What is it about?

From 1912, British anthropologist W. Baldwin Spencer and buffalo-shooter Paddy Cahill collected 163 bark paintings made by artists who also painted in rock shelters in western Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. Spencer made detailed notes about the bark paintings, secret/sacred objects, and other material culture he collected and some rock art, as well as genealogies and other details of the Aboriginal people he encountered but did not record the names of the artists. In general, the names and life stories of the individuals who made most Aboriginal archaeological artefacts or ethnographic objects and paintings now in museums across the world are not known. We have recently begun to address this for western Arnhem Land contact period art and in this paper focus on an elder, Majumbu (‘Old Harry’), who made numerous rock paintings as well as at least eight of the Spencer-Cahill bark paintings. We use his work to begin a new interpretation of the importance of the Spencer-Cahill Collection in relation to land-based religion and show that knowing the names of the artists behind the collection, as well as related rock paintings, puts their work and the entire collection in new meaningful contexts.

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Why is it important?

With Aboriginal research partners, including two of Majumbu’s great grandchildren, we reviewed the paintings held in the Melbourne Museum and relocated some of Majumbu’s known rock paintings to further confirm him as the artist behind eight of the Spencer-Cahill barks. We have now identified two individuals who made some of the Spencer-Cahill bark paintings. This collection always has been considered a priceless piece of Australian heritage. But now, by connecting it to living individuals, community, it's a priceless piece of family heritage as well. It brings it to life. These aren't random artworks made by anonymous individuals anymore. They are incredible paintings made by people who had fascinating lives that we can now learn more about.


I have been working with co-author Kenneth Mangiru since 1992 and he is a key member of our research team. It was wonderful to discover his great grandfather, Majumbu, made some of the Spencer-Cahill collection bark paitings as well as recent rock paintings.

Professor Paul S.C. Tacon
Griffith University

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Majumbu (‘Old Harry’) and the Spencer-Cahill bark painting collection, Australian Archaeology, February 2023, Taylor & Francis,
DOI: 10.1080/03122417.2023.2177949.
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