MELBOURNE- 19 October 2016

Island nation with a remarkably different language, customs and art. Notwithstanding, Tiwi art forms have had a major impact upon Australian art, offering inspiration for many prominent artists including Tony Tuckson (who introduced their sculpture to the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and organised a national touring exhibition in 1962).

Essentially Tiwi art forms relate to their most important ceremonies – the Pukumani funeral and the Kulama yam ceremony, both of which maintain knowledge of culture (song and dance), family history and land. During the 1950s, the Pukumani carvers were influenced by anthropological interest in some figurative sculptures made from the 1930s, and many began to carve free-standing figures or animal and bird characters derived from the mythology underpinning ceremonies.Today Tiwi Pukumani poles continue to be erected around the grave in groups, and are typically carved from the solid trunk of dense hard ironwood trees – the shapes and apex of which are modified by chopping and carving the timber.

Carved male figures are almost invariably titled Purukapali, the main hero of Tiwi mythology and the son of the first old woman, Murtankala, who created the Islands themselves. His wife Bima or Wai-ai (curlew) inspired the female carvings. The couple had a son, Jinani, whose death from dehydration occurred when he was neglected by his mother during a tryst with her husband’s brother Tapara (the moon). As the moon, Tapara had celestial power over life on earth and according to the story, he offered to bring the baby to life after three days (to coincide with the waning of the old moon and rebirth of the new moon). Purukapali refused and grieving, retreated into the sea carrying his dead son. At this time, Purukapali dictated that the first funeral should be performed and thus, he became a defining influence upon cultural practices from that era to the present. Tapara rose into the sky, and the 3-day cycle of Tapara now signifies the time of Kulama ceremonies that celebrate new life as they coincide with the ripening of a special yam. Bima the curlew still wails for her baby son.

Although the mission on Bathurst Island discouraged idolatrous practices, traditionalist Tiwi held their ceremonies across the straits at Paru, a small independent village of families on a site previously occupied by early twentieth-century buffalo hunters and their Iwadja men from Croker Island and the Mainland (whom some Tiwi considered ancestors). Here, on the northern shore of Melville Island at Snake Bay, creativity and carving flourished in the wake of World War II. Developed initially to house Aboriginal and Tiwi men (known as ‘incorrigibles’) who had come before the Darwin court for being socially disruptive, Snake Bay became a hub for the military defence of Australia with these men playing important roles as coast watchers or submarine personnel; later following the war, they would become community workers or established artists. Indeed, the Snake Bay master artists of the 1960s featured several Mungatobi brothers, including Toby and Tommy, who both carved and painted and today are represented in several major Australian state gallery collections.

The figures of ‘Mani-Luki’ or Harry Carpenter in particular, have become highly collectable with their remarkable originality and careful execution. The finely carved arms and hands are especially distinctive, often attached to the torso rather than carved as one piece. In the 1950s, Harry Carpenter had lived in the leprosarium on the mainland but in 1963, returned to Snake Bay to assist and revitalise the carving trade. His male and female figures appear costumed and invariably have very large heads – almost like helmets – and accordingly, have been likened to ships’ captains from Tiwi’s pre-mission history, evoking Macassan or Portuguese motifs. Just as often they depict Purukapali and Bima.

Widely regarded as the most outstanding of the early Tiwi artists, Enreald Munkara Djulabinyanna was born in 1882 and was nearly 30 when the first missionaries came to Bathurst Island. As the son of Turumpi, the clan head for the Munkaras (important Bathurst Island land owners), he resolutely upheld Tiwi values and cultural beliefs and his deep preoccupation with ceremonial matters may be discerned in his sculptures. Enreald’s figures are roughly axed with legs spread as though in dance – the fused head and shoulders creating the impression of a dancer leaning forward and preparing to move to the foreground, as if in the midst of a ceremony. Facial features in grief are brushed with rough lines of ochre in relevant patterning and repeated on the body, while his ‘Double sided figure…’ presents an equally intriguing image, featuring a single-breasted woman on one side and full-breasted figure on the reverse.

Tiwi had always painted their bark baskets, or Tungas – single long strips of stringy bark bent double and held in place with split cane stitching. They are highly decorated in ochre paintings, similar to Pukumani designs – hence when a trade in Tiwi art began, bark paintings were made the same way but smaller, just the size of one side of a tunga.

Tiwi traditional art forms – poles, tungas, carved figures and bark paintings continued throughout the 20th century, largely intact and mostly unaffected by the pressures arising during the 1980s from the burgeoning interest in mainland desert Aboriginal art as a unique form of ‘abstract’ Australian art. When Jilamara Arts + Crafts was set up at Milikapiti (Snake Bay), the lyrical Kitty Kantilla began to transpose her older designs for bark paintings onto canvas shortly afterwards, but utilising the beautiful earth colours of the Tiwi clays and ochres. Significantly, such experiments inspired a new group of artists to paint on canvas in a larger scale, including the gentle Francesca Puruntatameri and Timothy Cook, past winner of the National Aboriginal Art Award, whose works featuring the Kulama ceremony take the viewer into an ethereal realm where the night sky beckons the souls of the living – each work paying homage to his own spiritual journey as he moves between the Pukumani poles of the old abandoned graveyards of the Tiwi Islands.

Despite continuous acculturation for over a hundred years and the acknowledgement by Tiwi that they wish to understand and take part in the modern world, they have nevertheless managed to retain the ‘world within’, their beliefs and understanding of the interior Tiwi cosmos. This world is continuously expressed in their traditional arts, carving and painting, as well as the Pukumani ceremonies and dances. Indeed, the challenge faced by generations of younger artists is adapting tradition to aspects of modern creative life and thought, while still honouring the great cultural traditions of the past and their proud heritage as Tiwi.