An update on Tiwi art in Australia by William Ernest and Susanne Waites, owners of Aboriginals: Art of the First Person.
As you may know Susanne and I once lived in Australia, which was where we developed our love for tribal art. That affection started with the art of Australian Aborigines.
As our exposure increased and expanded, we traveled to many Aboriginal sites in the country. One of our favorites, to which we paid a repeat visit during our last travel to and through Australia, was the Tiwi Islands of Bathurst and Melville.
These two island, sitting where the Arafura Sea meets the Timor Sea, about 50 miles offshore from Darwin, NT, are unique even vs. Aboriginal communities elsewhere in Australia.
They have a different history and the inhabitants speak a different language. As a result, the art created by the Tiwi people has its own distinctive character.
Melville Island, the larger of the two is second only to Tasmania in area. Bathurst Island is smaller but in many respects more significant since it is home to Nguiu, site of an airport, and the most prominent of three Aboriginal Art Centres on the islands. A narrow strait, the Aspley Strait, separates the two islands.
The physical sensation of the Tiwi islands is one of pungent aromas, heavy humidity and a hot, jungle tropical quality. The smells of local flora hang heavy in the air. The sense of remoteness from the rest of the world and the rest of Australia is intensified by the surrounding stands of equatorial timber.
The Tiwi people are open, friendly and welcoming. They also are extraordinarily talented, creating paintings, prints, textile designs and ochre-painted sculptures rich with traditions of Tiwi mythology and ceremonies. An example is the striking work done on the Pukumani poles. These are carved from ironwood and decorated with designs from the Tiwi past. A common feature of the painting is the cross-hatching used to fill negative space. Another common design element is the circle, replicating symbols associated with Tiwi ceremonies such as the Pukumani and the Kulama.
The Pukumani is a mortuary cermony, carried out over several months following the death of a Tiwi person. Tiwi belief is that the dead person's spirit remains in the living world until it is released by the final Pukumani.
The tall and sturdy Pukumani poles are placed around the burial site. They require weeks of preparation including harvesting the logs, carving the intensely grained wood and painting ritual designs on the surface. Participants in Pukumani dance and sing around the grave and the posts.
When the ceremony is finished, the poles are left to decay, often capped by inverted bark baskets called tungas. These would have been used by the dead person during life to carry and contain food and water.
Tiwi art centres of Jilimara Arts & Crafts and Munupi Arts & Crafts, are located respectively at Milikapiti (Snake Bay) and Pirlangimpi (Garden Point) on Melville Island. Both centres are managed by coordinators assigned by the Australian government. Jilimara, which is Tiwi for "body painting" also refers to the designs painted in detail on the bodies of dancers and on the Pukumani poles. Munupi also became a center for large murals and panels an for making limited edition prints.
The third art centre is Tiwi Art and Design, near Nguiu. Tiwi Design is much more concerned with the creation of textiles designed with traditional Tiwi imagery. They find their way into silk-screened or hand-painted garments and fabrics.
All three art centres are joined in a consortium of collaboration and continuity. The old traditions of Tiwi art regularly meet the individual self-expression of younger artists. But the latter always respect the old, while extending imagery into new areas.
The days we spent on Bathurst and Melville Islands were among the most stumlating and satisfying experiences we encountered with Australian Aboriginal art. Now we learn that the traditions of Tiwi art that were displayed and celebrated this year at the Telstra Awards, Australia's recognition of outstanding Aboriginal art, have encouraged even further growth and development of art and artists at the Tiwi art centres.
For further information about Australian Aboriginal and Tiwi art, we recommend the following resources:
The Australian: "Creative Worlds Collide in Tiwi Art" Aboriginal Art Online Aboriginal Art & Culture : An American Eye Museum and Art Gallery Northern Territory
We also refer you to the Australian Aboriginal art pages at TribalWorks, our web site featuring a range of tribal art.