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Paddy Compass NAMATBARA

Iwaidja people

Australia 1890 – 1973

Maam spirit [Bark painting: Maam, malignant spirit, one male figure] c.1963 Place made: Minjilang (Croker Island), Western Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, bark paintings, natural earth pigments on eucalyptus bark

Primary Insc: KK41
Dimensions: 58.0 h x 35.0 w cm
Acknowledgement: Founding Donors Fund 1984.
Accession No: NGA 85.1269
Image rights: © the estate of the artist licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency Ltd

‘Maam’ is the term used in western Arnhem Land to identify the profane aspect of the soul—it is a malevolent spirit that, for a time, remains close to the body when a person dies. A number of prohibitions are enacted to prevent this spirit from harming the living: for example, the name of the deceased is not uttered. The sacred aspect of the soul, meanwhile, returns to the clan well and rejoins the ancestral realm. This figure of a maam has the hallmarks of an image associated with sorcery: the figure is drawn in a contorted position with multiple limbs and exaggerated genitalia. Sorcery paintings are created expressly to bring harm to an individual, often in retribution for sexual misconduct.

Namatbara was one of a group of Iwaidja artists who lived at Minjilang on Croker Island from 1941 when the Christian mission was established. The mission became the refuge for Aboriginal people of so-called ‘mixed descent’. In an atmosphere of uncertainty, local artists produced bark paintings of sorcery despite the attempts of the mission to ban these images.

Maam spirit c 1963 was collected by the Parisian artist and ethnographer Karel Kupka, who was highly influential in promoting Aboriginal art abroad. His collections came to the notice of a number of prominent modern European artists and intellectuals such as André Breton, the ‘father of Surrealism’, who owned a painting of maam by Namatbara. 

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