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 spear-head 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, 2014