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 regenerative 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 mate 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, 2004
© Art Gallery of New South Wales
Emus feeding in the dry season
natural pigments on bark
179.0 x 78.8 cm (irreg.)
Signature & date
Not signed. Not dated.
Gift of Dr Stuart Scougall 1961
Not on display
© Estate of Kevin and Nym Bunduck, courtesy Kardu Minda Council, Wadeye.
Where the work was made
Wadeye (Port Keats)
Shown in 3 exhibitions
Purchases and Acquisitions for 1961, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 04 Apr 1962–25 May 1962
ochre: bark paintings from the Collection (2000-01), Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 02 Nov 2000–06 May 2001
One sun, one moon, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 03 Jul 2007–02 Dec 2007
Referenced in 6 publications
Bruce James, Art Gallery of New South Wales handbook, 'Australian Collection: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art', pg. 208-241, Sydney, 1999, 216 (colour illus.).
Ewen McDonald, The Art Gallery of New South Wales collections, 'From Colonialism to late Modernism', pg. 7-106, Sydney, 1994, 99 (colour illus.).
Margo Neale, Yiribana: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collection, Sydney, 1994, 76-77 (colour illus.), 78, 136, 139. plate no. 36
Tony Tuckson, Aboriginal and Melanesian art, Sydney, 1973, 7. cat.no. A18
Ken Watson, Tradition today: Indigenous art in Australia, 'Nym Bunduck, Kevin Bunduck', pg. 36, Sydney, 2004, 36 (colour illus.), 37 (colour illus., detail).
Margie West and Kim Barber, One sun one moon: Aboriginal art in Australia, ‘Dadirri: The art of the Wadeye-Eye region’, pg. 117-112, Sydney, 2007, 119 (colour illus.).