Australia 1929 – 1976
The Great Snake story
[Bark painting: Great snake legend Great snake legend] 1962
Yirrkala, North East Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, bark paintings, natural earth pigments on eucalyptus bark
Although Yolngu artists use an apparently limited range of natural earth pigments, the work of many artists is instantly recognisable from the balance of the composition and the effect of the combination of colours. Mithinari’s paintings seem to sparkle with light. He painted figurative images with great boldness and assuredness, and then worked meticulously to create a pictorial surface that almost seems to lift itself off the bark.
This painting is of Garimala, a wide billabong in Galpu clan country, north of Blue Mud Bay. The billabong is crossed by the path of Wititj, the great Dhuwa moiety serpent. It was Wititj who, at Mirarrmina in the country of the Liyagalawumirr clan, swallowed the Wawilak Sisters. The background pattern is a Galpu clan design representing reflections on the surface of the water. Wititj brings on the storms of the wet season with their thunder and lightning. The surface of the painting glistens; it evokes the electricity and luminosity of the wet season and the sparkle of the billabong with waterlilies in flower. In the lower half of the painting we see Wititj moving across the waterhole hiding beneath the lily leaves. At the top, djaykung, a file snake, can be seen swimming, its body swollen with eggs.
The painting was collected by Stuart Scougall, a philanthropist who played an important role, with Tony Tuckson, in gaining recognition for Aboriginal art. In the late 1950s they installed the first permanent collections of Aboriginal art in an art gallery, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
 Where Tuckson, an artist in his own right, was deputy director.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Franchesca Cubillo and Wally Caruana (eds) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art: collection highlights National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010