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The Early Collection and Exhibition of Art Work by Aboriginal Artists

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Joseph Lowy mm008118
Untitled - Two Spirit Figures, 1918. Artist unknown. The figure on the right is interesting in that only one leg is shown. While the figure is somewhat represented in profile, there is a suggestion that it could be the 'spirit of a one-legged tribesman who was burned to death'. Oenpelli, Northern Territory. Collected by Paddy Cahill.
Source: Museum Victoria Indigenous Collections

Various works from this collection were included in the permanent exhibitions at the National Museum from 1915 to the late 1920s. By this time the Museum had established itself as a collecting institution for Arnhem Land art and artefacts. The commissioning of the works marked the beginning of the production of bark paintings for sale but it was another decade before such works were consistently available in the marketplace as a consequence of the establishment of missions along the coast of Arnhem Land through the 1920s and 1930s. An enhanced awareness of Arnhem Land and the art of the region emerged among the Australian public. The National Museum of Victoria responded to this interest in 1929 by mounting the first major exhibition of Aboriginal art, Primitive Art, with the 'Spencer paintings' forming the core

Pen and ink sketches on paper by the then well-known Victorian Aboriginal artist Tommy McRae held by the Public Library were included in this exhibition and Ceremony was reproduced in the exhibition catalogue. The caption, 'Drawn by Tommy Barnes, A Mission Aboriginal, showing European influence', reflects the thinking of the period that sought to discount as 'Aboriginal art' the work of McRae and others from the south-east. McRae, however, had remained on his own country, openly resisting attempts to move him onto any mission or reserve in Victoria. It is unclear if the Museum had works by McRae in the collection prior to the Primitive Art exhibition. However in July that year another sketch by McRae titled Rutherglen Corroboree 1899 was sent to the Museum Director by Mrs A. Pattenden, perhaps as a consequence of seeing the exhibition. It was not exhibited in the follow-up 1943 Primitive Art exhibition with three other McRae sketches from the Museum's collection. This survey of indigenous art also included two works by Wurundjeri headman and artist, William Barak, donated to the Museum in 1895 by John Mather.

Lindy Allen is the Senior Curator, Northern Australia, Indigenous Cultures, at Museum Victoria. As a museum anthropologist, Lindy has worked for over 20 years with Indigenous communities across Australia, most particularly in Arnhem Land, Queensland and Victoria. Her research interests are in Aboriginal art, fibrecraft and visual anthropology.

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