masthead logo
email webmanager facebook | twitter | instagram | google+ | flickr | contacts | 


Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art
Early Bark Paintings and Sculpture - pre 1980 gallery

See nearby items (accurate to +/- 12 hrs)


Manharrngu people

Australia 1927 – 1999

Gurrmirringu the Great Hunter
[Manharrngu mortuary rite #1] 1969 Milingimbi, Central Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia
paintings, bark paintings, natural earth pigments on eucalyptus bark
Technique: natural earth pigments on eucalyptus bark
111.0 h x 74.5 w cm
Purchased 1987
Accession No: NGA 87.757
© David Malangi Daymirringu. Licensed by Viscopy


  • Gurrmirringu was the ‘first man’ (the Ancestral forefather). His death gave occasion for the first mortuary rites of the Manharrngu people.

    The funeral of Gurrmirringu is the predominant feature of many of Malangi’s paintings associated with the Mulanga area, remaining a key subject throughout his painting career. The depiction of this story on bark was reproduced on the reverse of the Australian one dollar note.

    Barks depicting the mortuary scene include a number of key narrative elements, which constitute a template for the Gurrmirringu or dollar note story as it is sometimes known.

    A vertical figure with painted torso, arms extended to the elbows and legs outstretched is the body of the deceased Gurrmirringu being ceremonially prepared for burial. The body is surrounded by song men performing Manharrngu ceremonial song cycles to ensure the safe arrival of the spirit at its final resting place. They hold clap sticks and yidaki [didjeridu] to accompany the singing and are seen sitting, their legs tucked up underneath their body (sometimes represented as half figures with no legs).

    These ceremonial participants are differentiated from the deceased Gurrmirringu by their sitting posture and by their plain black bodies void of body paint. The white lines within the frame of the figures articulate the three-dimensional figure on the two-dimensional surface. The rärrk [crosshatching] on the central figure is ceremonial body paint.

    Malangi’s format for depicting this narrative remained constant with only slight variations over three decades, and always included the berry trees framing the bark, the central figure and the surrounding ceremonial participants.

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010

  • 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.

    Susan Jenkins

    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