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Artist's crocodile spirit connects works across country

A quest to learn more about the identity of an Arnhem Land painter from the early 20th century took on special significance for a member of the research team when he realised the artist was his great grandfather.

Senior Danek traditional owner Kenneth Mangiru was part of a team looking at the distinctive artistic style of a series of bark paintings, which were collected more than 100 years ago then housed in the Melbourne Museum.

The creator of the artworks, including one of a large crocodile, had been a mystery for nearly a century.

Professor Paul Tacon, from the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research, led the project, looking at bark paintings made by artists who also painted in rock shelters in western Arnhem Land.

Sifting through notebooks and letters associated with the artwork collection, Professor Tacon noticed references to "Old Harry", which had a connection with a particular bark painting with the crocodile spirit.

They realised that Old Harry was Majumbu, who also made rock paintings.

"We analysed Majumbu's characteristic art style from the known spirit painting and then looked for evidence of the same features in the rest of the collection, identifying a further seven paintings," Professor Tacon said.

The crocodile painting was almost identical to a rock painting known to have been painted by Majumbu in a rock shelter where his family regularly camped, near Gunbalanya.

"There was great joy for the seven Gunbalanya community members who accompanied us when we found the Djimuban rock shelter and Majumbu's crocodile rock painting, especially for two of his direct descendants, Merrill Namundja and Kenneth Mangiru," Professor Tacon said.

"This is because being at the site provided them a direct connection to their ancestors, the early contact period that their ancestors lived through, and the local landscape that was their home.

"It brought back memories of times they interacted with Majumbu's sons, the ongoing land ownership rights of the Nabarlek area, being told stories of ancestral beings and landscape creation, as well as knowledge shared in ritual contexts that was important for survival and ensuring intangible heritage was passed on to future generations."

Mr Mangiru told AAP it had been good to revisit the Djimuban rock shelter.

"It was emotional," he said.

"I saw the painting on the rock by my grandfather - and that was how we knew it was grandfather's story that he drew on bark."

Some of the earliest bark paintings collected from the region date back to the 1830s.

Professor Tacon said it was common for their creators to remain unattributed.

"That's true of most ethnographic material across the world, especially from Australia," he said.

"Museums possess millions of objects and they don't know the person behind them."

Professor Tacon said the collection was always considered a priceless piece of Australian heritage.

"But now, by connecting it to living individuals, community, it's a priceless piece of family heritage as well," he said.

"It brings it to life."