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Tiwi art draws creation from the Melville Island land itself

March 29, 2006
Tiwi art draws creation from the Melville Island land itself

Tiwi art is from Melville Island's soul. The raw rock colour palate is ochre, yellow and white, rich with an ancient culture which met the Macassans in the 15th Century and the Dutch in 1644.

The Tiwi Islands of Bathurst and Melville were created at the beginning of time during the Dreaming or Palaneri. Before this time there was only darkness and the earth was flat - Tiwi Creation Story

The Tiwi people have lived on Melville and Bathurst Islands for thousands of years their body painting (Jilamara) and patterns used on (burial) Pukumani Poles and Tungas (bark baskets) has an earthy strength in its design which expresses the Tiwi culture.

Look at the colours and detail in this work by Tiwi artist Nina PuruntatameriThe Tiwi artists make red by grinding yellow ochre and burning it over a fire.

Tiwi artist Nina Puruntatameri smiles gently and shows us her latest work, it is ceremonial and honours the instruction of her father and Tiwi culture. He was a Big Man she says softly, as she adds that she ground and mixed the earthy shades herself. Traditional painting with ochre requires grinding rock and then mixing the powder with water and glue.

The ochre rich soil of the shores of the mighty Apsley Strait are Nina's source and to see them glow in the hard, bright light of the NT sun gives an immediate insight into the artistic inspiration they hold.


Tiwi Gallery Manager Tara Leckey and Graham Wallace of GSAThe Apsley Strait separates Melville Island from its neighbour Bathurst Island, but the huge tidal ebbs and flows do not stop common themes in the art of both remote tropical islands 80km off the coast from the NT capital Darwin.

Melvilleis Australia's second biggest islandafter Tasmania. It has a land area of 8320 square kilometres. Neighbouring Bathurst Island is 2,200 square kilometres in land area. The Apsley Strait averages 1.5 kilometres in width.

Tiwi is the main language spoken on Melville and Bathurst Islands. English is taught at schools as a second language, the Tiwi communicate principally in their own language. But since contact with the western world the Tiwi language has changed and younger Tiwi now have difficulty understanding the older version.

Tiwi artist Nina PuruntatameriThere is an elemental feel to the works of the artists of the Munupi Arts and Crafts Association at Pirlangimpi (Garden Point) on Melville's northwest coast. It reflects in tiny Nina who has a natural stillness about her. It is a stillness which is only found in those who live with far horizons and close to nature. The Tiwi Islanders have it and they express it in their art.

Patience with brush and a wooden comb yields earthy glowing works in ceremonial patterns that tell of life and death in the Tiwi world.

Ceremonies play an important role in Tiwi life. As the Tiwi culture is oral, difficulties arise when trying to write definitively. Each Tiwi ceremony has its own form, and can vary depending upon the circumstances of the time. There are two main ceremonial events performed, an annual one, the Kulama ceremony which celebrates life and the mortuary or Pukumani ceremony.

Munupi Arts and Crafts Manager, Tara Leckey, rates Nina high among the Tiwi art group. She is one of our star artists, she says as she fields a string of phone calls, greets visitors and prepares works for delivery to buyers while rattling away at her computer keyboard.

Incorporation of Munupi Arts and Crafts Association has led to the development of both traditional arts and crafts in painting, pottery, carving, weaving, screen prints, etchings, linocut prints, lithographs and screen printing textiles.

There are three arts and crafts centres on the Tiwi islands Munupi, Tiwi Design Aboriginal Corporation on Bathurst Island and Jilamara Arts and Crafts Association at Milikapiti (Snake Bay) on Melville.

Major colour in Tiwi artA Tiwi Art Network was formed in 1998 and there is a Tiwi Network office in Darwin. The Network puts together art tours. They run on demand and they are a unique experience for collectors and art enthusiasts.

Some Tiwi design artists have mixed ochres to produce pink or olive green. White ochre often has fine lines of other colour such as purple, which can be extracted.

Acrylic paints and gouache arealso used to paint on paper and canvas. The subjects range in vibrant acrylics to a variety of animals that are good to eat.

Carvings come from seasoned ironwood; the hard eucalyptus wood is prolific on the Tiwi Islands. We found Munupi carvers hard at it with chainsaws, axes and chisels. Electric grinders give the finishing touches. Feathers and natural fibres are sometimes used to decorate the human figure carvings.

The carvings include human figures, (burial) Pukumani Poles, birds and animals. The ironwood is used for the art market as it is more durable than the traditional bloodwood.

Birds feature in many Tiwi Creation Stories. Tokampini was an ancestral man-bird who arranged the first Pukumani (burial) ceremony. He laid down the designs and rituals which must always be followed.

The Tiwis make ceremonial ornaments. There are armbands (Pamajini) and headbands (Tapalingini). Magpie goose feathers add to the ornamentation. Plants are used in the process, they include, mangrove roots, vines and branches from the Yellow Kapok tree and pandanus leaves. The fibres are woven around a circle and sometimes plaited with a decorative tassel of feathers.

During the Wet Season from December to March, while the bark is damp and flexible, Tunga baskets are made from the stringy-bark tree. They are unique to the Tiwi. They are used to carry food and to hold gifts for ceremonial dancers. At the end of the Pukumani (burial) ceremony the basket is upturned on the top of a Pukumani pole to end the gathering for the deceased and prevent the spirit from wandering

The Pukumani ceremony is most important to the Tiwi culture. It extends into mourning, a formal code of behaviour and respect for the spirit of the deceased.

Spectacular coast Apsley Strait Melville IslandIt is a complex ritual. In-laws of the deceased carve and paint the Tutini (Pukumani Poles) that can be up to 4m high to be erected around the grave. There can be up to 10 poles, this originally related to the standing of the deceased.

Kulama, the Yam Ceremony, is signalled when there is a gold ring around the moon at the end of the Wet season. This means that the Moon Man (Tapara) is performing Kulama. The Kulama is shown in Tiwi art as big concentric circles which Nina says represents the ceremonial dancing ground. They are the icons of Tiwi spiritual belief. Babies are named at Kulama time. The first ceremony included the preparation of poisonous Kulama yam for food and the initiation of young men.

Eddie Puruntatameri, who died in 1995, was Australia's first Aboriginal potter and ceramic artist. His work includes designs from mythical totems in strong statements.

He helped set up a pottery at Nguiu on Bathurst Island and later established his own pottery at Purlarumpi, Melville Island, his tribal area. He was one of the first pottery trainees at Bagot Pottery, Darwin. Alistair Hallum, an apprentice of the eminent English potter Michael Cardew recognised Eddie's creativity, graphic gifts and true love of clay and pioneer Australian potter Ivan McMeekin was a guiding light for Eddie, particularly with technical difficulties at Nguiu.

Ochre cliffsIn 1983 Eddie moved his family to his mother's country on Melville Island and by 1994 his wife Maree and seven children had come into their own as workers, decorators and artists. His solo exhibition in 1995 at the Ceramic Art and Perception Gallery in Paddington, Sydney drew public acclaim. He is remembered as the first Aboriginal potter to express images of his country through the earth itself.

Editor's note:
The GoSeeAustralia team stayed at Munupi Lodge, Melville Island,as paying guests.

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