people for its meat and for medicinal purposes. Essentially a sea people, the Groote Eylandters produced many bark and cave paintings that integrated their fishing experiences within a universal cosmology. In 'Dugong hunt', the artist captures the moment in a successful expedition when the spearhead finds its mark. It is a remarkably animated work, with harpoon rope swinging through the air, harpoonist with arms raised, securing the catch as his two companions keep the canoe on course, and a great, white-outlined dugong rises out of the water.
The painting illustrates many features of the rare 'middle period' Groote Eylandt barks. The background is a solid black, made from local manganese pigment, with the design laid on in white outline. Only four colours are used: white, yellow, red and black. In a reversal of east Arnhem Land practice, the complex details of the composition are found within the figures, while the surrounds are left bare and the images seem to float in space. The simple black background was characteristic of Groote Eylandt and to a particular period before the influx of manganese miners in the 1960s created a market for works with overall patterning and more complex compositions. This work, listed as one of the first acquisitions of Aboriginal art by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, in 1956, is intensely engaging both in its strong linear conception and its spontaneity.
Steven Miller in 'Tradition today: Indigenous art in Australia', Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2004
© Art Gallery of New South Wales
natural pigments on bark
46.0 x 95.0 cm (irreg.)
Signature & date
Dated l.l. corner verso, black fibre-tipped pen ".../ 22.6.48/ ... " . Not signed.
Gift of the Commonwealth Government 1956
© Estate of Jabarrgwa Wurrabadalumba and Anindilyakwa Land Council
Where the work was made
Shown in 5 exhibitions
Australian Aboriginal art: bark paintings, carved figures, sacred and secular objects: an exhibition arranged by the State art galleries of Australia, 1960-1961:
- Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 17 Aug 1960–18 Sep 1960
- Queensland Art Gallery, South Brisbane Oct 1960–Oct 1960
- National Gallery of Victoria [Swanston Street], Melbourne Nov 1960–Dec 1960
- Western Australian Art Gallery, Perth Feb 1961–Mar 1961
- National Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide Apr 1961–Apr 1961
- Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart May 1961–Jun 1961
Gamarada, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 15 Nov 1996–16 Feb 1997
One sun, one moon, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 03 Jul 2007–02 Dec 2007
Mountford Gifts: Works from the American Australian scientific expedition to Arnhem Land 1948, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 21 Mar 2009–03 Jun 2009
Our spirits lie in the water, 15 Nov 2014–01 Nov 2015
Referenced in 10 publications
Jonathan Jones, Mountford Gifts: Works from the American-Australian scientific expedition to Arnhem Land 1948, 'Mountford Gifts: Works from the American-Australian scientific expedition to Arnhem Land 1948', pg. 1-5, Sydney, 2009, 3, 4.
Frederick D. McCarthy, Australian Aboriginal art: bark paintings, carved figures, sacred and secular objects: an exhibition arranged by the State art galleries of Australia, 1960-1961, 'Introduction', pg. 7-17, Sydney, 1960, 30. cat.no. 87
Steven Miller, Tradition today: Indigenous art in Australia, 'Jabarrgwa Wurrabadalumba', pg. 174, Sydney, 2004, 174 (colour illus.), 175 (colour illus., detail).
John Mundine and Renée Porter, Art Gallery of New South Wales handbook, 'Aboriginal and Melanesian', pg. 57-71, Sydney, 1988, 60 (colour illus.).
National Art Gallery of New South Wales, Purchases and Acquisitions for 1956 National Art Gallery of N.S.W., Sydney, 1956, 21. cat.no. 47; titled 'Dugong hunt'
Margo Neale, Yiribana, Sydney, 1994, 4 (colour illus.).
Margo Neale, Yiribana: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collection, Sydney, 1994, 24, 25 (colour illus.), 139. plate no. 8
Cara Pinchbeck, Look, 'Aboriginal treasures: From the early days of the Gallery's Indigenous collection', pg. 23, Sydney, Feb 2009, 23 (colour illus.).
J.A. Tuckson, Art Gallery of New South Wales Quarterly, 'Making a bark painting', pg. 34-36, Sydney, Jul 1960, 35 (illus.).
David H. Turner, One sun one moon: Aboriginal art in Australia, ‘Images of transcendence: The art of the Wanindilyakwa’, pg. 111-115, Sydney, 2007, 113 (colour illus.).