SA Government LogoState Library of South Australia logoCharles P Mountford, photographer and ethnographer
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Arnhem Land, 1948 - Oenpelli

Oenpelli in western Arnhem Land (now known as Kunbarllanjnja) was the Expedition's last camp, and the journey was again beleaguered by transport problems. By plane, boat and foot, the majority of the party had arrived by 20 September, 1948 and the scientific work was carried out over a period of seven weeks.

Looking from our tent doors, we could see a placid lagoon, dotted with water-lilies and numerous birds and fringed with green rushes; on the distant shore was the Eucalyptus forest; beyond that the brown buffalo-grass flood plain, and behind that, again, the high escarpment of the rugged Arnhem Land plateau, blue with the haze of distance. (Records of the American-Australian expedition to Arnhem Land, vol. 1, p. xxix)

The site of Oenpelli was originally established in 1906 when Paddy Cahill set up a station on which to raise cattle and hunt buffalo. The Government took over the lease in 1916 and handed the land over to the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in 1925.

The area was originally home to the Gagadju people, but by 1948 the Aboriginal population of the area was mostly of the Gunwinggu language group. The Gunwinggu, comprising several smaller dialect groups, originally hailed from lands further east but over time many had migrated west towards the site of the Oenpelli station and Mission.

The rich biodiversity of the area occupied the biologists of the Expedition party, whilst Mountford spent the majority of his time documenting the rich assortment of cave paintings in the area, mostly around Injalak with brief sojourns to Unbalunja Hill, Inagurdurwil, Cannon Hill and Obiri.

These cave paintings - over 300 sites have been located in the area - are most probably the work of the Gagadju people.

Described as some of the best examples of rock art in the world, Mountford believed they were 'more skilfully executed and more varied in design than any other part of Arnhem Land' and 'the most numerous and beautiful series of cave paintings that we know of in Australia' (Records of the American-Australian expedition to Arnhem Land, vol. 1, p. 109).

The paintings have two predominant styles. 'X-ray' art depicts the ancestral stories of the artist, or acts as an 'increase' icon, to bring abundance of a particular species. 'Mimi' art is said to have been done by the spirits (Mimis) who live unseen in the rocks, caves and trees nearby. Highly animate figures, the Mimis are shown hunting, running, dancing and fighting.

In more recent times, the area has become well known for its fibre artworks; the exhibition and book Twined together has toured Australia with examples of this precise and beautiful work.

Bill Harney baking damper
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Cave painting of Yingarna, Injalak Hill
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Cliffs, Red Lily Lagoon
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Estimates for works carried out at Oenpelli Mission
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Injalak Hill
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Letter to the Director General of Information
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Listening to playback of recording, Oenpelli
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Men painting on bark
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Oenpelli lagoon from Injalak
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Painting of a barramundi
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Painting of skates
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Portrait of Wulkini at Oenpelli
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