Important Aboriginal Works of Art
25 May 2016


(c.1895 – 1976)

natural earth pigments on eucalyptus bark

111.0 x 24.5 cm

bears inscription verso: cat. 05417

$10,000 – 15,000
Sold for $10,980 (inc. BP) in Auction 43 - 25 May 2016, Melbourne

Acquired at Minjilang, Croker Island, by a member of Malcolm Douglas’s production crew during the filming of the documentary Across the Top
Sotheby’s, Melbourne, 15 – 16 November 2005, lot 82 (as ‘Mimih Figure’)
Collection of the late Duncan Kentish, Adelaide

Catalogue text

An exceptional image of a sorcery by the doyen of western Arnhem Land bark painting of the 20th century, Yirawala, the subject belongs to a genre of painting that may be found on rock surfaces throughout the western Arnhem escarpment. Sorcery images were often commissioned by an individual as a means of retribution for a wrong inflicted, often relating to matters of marriage and infidelity.

Characteristically, sorcery figures are depicted with distended body parts as illustrated here, and often with multiple limbs and exaggerated sexual organs. A common feature of many sorcery paintings is the depiction of sting rays barbs inserted into the joints, as seen in this painting, to inflict severe harm. In the 1960s, the anthropologists and collectors Ronald and Catherine Berndt and Karel Kupka commissioned artists living at the mission at Minjilang on Croker Island to paint such images – although the artists were actively discouraged by the missionaries.

This work was collected by a member of the production crew for ‘Across the Top’, a hugely popular film made by Malcolm Douglas (1941–2010), the renowned crocodile expert and outback documentary film maker. Released in 1968, the film was the result of six months of travel undertaken in 1964 from Darwin to Arnhem Land, and across the Gulf Country to Cape York. It was hugely popular on television and opened up northern Australia to many Australians. Significantly, paintings by Yirawala collected by Karel Kupka of similar subjects may be found today in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia and the Museum der Kulturen, Basel. Paintings in the same genre collected by Ronald and Catherine Berndt are housed in the collection of the Berndt Museum of Anthropology, University of Western Australia in Perth.