Collection Research

Tiwi Bark Painting, 1964, 1993.0004.017, Attributed to Pulanimbuli, Eucalyptus bark and black and white ochre.

Tiwi Bark Painting
1964
1993.0004.017
Attributed to Pulanimbuli
Tiwi, Melville or Bathurst Island OR Kunwinku, Injalak
Eucalyptus bark and black and white ochre

Researched and written by Courtney Erickson, Tim Dodson, and Michael Watson, Western Albemarle High School Advanced Placement Art History Course, led by Kelly Burnette, Young Art Historians Program

This painting depicts an interaction between the Tiwi people of Melville and Bathurst Islands and a group of foreigners. In the upper right hand corner, there is a ship with two masts. There are two sails on the left mast and one sail on right mast. To the left of the ship, there are smaller ships that may be launching from the larger vessel. Approaching the ships are three figures carrying spears. In the lower left hand corner, there is a large figure with an oval head and a protruding belly, with arms raised and knees bent. To the right of the figure, there is a variety of sea life, namely dugong, turtles, eels, and a shark. Above the marine animals there are four dead frog-like bodies floating in the water. Lush, fern-like vegetation borders the left and bottom sides of the painting. The ochres are unstable and there is some severe paint loss. The white pigment is now tannish-brown, perhaps due to aging, and the plane of the bark is warped.

Professor Edward L. Ruhe purchased this painting from Geoffrey Spence in 1968. The records associated with Ruhe’s acquisition of a number of works from Spence at this time indicate that this work was created in 1964.

There are two possible identities for the large figure in the foreground. The first is that it is Luma Luma, which was suggested by Dr. Judith Ryan. She suggests that the painting could have been made by a Kunwinjku artist rather than a Tiwi artist. In Kunwinku culture, Luma Luma is represented as a cultural hero, but was also known for stealing men’s wives. He is said to have travelled from Indonesia to many regions of Australia, where he was attacked by local tribesmen as an unknown stranger. He then taught them dances and painting styles associated with each man’s ancestral country. He is also described as being a giant, meaning physically large in size. Because the figure is larger than all of the others, and because his body paint designs are similar to other Tiwi designs, it is possible that the large figure in the foreground is Luma Luma. In the middle ground there are people with spears that seem to be attacking the invaders, or what could be Luma Luma’s travelling companions. The ship in the background also looks similar to a prau sailboat, which is common for the area of Indonesia that Luma Luma is supposed to have originated from.

An alternate theory is that the larger figure in this work is Jirakupai, an ancestral being in Tiwi culture. Jirakupai lived near a lagoon on Bathurst Island, and the lush vegetation on the left and bottom sides of the painting may be indicative of a lagoon environment, establishing a geographic connection to Jirakupai. Jirakupai is known as the creator of barbed spears, which had gender associations depending on the placement of the barbs. Male spears had barbs on one side, while female spears had barbs on both sides. The figures in the painting appear to be carrying male spears to fight against a group of invaders. The spears also resemble tunkalinta spears, which are associated with the Pukamani mortuary ceremony. In this case the spears may relate to the dead frog-like bodies rather than indicating some kind of attack. According to the story, Jirakupai was killed by raiders from neighboring Melville Island. The large ship in the painting may be the one that carried the raiders. However, it resembles a prau sailboat, which is most often associated with the Macassan people of Indonesia and would therefore be anachronous with the story of Jirakupai. It is also possible that the painting represents a situation in which perhaps Jirakupai is protecting the Tiwi people from Macassan traders and is arming the Tiwi people with spears.

Since both theories about the identity of the large figure have evidence to the support them, no definite conclusion has been made.

Although the artist is listed as Pulanimbuli, this could not be verified. This name does not appear in other public collection databases and this seems to be the only known work by this artist. Additionally, in Geoffrey Spence’s original notes of the sale of this painting, the artist is listed as unknown.


Jackson Jacob (Thunalgunaldin), Bun Bun, c. 1960-65.

Bun Bun
c. 1960-65
2004.0002.001
Jackson Jacob (Thunalgunaldin)
Lardil language group, Mornington Island
Ochres on Eucaplytus Bark

Researched and written by Helen Geiger and Hayley Owens
Young Art Historians Program

The subject matter, artist, date range, and language group were unknown before this research was completed.

In the mid-1960s Dr. John Cawte, who studied Aboriginal medicine, first acquired this piece and then later passed it on as a gift to Dr. Knight Aldrich, who donated the piece along with a boomerang to the Kluge-Ruhe Collection in 2004. Dr. Aldrich was under the impression when he donated the piece that the subject represented a stomach ailment. After investigation, it is clear that the mysterious creature is a representation of Bun Bun.

Bun Bun is a local totem that has its sacred site in south-east Mornington Island in the Larumbenda clan of the Lardil community (Memmott, email correspondence, 2013). Because Bun Bun is a coastal totem, it has the power to give a person malkri or malgri sickness, which is characterized by abdominal pain, constipation, tiredness, and sometimes vomiting. Malkri sickness is usually inflicted by Bun Bun with assistance from Thuwathu the Rainbow Serpent, whose actions and movements created and formed the landscape of Mornington Island. Today it is believed that “his energies are not only in all the places that he made…but extend through the marine and littoral systems of the Wellesley Islands” (Memmott, 1982). Bun Bun and Thuwathu are likely to inflict malkri sickness on a person if he or she breaks Thuwathu’s law that prohibits the mixing of land and sea foods, or any contact between land and sea food, fluids or smells. More information on the cause of malkri sickness can be found in Paul Memmott’s article Rainbows, Story Places and Malkri Sickness in the North Wellesley Islands (Memmott, 1982).

The artist is most likely Jackson Jacob. In The Heart of Everything, an untitled piece by Jacob has striking visual similarities to this piece (24). Also, according to Paul Memmott, Bun Bun’s ‘story place’ is in the estate of the Jacob clan. Alternatively, the artist could be Lindsey Roughsey, who also had permission to depict Bun Bun; however, most other works by Roughsey are signed as a marker of his leadership in the painting movement on the Island, and this work is not signed. Memmott also specifically recalled a time when Jackson Jacob himself explained Bun Bun’s association with malkri sickness.

It is estimated that the painting was made between 1960 and 1965. Stylistically the piece looks more like the works made on the Island in the late-1960s or early-1970s, but since Cawte acquired the boomerang in the mid-1960s and Memmott believes it likely was collected at the same time, this painting could not have been made after this time. In the context of the Mornington Island art movement, this piece might be seen as an early example of a developing style.


Painting with Shield Designs, Artist Unknown, c. 1960,1993.0004.761, Guugu Yimithirr language group.

Painting with Shield-like Designs
c. 1960
1993.0004.761
Artist Unknown
Guugu Yimithirr language group
Acrylic and ochres on Eucalyptus bark

Research and written by Emily Smith and Amy Root
Young Art Historians Program

This eucalyptus bark painting depicts four shield designs. The two shields on the left closely resemble the star fish design that appear on shields created by clans in the Mitchell River region in Queensland. Similarly, the two shields on the right closely represent the three leaf, or small axe, designs used by people living in the Cairns, Port Douglas, and Mitchell River regions (email correspondence, Sally Butler). Made sometime between 1960 and 1965, this bark painting probably came from the Hopevale community in Queensland. Because Hopevale kept no record of the artist’s name, we are unable to attribute this work to a specific person (Story Place). However, many members of the Hopevale community belonged to the Guugu Yimithirr language group, so it is likely that a member of this group created the painting (Story Place).

The shield designs featured in this work recall those of the Aboriginal people living in the rainforests of Queensland, who have a tradition of painting on oblong wooden shields. Young men received these shields as a rite of passage, and they used them during battles and important ceremonies. After cutting the wood of a fig tree, two artists would decorate the shields with patterns that symbolized the young man’s particular group or family. Sometimes they would even create a unique design just for him. Often these artists would mix blood into the black paint because they believed that their spirits would infuse with the shield. As a result, the shield would be able to protect its owner better during battles. While Aboriginal people today still create shields for ceremonial purposes, artists like Michael Boiyool Anning also create them as works of art in their own right (Johnson; Akerman; Story Place).

This bark painting is unique for three reasons. First, it features depictions of shields—a subject matter uncommon for bark paintings. Second, it was painted with acrylic paint, which is surprising because most Aboriginal bark painters use natural ochres over the man-made acrylics. And third, bark painting in general was uncommon in Queensland until the 1960s. During this period, the Australian government encouraged bark painting in the area by sending a number of pieces of bark to communities like Hopevale (Butler; Story Place). Artists in these communities would paint subjects that were important to themselves and their language group on the newly introduced medium. This particular bark painting is one example of this phenomenon. Most likely, the artist painted shield designs that had been passed down from his family or language group from the rainforest areas (Butler). This painting and a number of others from Hopevale were sent to Queensland Native Creations in Brisbane shortly after they were made (Butler). Though the Queensland Museum acquired most of these bark paintings, Edward Ruhe happened to purchase this one in 1965 from the Queensland Native Creations company (receipt from Ruhe Archives).