Untitled (Spirit Figures) natural earth pigments on eucalyptus bark 94 x 46cm
PROVENANCE: Painted at Minjilang (Croker Island), western Arnhem Land circa 1960 Private collection, Melbourne Sotheby's, Aboriginal Art, Melbourne, 26-27 June 2000, lot 8 Private collection, Melbourne Sotheby's, Aboriginal Art, Melbourne, 25 July 2005, lot 53 Private collection
For other examples of sorcery paintings by Namatbara, see Maam spirit, c.1963, in Cubillo, F. and W. Caruana (eds.), Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art: Collection highlights, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2010, p.114, and Caruana, W., Aboriginal Art, World of Art Series, Thames and Hudson, London and New York, 2012, pl.15, p.29; Mimi, c.1966, in Colombo Dougoud, R. and B. Miller (eds.), Dream Traces: Australian Aboriginal bark Paintings, 'Sources et témoignages' Series no.10, Geneva: Musée d'ethnographie de Genève, 2010, pl.27, p.78; and a series of works in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia in Perkins, H. (ed.), Crossing Country: The Alchemy of Western Arnhem Land Art, Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2004, pp.30-33.
Paddy Compass Namatbara was one of a group of Iwaidja and Kunwinjku artists on Croker Island off the coast of western Arnhem Land who produced bark paintings on the subjects of magic and sorcery. Both forms of supernatural intervention are associated with relationships between lovers; so-called 'love-magic' pictures are intended to attract a desired person, while sorcery images, such as this, are made to inflict pain and harm on those who have been unfaithful. In the latter case, figures are usually drawn with distorted and exaggerated features and in contorted or unnatural poses as in Namatbara's work, or they may be depicted with multiple limbs and sting-ray barbs inserted into parts of the body. In some cases they are drawn with a combination of all of these features.
The practice of painting magic and sorcery images has a long history in the western Arnhem Land/Kakadu region, as evidenced by rock paintings that are similar in detail to bark paintings (Chaloupka, G., Journey In Time, the world's longest continuing art tradition: The 50,000-year story of the Australian Aboriginal rock art of Arnhem Land, Sydney: Reed, 1993, p.207). In the mission times the making of such images was, however, discouraged although a number of anthropologists and collectors made significant collections of magic and sorcery paintings. Prominent among these were the Ronald and Catherine Berndt, whose collection is housed at the Berndt Museum at the University of Western Australia, and the Czech/French ethnologist and collector Karel Kupka. Kupka made several collections of works by the more prominent of the Minjilang artists including Namatbara, Yirawala (c.1897-1976), Jimmy Midjaw Midjaw (1897-c.1985) and January Nangunyari Namiridali (1901-1972). The majority of these collections are now housed at the Museum der Kulturen in Basel, the Musée d'ethnographie de Genève, the Musée du quai Branly, Paris, and the National Gallery of Australia.