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Plants used in Tiwi art


The most commonly used plants for carving is Kartukini or Ironwood (Erythrophleum chlorostachys) while Wurringilaka (Corymbia nesophila) is used to a lesser degree. The timber of Kartukini is very hard, heavy and extremely long lasting, it is deep red in colour and has a beautiful grain. Dead trunks that have become dry are used for carving Pukumani poles which are placed around burial sites on the islands, a range of bird species and other sculptures.

Baskets and Fibrecrafts

The bark of trees and the leaves of palms are used to make baskets. The stringybark of Jukwartirringa (Eucalyptus tetrodonta) may be used to make a tunga. These baskets consist of a rectangular piece of outer bark folded in half and the edges sewn together with one end left open. Tunga can only be made during Jamutakari, the wet season, when the bark is damp and flexible enough to manipulate. These baskets can be made leakproof by plugging holes with bee’s wax. These baskets can be used for carrying a variety of good including bush tucker and plant parts used for medicines. At the end of the Pukumani ceremony, large ceremonial baskets called imawalini made from Jukwartirringa (Eucalyptus tetrodonta) are upturned on top of the tutini or Pukumani pole. This marks the end of the gathering for the deceased and prevents the spirit from wandering. The yellowish bark of Pampiyaka (Callophyllum soulattri) is also used to make baskets. 

The leaf bases of the palms Jora (Carpentaria acuminata) and Paliwuni (Gronophyllum ramsayi) are used to make leakproof baskets which are similar to rectangular buckets. They are good for carrying water and food such as bush honey and mangrove worms.

The young leaves of Miyaringa (Pandanus spiralis) are harvested and then stripped and shredded into long strip ready for dying. The strips are placed in drums of bush dyes made from roots and leaves. Eight plants are used on the Tiwi Islands as dyes to colour fibres. For example, Yaringa (Haemodorum spp.) tubers when boiled produce colours ranging from pale orange to dark brown, while Arrunkuninga (Pogonolobus reticulatus) roots boiled up with mud mussel shells results in colours ranging from yellow to brown. The inner red bark of Yankumwani (Buchanania obovata) makes a red dye. The dyed Miyaringa strips are then woven and coiled into intricate baskets and mats.

Ceremonial Ornaments

Ornaments are used during ceremonies including various types of pamajini (armbands) and tapalingini (headbands). These ornaments are often adorned with Mayimampi (Magpie goose) feathers. Several plants are used including the aerial roots of Pukulijupa or Stilt Root Mangrove (Rhizophora stylosa), vines and branches from Pijuruwupirninga or Yellow Kapok (Cochlospermum fraseri) and Miyaringa (Pandanus spiralis). These fibres are woven around a circle and sometimes plaited to form a decorative tassel, with feathers attached, which are placed on the upper arm or sit at the back of the head.


Plant sap can be used as a glue or adhesive, and are added to ochre or paints used to decorate people participating in ceremonies. They may also be used for painting onto bark, canvas or wood. The glue not only makes the paint or ochre stick well to the base it is being applied to, it also helps to keep the colours strong and vibrant for longer periods. The juice from the crushed stem of Japartinga (Cymbidium canaliculatum) is an especially effective glue.  The green sap of new Yankumwani (Buchanania obovata) growth is also used as glue to mix with paint to make it stick and keep its colour strong. White milky sap is produced by Jawarri (Ficus virens) when the bark is damaged. This sap becomes very sticky when it dries out and is used as an additive for ochres when painting Pukumani poles, barks or people in preparation for ceremonies.