Aboriginal Art

Arnhem Land

Bob AliJB FisherJB FisherBob Ali

Gannon House Gallery has art work from many communities through out Arnhemland. All artwork from these areas is sourced direct from the communities described below.


The western Arnhem Land style is typified by the art of Oenpelli, in which x-ray paintings, forceful images of spirit ancestors and delicate paintings of the Mimi spirits predominate. These are painted very finely on a plain monochrome background. The earliest paintings collected this century were from the area now known as Oenpelli, and it is these figurative images of hunting animals and stick-like figures which have come to symbolise, for many, the very essence of all Aboriginal Art.

The term x-ray art was originally coined because many of the Oenpelli paintings of figures, animals, birds and fish, reveal the internal organs as well as the external features. Heart, lungs, intestinal canal and spinal column were often clearly shown. Numerous extraordinary beautiful ancient examples of the x-ray style of painting appear on rock faces throughout the area.

Paintings and carvings of Mimihs in the traditional Mimi art style depict them as thin spirit creatures in various positions which display their extreme agility and flexibility. The oldest cave paintings in Western Arnhem Land are of Mimi figures running and hunting, often wearing head dresses and carrying several weapons and utensils. These types of figures were given the term 'dynamic' by the Rock Art historian, George Chaloupka.
The Mimihs are thought to be the original beings who occupied the land before humans and continue to live in rocks, caves, trees and water although they are rarely seen. According to Kunwinjku people Mimihs taught them everything they needed to know to survive; how to hunt, gather and prepare food, sing, dance and perform ceremonies.

Injalak Arts and Crafts Association is located at Gunbalanya (Oenpelli), a small Aboriginal township close to the East Alligator River in western Arnhem Land, approximately 300 kms east of Darwin (60kms east of Jabiru). Today the Aboriginal population of approximately 1,000 are predominantly Kunwinjku speakers, although in the preceding centuries and up to the time of first contact with the explorers and other Europeans early this century the area was the home of many different tribal groups, including the Gagadju. Nearby is the rugged Arnhem Land escarpment area of deep plunging gorges, huge boulders and wide overhanging rock platforms - 'Stone Country'. The Art Centre is situated in the most beautiful of sites. The escarpment rises forebodingly to the east. Gunbalanya billabong at its rear is surrounded by open flood plains and overshadowed by Injalak Hill - a site extensively rich in rock art paintings and the source of much inspiration for the artists.


Maningrida, situated at the mouth of the Liverpool River in central Arnhem Land, and is the largest of the Arnhem Land communities. The settlement was set up in 1949 by the Northern Territory administration in order to provide a refuge for the numerous Aboriginal groups of the region, who were gravitating in large numbers to regional centers such as Darwin and Katherine. At first Maningrida was called a "trading post" and was set up by "patrol officers," both terms straight out of frontier thought. Within a decade, the community; was a well-established center for people from many language groups. Training in various skills was offered under the government "assimilation" program. A bakery and a workshop were set up, and a large building program was instituted. Soon the bark shelters and traditional homes gave way to simple community houses made of fiber-cement sheeting and timber. As the population increased, hundreds" moved to the center semi-permanently. The missions' activities in other parts of Arnhem Land had proved the economic worth of Aboriginal art, so at Maningrida bark painting, weaving, and carving were encouraged. They soon became a means of trade for the people of the surrounding country-side, who were able to exchange the cash they earned from making art works to buy goods at the store. Maningrida Arts and Culture, the local arts center that markets the work from the region, was established in the early 1970s. This was a volatile time. The official policy of assimilation was abandoned in favor of encouraging people to retain their traditional values and connections to their remote spirit country. An arts center was established at Maningrida and the federal government's galleries in each State promoted the work of Maningrida artists, so that during this period it became the most highly regarded and exhibited community in Arnhem Land. Maningrida Arts and Culture provides services to more than 200 bark painters, weavers, and carvers, most of who live on small outstations that span a region covering 4000 square miles. The cultures of the region include Yolngu communities east of Maningrida and Kunwinjku, Rembarrnga, and others to the west and south. In association with Maningrida Arts and Culture, a community museum, Djomi Museum, was set up as a keeping place for the most important works. A large collection is now displayed to a high conservation standard. The center organizes workshops and cultural programmes involving different Aboriginal groups, and a programme of training and employment for the young enthusiastic workers in the Maningrida region is in place.

Sourced from : Isaacs, J. Spirit Country – Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Art, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. 1999 p162


The Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre and Museum is in Yirrkala, a small Aboriginal community on the north-eastern tip of the Top End of the Northern Territory, approximately 700kms East of Darwin (Map). We service approximately twenty five homeland centres in the radius of 250km. This part of Australia is very special. The coastline and hinterland are largely unspoilt and still managed by the traditional owners, the Yolngu (Aboriginal people of the region between
Numbulwar and Maningrida). They have fought all attempts by Balanda (non-Aboriginal people) to dispossess them.
The sacred art of this region details the spiritual forces behind the creation and continuing identity of the fresh and saltwater country of the Miwatj region of north-eastern Arnhem land.

Miwatj means 'morning side' and refers to the fact that this is the most Easterly part of the Top End. The ecosystems of both the land and sea are pristine and provide abundant food including yams, fruits, fish, kangaroo, wallaby, turtles and their eggs, dugong, emu, crayfish, oysters, mussels, tortoise, stingray, honey and more. The availability of these foods change as the Yolngu seasons subtly shift but the Balanda divide the year into two; the Dry (May-Dec) and the Wet (Jan-April).

BUKU-LARRNGGAY means the feeling on your face as it is struck by the first rays of the sun-this denotes that we are in the extreme East of the Top End - Miwatj, or the Sunrise country. MULKA is a sacred but public ceremony. It also means to hold or protect. Thus we are the Northeast Arnhem land cultural centre and keeping place.

The Centre was established formally in 1975 but art has been created here since time immemorial and shared with non-Yolngu since their arrival. In the 1960s Narritjin Maymuru set up his own gallery in a shelter by the beach from which he sold art which now graces many major museums and private collections.
The artists of this Centre have established a world wide reputation for excellence and have won seven prizes in the last six Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (Australia's premiere indigenous art prize held at the Northern Territory Museum and Art Gallery in Darwin each year).