Paddy Compass Namatbara began painting at the Methodist mission at Minjilang (Croker Island) from its very inception in 1941. The centre was a melting pot of tribal groupings, and though Paddy, then in his early fifties, was not of the dominant Kunwinjku people, he became part of a dynamic group of artists, which by the late 1950’s included Yirawala, Midjaw Midjaw and Nangunyari Namiridali. These artists found that the Methodist mission on Croker Island allowed them a greater degree of artistic freedom in comparison to the mission at Oenpelli.
Painting through the 1960's, the group came to the forefront of modern bark painting, in part, due to their close alliance with a number of visiting anthropologists and regular visits by Dorothy Bennett and others who collected barks for sale. Karel Kupa came to Minjilang in 1963, following in the footsteps of anthropologists Charles Mountford and Ron and Catherine Berndt, who had visited in 1948 and 1949. Kupa’s presence impacted upon the artists chosen style and subject matter, particularly in the depiction of themes of sorcery, previously suppressed by the mission. Paddy produced rare images of Mimih and spirit figures imbued with the physical deformations, transferred to the intended victim, when accompanied by songs and ceremony. Alongside, this darker connotation, sorcery spirits are also highly imbued with sexual tension and humour, as ‘Kunwinjku relate tales of their ribald exploits' (Taylor 2004: 118). In Paddy’s Spirit Figures c.1960 he depicts a male figure with a sub-incised member of huge proportion, leering towards the protruding genitals of the female figure adorned with pubic hair. It is a work of playful lust, the sexual energy only heightened by the artist’s ability to imbue the image with a sense of rhythmic movement through the depiction of its stringy undulating figures.
It is the dynamic energy of Paddy Compass’s paintings that set his works apart from that of his fellow painters. In contrast Midjaw Midjaw preferred symmetry and Namiridali bold black and white bands across figures standing static in nature. The group however, shared many stylistic conventions primarily derived from the tradition of rock painting, where sorcery figures originated amongst the secluded rock escarpments of Western Arnhem Land’s stone country. Common characteristic’s of rock painting found in Paddy’s work includes the coarsely applied white paint in silhouette, adorned with bold dots or crosshatching. The background in his works invariably remains plain and unadorned other than the occasional red ochre wash rubbed into the barks surface.
His works created in an X-ray style are also closely affiliated with rock painting and part of a key movement in Western Arnhem Land bark painting. By revealing the interior of human and animal forms Western Arnhem Land artists could convey and exchange bodies of knowledge and demonstrate how animals were divided according to ritual and social obligation. This applied particularly to hunting and increase rituals. While Paddy and others depicted many totemic animals prized by hunters, the vast majority of rock paintings are of fish. They indicate the different parts of the fish that were most prized and comprise a visual iconography that artists developed as a symbolic aid in dividing the sections of the animal correctly. Paddy’s early work, Saratoga 1947, is a prime example. In this and his other works Paddy displayed the diverse functions that artistic practice plays in Western Arnhem Land culture, ranging all the way from comical relief to scientific instruction. The public’s growing recognition of this diversity in purpose and sentiment has transformed the perspective with which they view Indigenous art. The humanistic sentiment of these quirky lustful figures provides a medium in which the outside viewer can relate to the artist, despite the vast gulf in cultural understanding between them. It is as if sexuality and its incumbent awkward humour can transcend culture, for it strikes at the very base of what it is to be human.
By seeing a shared humanity in the paintings of Paddy Compass Namatbara, outside audiences could come to terms with the personal imprint within the work, transforming it from a relic of an ancient culture into something alive and of the moment.