Located off the coast of Darwin in the Northern Territory are the alluring Tiwi Islands. The two inhabited islands – Bathurst and Melville Island – are spectacular to encounter with their red pebble shores sloping into turquoise sea. Tiwi means “we people” and the Tiwi Islanders have a distinctive culture with a rich visual language.
Tiwi Islanders are resilient. After visits from Japanese pearlers, Macassan trepangers and Portuguese slave traders, British settlers tried to colonise the islands in 1824, yet they were driven out by the people, the intense heat and the isolation.
In 1911, Francis Xavier Gsell established a Roman Catholic Mission at Nguiu which still remains. The mission changed its approach in 1970 as Father Corry decided that, rather than overriding Tiwi culture, it would be better to find ways of conveying Christian themes through Tiwi culture. He encouraged murals depicting both Tiwi creation stories and biblical stories. In the white church not far from the beach where the ferry docks, you can wander into the church and see such blended paintings.
When visiting the islands, you can hear the melodic, long words of the Tiwi language being spoken and recognise the importance of art in the community as you pass colourful murals.
There are a range of Tiwi art forms, including paintings, sculptures, ceramics, screen-printed fabrics, etchings, linoprints and jewellery. Tiwi art is identifiable through its geometric patterns of straight and cross-hatched lines, arcs, circles and dots made with white, red and yellow ochres, often set against a black background.
Although naturally occurring, the colours are exceptionally vivid. The ochres are finely ground and sometimes mixed or enhanced by fire. Yellow ochre, for instance, turns orange-red when burnt. Much of the art is linked to the ancestor Purrukapali, the Pukumani funeral ceremony and the Kulama initiation yam ceremony.
Purrukapali and the dawning of death
The story of Purrukapali and his family is the story of how death came about in Tiwi culture through love, betrayal and rage.
Purrukapali had a wife named Bima and a son named Jinani. One day Bima left their son under the shade of a tree so she could venture into the bush to be with her lover, Purrukapali’s brother. As time passed, the shade narrowed and young Jinani became exposed to the scorching sun for far too long.
Purukaparli felt the loss of his son deeply. He attacked and wounded his brother who flew into the sky and became the moon. Purukaparli scooped up his son and carried him in his arms as he walked backwards into the sea towards his own death. As he did so, he declared that death would come to everyone. Bima became the curlew bird, whose wailing cries can be heard at night. This story manifests in many art forms.
Jinani’s death led to the first Pukumani ceremony, which is integral to Tiwi culture to ensure that spirits are released from the body to the spirit world. Part of this ceremony involves creating Pukumani funerary poles, known as tutini, which are painted with intricate designs, known as jilamara. Painted lines and dots are also applied to the bodies of the living to disguise them from the spirits of the departed.
In 1958, 17 tutini were commissioned by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. This was the first time Aboriginal work was commissioned as art in Australia. Prior to this, Aboriginal material culture was seen in an ethnographic light and placed in museums. In the gallery context, people were invited to see the poles aesthetically, to view the work in terms of colour, lines and shapes. Tiwi art continues to be appreciated in this way for its aesthetic merit as well as for its cultural significance.
Tiwi art centres
The Tiwi Island art centres welcome visitors. You no longer need a permit to visit the Islands and the Tiwi Art Network offers tours to the art centres to enable visitors to meet the artists and purchase artworks. The large, airy, tin-shed studios at the art centres are a hub of activity.
At the oldest art centre, Tiwi Design on Bathurst Island, I watch as Alan Kerinauia paints a fat, curved snake. With a paintbrush where the long, fine hairs are bent at right angle to the handle, he paints a long, thin, seemingly-impossible straight line. He dips the brush in the jar of thick white ochre, smooths and tests it on the edge of the unframed canvas, and paints another line in parallel, and continues at a careful, meditative pace. It is detailed and precise work. Alan has been painting at Tiwi Design since 1983 and, like many Tiwi artists, he learnt art through his family.
I mention to some of the other artists at Tiwi Design that I grew up in Tasmania and only recently moved to Darwin. They seem surprised and delighted and I can’t help but feel as if we share an islander connection. “From very bottom island to very top island,” one comments and they all laugh. They enquire about the weather and shudder at the thought of a frosty winter morning.
Painting: from body to canvas
Many of the designs derive from ceremonial body painting. Artists such as Maria Josette Orsto often combine old designs with new ones they continually invent.
Body paint designs can be translated onto canvas using the same, or similar, techniques. For example, lines of fine dots are applied with a small, U-shaped, wooden comb, known as pwoja or kayimwagakimi. The comb is dipped in paint and then rolled onto the surface of the skin or canvas. The Munupi art centre website has an excellent video of artist Cornelia Tipuamantumirri using this uniquely Tiwi technique.
Even though Tiwi art derives from a long history of cultural practice, it is alive and responsive, lending itself to new forms in response to surrounding influences.
In 2012, the late Tiwi artist Jean Baptiste Apuatimi travelled to Darwin to make work with master printmakers Jacqueline Gribbin, Karlissa Kennedy and Gylnis Lee at the printmaking studio, Northern Editions. Together they printed several designs to create paper tungas (bark bags). Taking the same shape as the traditional folded bark tungas, they stand alone as unique and colourful sculptures. Collaborative projects such as this reveal the dynamic and vibrant nature of Tiwi art.
In Jennifer Isaac’s lavishly illustrated book, Tiwi: Art, History and Culture (2012), Tiwi artist Pedro Wonaemirri states that “Tiwi have strong feelings of who we are and where we belong … [we need to] keep this culture going – never let someone shut it down”.
There’s no danger of that – Tiwi art is represented by major institutions in every Australian state and territory.