‘I use natural ochres that I collect from around Milikapiti community where I live. There are four colours that I use when I am painting on canvas, paper, bark or Ironwood carvings. The white ochre is near the beach and the yellow ochre is inland. To achieve the red ochre, we burn the yellow ochre. I use paint brushes and a pwoja that I normally make myself from Ironwood.’
The Tiwi people are renowned for their strong sense of identity and extraordinary artistic capability and output. They consider themselves as being uniquely ‘Tiwi’ and their isolation from the mainland resulted in the development of distinctive features in their artistic expressions.
Tiwi culture, history and traditional stories are vividly expressed through paintings, sculptures, ceramics, screen-printed fabrics, etchings, lino prints and jewellery. The carved and painted Pukumani poles, known as tutini, erected throughout the Eucalypt forests and woodlands on the islands are impressive and unique. 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 vibrant. The ochres are finely ground and sometimes mixed or enhanced by fire. Yellow ochre, for example, turns orange-red when burnt. Much of the art is linked to the ancestor Purrukapali, the Pukumani funeral and Kurlama yam ceremonies.
Ceremonial body paint designs can be applied to both skin and canvas using a similar technique. 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. Intricate designs, known as jilamara, are used to decorate tungas (bark baskets) and the tutini or Pukumani poles, made of cured Kartukini or Ironwood (Erythrophleum chlorostachys), are placed on the gravesites of the deceased. The ochre designs are left to weather following the mourning rituals. Painted lines and dots are applied to the bodies of the living to disguise them from mapurtiti, the bad spirits of the departed.
In 1958, 17 tutini were commissioned by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the first Aboriginal work commissioned as art in Australia. Prior to this, Aboriginal material culture was seen in an ethnographic context and placed in museums. Tiwi art is exhibited nationally and internationally, and is represented in major institutions in every Australian state and territory. Artists have won numerous awards, including Australia’s longest running and most prestigious Indigenous art award, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. View Timothy Cook with his 2012 Award-winning painting, Kurlama, here.
There are five Tiwi-owned art centres on the Tiwi Islands; Tiwi Designs, Bima Wear and Ngaruwanajirri Incorporated at Wurrumiyanga on Bathurst Island, and on Melville Island Jilamara Arts and Crafts Association at Milikapiti and Munupi Arts and Crafts Association at Pirlangimpi.