Bill NAMIAYANGWA, An attack by war canoes Enlarge 1 /1

Bill NAMIAYANGWA

Anindilyakwa people

Australia 1923 – 1968

An attack by war canoes [Upon landing they draw up their canoes and anchor them] c.1955
Collection Title: From the set "An attack by war canoes"
Place made: Anindilyakwa (Groote Eylandt), Northern Territory, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, bark paintings, natural earth pigments on eucalyptus bark

Primary Insc: No inscriptions
Dimensions: 23.7 h x 38.3 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1972
Accession No: NGA 72.111

Bill Namiayangwa was a leader of the Wanungawurigba or flying fox clan, whose land lies in the south-west corner of Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Namiayangwa often painted historical events. This work is one of seven telling of the time when Bickerton Island men set out by canoe at night to attack the people at Groote Eylandt.

The sails on the canoes were made from tree branches, which was the custom before the Malays, who used to visit these coastlines, taught the people of the area to use rough hemp. Upon landing at Groote Eylandt, the Bickerton men lowered the sails and anchored the canoes off the coast, which is the scene depicted in this work, and went on the attack. They surrounded a man and his five wives, but the man eluded the Bickerton men and escaped (it is part of the story that any man who had five wives would have acquired such skills), returning later to throw the invaders into confusion with his well-aimed spears. Two men were killed and many wounded, and the man finally drove the Bickerton men away.


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

The legendary tale of An attack by war canoes c 1955 is depicted in seven bark paintings that, as a group, are read from right to left. The story begins with a group of men from Bickerton Island, between Groote and the mainland, setting out with their weapons: spears and spear-throwers. They board their fleet of canoes, with sails made from tree branches. They land on the beach and anchor the canoes, from where they march to the attack.

The Bickerton men find a man and his five wives, whom they surround. The man is a skilful fighter, as one would need to be to keep so many wives, and he eludes his attackers. He spears a number of the Bickerton men and finally drives them away.

Characteristic of bark painting on Groote Eylandt, the background colour is black derived from manganese as the island has some of the world’s largest deposits of the mineral. The composition of each bark enhances the action it describes. For example, the strength of the attacking force is suggested in the first two barks where the armed attackers march in regimented lines, and the fleet of canoes at sea is similarly organised.

In the mid 1950s, the Rev L M Howell, who had been based at the Anglican Church Mission at Angurugu on Groote Eylandt, commissioned eight sets of narrative paintings from Thomas Nanjiwarra Amagula, MBE (1926–1989) and Bill Namiayangwa. These became the National Gallery of Australia’s first major acquisition of Aboriginal art in 1972.

Wally Caruana


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

Bill Namiayangwa was a leader of the Wanungawurigba, or Flying Fox, clan of the Anindilyakwa people. Their land lies in the south-west corner of Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Namiayangwa often painted historical or legendary tales and this bark painting is from a series of seven that illustrate the story of an attack on Groote Eylandt by Bickerton Island men.

The Bickerton men set out by canoe at night. The sails of their canoes were made from tree branches, which was the custom before visiting Macassan fishermen taught the people of the area to use rough hemp. On landing at Groote Eylandt the Bickerton men lowered the sails and anchored the canoes just off the shore—the scene depicted in this work. They went on the attack, surrounding a man and his five wives. But the man eluded the Bickerton men and escaped—it is part of the story that any man who had five wives would have acquired such skills. He returned later to throw the invaders into confusion with his well-aimed spears. Two of them were killed and many wounded, and the Groote Eylandt man finally drove the Bickerton men away.

Characteristic of bark painting on Groote Eylandt, the background colour is black, derived from manganese—the island has some of the world’s largest deposits of the mineral.


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014