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Rainbow Serpent bark painting

Aboriginal bark painting
Kunwinjku people, Gunbalanya (Oenpelli), Western Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia

Bark paintings are one of the great indigenous Australian art forms. They are found mostly in the Arnhem Land region in the north of the country. Many Aboriginal artworks depict scenes and figures from the Dreaming – the way Aboriginal Australians look at the world. The Dreaming is based upon timeless stories featuring mythological creatures and ancestors, whose actions resulted in the creation of the landscape, animals and the Aboriginal people. In Western Arnhem Land these figures would have originally been painted on rocks in this style known as X-ray art.

Portraits of Ngalyod the Rainbow Serpent – a huge creature often depicted with either a crocodile or kangaroo head and python’s body – have been made for thousands of years, making it one of the oldest and most recognizable of the creator ancestors. In X-ray paintings, a creature’s internal anatomy and skeleton are visible in order to show the similarities between animals and humans, their shared ancestry, on the inside. Here we see the male version of the Rainbow Serpent, Ngalyod, swallowing people he will later regurgitate and transform into features of the landscape.

The likely artist, Yirawala (c. 1897-1976), a Kunwinjku man from Western Arnhem Land, was one of the most famous Aboriginal artists of the 20th century, and is recognizable by his use of white instead of traditional red as the background colour in his works. X-ray painting is still an active and dynamic tradition. In recent times artists have preferred to render the internal structures less realistically and instead as geometric patterns, representing geographic places associated with that creature and its myths.