Kangaroo Painting, 1925–1965
Unidentified Tribe
Eucalyptus bark and paint
55 1/2 × 34 inches (141.0 × 86.4 cm)
Museum purchase

Habits of Mind

  • OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect

Western Arnhem Land Kangaroo Painting from a Bush Shelter

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

GRADE LEVEL

4

SUBJECT AREA

Art

Social Studies

HABITS OF MIND

Observe Details

Connecting to the Work of Art

The unknown artist who created this painting was probably a man. Within Aboriginal cultures, certain designs belong to particular clans and even to individuals within those clans. Only certain men are permitted to paint these designs.

Kangaroos formed an important part of the Aboriginal diet, and this bark painting probably was intended to promote a successful hunt. The classic “X-ray” style depicts the animal’s internal organs, essential to the Aboriginal concept of the kangaroo as a food source.

The X-ray style is typical of Aboriginal bark paintings from western Arnhem Land. The approach indicates that, to the artist, what is inside the animal is of great importance. Here, the kangaroo’s white-painted body is set against an unpainted background. Stylized linear designs represent the kangaroo’s spine and organs. The painting is unusual for its large size and irregular shape. Also notable is the fact that the animal’s body is presented in profile, while its head is shown in three-quarter view.

The Aborigines of Australia are renowned for their paintings on bark, an art form that originated with the tribes of Arnhem Land in the far north of Australia. These paintings are an integral part of the spiritual life of the Aboriginal people. The bark is taken from gum trees, then flattened and dried. The Aborigines derive paint from natural pigments and charcoal, which they grind and mix with plant juices. These same colors are also used for body and sand painting. To make paintbrushes, Aborigines whittle or chew the ends of twigs or strips of bark. Traditionally, bark paintings were not considered a permanent art form by the people who created them. Instead, they were abandoned and allowed to decay.

The irregular shape of this painting shows that the bark was chopped with an ax. The white paint is from clay, the black from charcoal, and the red from ocher. Yellow, a favorite color of Aboriginal artists, is absent.

The first Aboriginal settlers arrived in Australia at least 50,000 years ago, and possibly much earlier. Eventually, about 500 tribes were spread across the vast continent. Their existence was virtually undisturbed until the devastating impact of English colonization in the late 18th century. As a result of this isolation, Aborigines developed one of the world’s longest continuous artistic traditions. This painting is probably from West Arnhem Land, a harsh desert environment in which survival depended upon constant migration. Aborigines therefore built no permanent housing but lived instead in humpys, temporary shelters made of branches and eucalyptus bark. Inside, the bark was painted with vibrant designs in ochre, clay, and charcoal.

Conversation Starters

Observe

  • Look closely at the materials of the painting. What do you think it was painted on? Do you think it was used for anything?
  • Look closely at the decoration of the kangaroo. What shapes can you identify? Are there any that remind you of anything? How do they relate to the kangaroo’s body?
  • Would you call this an accurate portrait of a kangaroo? Compare different parts of it—the face, the back feet, the decoration. Defend your answer.

Interpret

  • Why do you think the artist painted this kangaroo? In other words, is this a portrait of a particular kangaroo? Is it more representative of the general concept of kangaroos? What parts of the kangaroo do you think are most important to the artist?
  • This was from a temporary shelter, the main way that Aboriginal people stayed safe and dry in the harsh desert environment of West Arnhem Land. Unlike most houses built today in Houston, these houses were meant to be left behind, and were made of natural materials that would easily decay. Why do you think that Aboriginal people preferred to live in temporary housing like this? Remember that this painting was made only 50-90 years ago.
  • Even though Aboriginal housing in West Arnhem Land was temporary and intended to decay, people still took care to decorate their homes with important or powerful images. How do you decorate your homes?
  • What does home decoration add to your life? What would you feel like if your home was totally undecorated?

Assessment

• Make an X-ray painting of a familiar animal. Create an effect similar to that of an Aboriginal
bark painting by using brown paper and a palette of white, black, red, and yellow paints
or crayons.
• Kangaroos are one of many animals that can be found nowhere but Australia. Why does this
continent have such unusual flora and fauna? Investigate the geological and natural history
of Australia.
• Research the kangaroo to determine why it was so important to indigenous Australians. What role did the animal play in Aboriginal Australian life? Compare it to other important animals, like the American buffalo or horses in southern Africa. How does each factor into society and culture? 

Subject Matter Connection

coming soon


The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.