As a boy David Malangi learnt to paint by watching senior artists paint clan designs on the bodies of participants in ceremonies, and he began painting on bark at Milingimbi mission in the 1950s. This painting’s subject, Gurrmirringu the Great Ancestral Hunter, was Malangi’s key inherited ancestral narrative and became his signature image.
Returning home after a successful hunt, Gurrmirringu made camp under a white berry tree where he was poisoned by an evil spirit in the form of a King Brown Snake. As Gurrmirringu was the ‘first man’, his death gave rise to the first mortuary rites of the Manharrngu people, in which Gurrmirringu’s life and death are re-enacted in dance and song.
The central figure with clan designs painted on his torso is Gurrmirringu being prepared for burial. Men play clap sticks and didjeridu, and perform song cycles to ensure the safe arrival of the deceased’s spirit to its final resting place. The hunter’s catch will be eaten in the mortuary feast, and the scene is framed by white berry trees which signify this narrative.
This key work shows Malangi’s distinctive personal style: the ‘braille-thick’ white ochre lines, dense black, graphic figures and wide generous rarrk quite unlike that of other painters.
Malangi’s depiction of the Gurrmirringu story was reproduced on the Australian one dollar note with the release of decimal currency in 1966. Malangi became known as the ‘dollar note painter’ and would joke that he was the most famous artist in the country as everyone carried around his painting in their wallets.
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