Exploring Tiwi Art

Like much else in Tiwi culture that I discussed in the previous post, the art of the Tiwi displays a marked difference from that of the mainland. Although clans or country may have certain designs associated with them in the realm of body painting, there is not the strong identification between these designs and those painted on the mortuary poles (tutini) erected in association with burials such as one finds among the Yolngu. The rarrk that characterizes painting in Arnhem Land is not present in Tiwi design, nor is the depiction of totemic animals in a quasi-realistic format a hallmark of Tiwi painting. The mortuary poles themselves exhibit a high degree of plastic design, unlike the relatively unshaped form of the lorrkon and larrakitj of their southern neighbors. 

Contemporary three-dimensional work has a strong anthropomorphic figurative element uncommon elsewhere in the North. Carvings of Purukaparli, Bima, and Taparra are commonplace, whereas figurative carving on the mainland tends to depict spirit beings. The development of ceramic sculpture at Nguiu in the Tiwi Design workshops has enriched and extended the anthropomorphic tradition to include depictions of hunting scenes and footy players, the latter often drawing on sculptural conventions for depicting Purukaparli. (This ceramic production is well documented in the National Gallery of Victoria’s 2002 catalog, Yikwani: contemporary Tiwi ceramics.)

In the realm of two-dimensional design, the iconographic elements are likewise quite unfamiliar. Much Tiwi bark painting was originally done on tunga, the ceremonial baskets that are created as adjuncts to the tutini, and the designs on them share the abstract and geometric qualities of those painted on the poles. Even when these designs are used to represent aspects of country and particular places, the visual vocabulary that the Tiwi employ is not easily read by those who are familiar with the iconographic traditions on mainland indigenous tribes. Contemporary paintings on canvas often bear a simple title like pupuni jilamara, which translates as “good design.”

The most striking divergence of Tiwi art from its mainland counterparts, however, lies in the emphasis on innovation and individual creativity. In stark contrast to the art of Arnhem Land or of the Central Desert, the designs of Tiwi painting are not strictly dictated by ceremonial constraints, nor does there seem to be the strong connection between clan or birthplace and iconography that limits the choice of motifs for an individual artist to a specific set of stories or graphic elements. I noted previously a similar predilection for novelty in the composition of songs for mortuary rituals. The content of these songs is not limited to traditional tales and motifs, and references to contemporary events are frequently incorporated into them. The value ascribed to all of these kinds of artistic production rests not so much on the expert rendition of the well known as on the inherent skill of the singer and the painter in the creation of the work. Those examples of song or design that find special approval among the Tiwi audience may indeed become part of a corpus that is passed on to succeeding generations, so that a striking airplane song may become as much a part of Tiwi ritual as a retelling of Purukaparli’s grief. But adherence to history and tradition is not expected among the Tiwi as it is elsewhere in Aboriginal Australia.

Jane Goodale, author of Tiwi Wives, took up the question of creativity in Tiwi art in a paper presented with Joan Koss at the 1966 Annual Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society and published in its ProceedingsEssays on the Verbal and Visual Arts, edited by June Helm (American Ethnological Society, distributed by the University of Washington Press, 1967). The paper posits six “conditions of creativity” drawn liberally from Western studies of aesthetics and attempts to demonstrate how these conditions become manifest in the creation of Tiwi mortuary poles. While I am skeptical of this mapping of Tiwi actions onto precepts of European psychology, there are ways in which I find Goodale’s essay to be a useful examination of the conditions that generate innovation in Tiwi art.

I will paraphrase the six conditions outlined by Goodale and Koss in the following list:

  • a deep involvement with process, tempered by partial detachment;
  • a sense of both passion and decorum;
  • conscious manipulation and planning;
  • an immediacy of fulfillment following a period of incubation;
  • the externalization of an internal “cast of characters,” a personal or social mythology; and
  • a period of contemplation prior to enactment.

Goodale and Koss are able to extract parallels from the Tiwi sculptor’s experience that match each of these conditions. For example, the relatively short period of time between the commissioning of the poles by family members of the deceased and the performance of the mortuary ceremonies requires the work to be completed quickly and thus with a deep involvement. This focus is supported by the mourners, who provide food for the carvers and free them from the necessity of hunting while preparations are underway. Goodale and Koss see Purukaparli’s injunction to the first men to “use your experience” as an exhortation to passion, while the conventions of using only bloodwood or ironwood trees found in the vicinity of the grave temper that passion with constraints of decorum. And obviously, the mythic background of Jinani’s death is externalized by the sculptor in the creation of memorial poles.

But it is in their discussion of Tiwi values and social organization that I feel that Goodale and Koss come closer to explaining the conditions that account for the impetus to individual creativity on the part of Tiwi artists. To refer back to my previous posting, the primary means of acquiring prestige in Tiwi society is through the acquisition of wives. Secondarily, however, Tiwi men can achieve a certain status in the community through performances at ceremonies, and included in this category is the carving of tutini or the painting of tunga

Men are selected to carve these poles on the basis of two criteria. First, they must not be closely related to the deceased: in these ceremonies, the community is divided into mourners (the relatives) and workers (those who will prepare the ceremonial ground and carve the memorial poles). Secondly, the latter group must be chosen from among the landowners of the burial site, for they alone have rights to the natural resources (the trees selected for carving) required for the ceremony. Given the relatively small scale of Tiwi society, this limits the available workforce and suggests that most men will be called upon at some point in their lives to carve mortuary poles. The family of the deceased contracts for carvers to create these poles, and usually specifies the number and size of them. The workers are commissioned as a group, but each man is solely responsible for the creation of a single pole. Although the workers are paid for their efforts, the amount and kind of payment is not decided in advance. Rather, payment is determined by the satisfaction of the relatives with the finished product. Given the lack of a strictly prescribed pictorial tradition among the Tiwi, the more distinguished or striking the pole is upon completion, the better odds the sculptor has of receiving a large payment.

All this is not to imply that Tiwi painting is free of content or that pictorial conventions are totally absent, that pupuni jilamara is nothing but design. There is a long tradition of what C. P. Mountford called “secular” painting in his encyclopedic study, The Tiwi: their art myth and ceremony (Phoenix House, 1958). Mountford’s monograph is an excellent source of raw material on the Tiwi; unlike the studies that I discussed in the previous post, it does not attempt an interpretive narrative of Tiwi culture, but serves rather as a repository of descriptive information about the creation myths, the story of Purukaparli, the kulama and pukumani ceremonies, and the so-called secular painting style. It is an extraordinarily rich collection of material. It contains over sixty plates illustrating Tiwi art and ceremony; the paintings are often accompanied by annotated diagrams that help tease the meaning out of an art that even today is not well documented.

About a year ago I came across a painting by Conrad Tipungwuti, a younger artist (born in 1966) who lives at Milikapiti on Melville Island and paints for Jilimara Arts and Crafts there. Like many other paintings produced these days on the Tiwi Islands, it had little in the way of explanatory documentation, and the painting bore no title. It did strike me as tantalizingly pictoral (in the sense of potentially representational and decodable) and so I turned to Mountford’s book to see if I could discover the meaning that lies behind its largely abstract designs. Here is the painting, reproduced with the kind permission of Jilimara Arts.


In an hour’s browsing through Mountford’s book I found a reproduction of a painting, originally done on a bark basket, that includes most of the graphic elements in this work and in a roughly similar arrangement. Other reproductions and notes in the volume have led me to make what I hope are educated guesses about the remaining iconography. The painting is a celestial map of the night sky, picturing the moon and the Milky Way. Since the moon is identified with Taparra, Purukaparli’s brother and the seducer of his wife, and since that seduction led to the death of Purukaparli’s son Jinani and to human mortality, we are firmly back to the subject matter of mortuary rituals once more. Following Mountford’s documentation, I offer this interpretation.

The most obvious icon of the moon occupies the right central portion of the image as reproduced above: the white disc with its six rays, which are said to be torches that Taparra carries through the night sky, illuminating the heavens. The red ochre semi-circles to the left and right of the disc represent the waning and waxing moon respectively. 

The large red crescent in the left central section of the canvas represents the eastern horizon, below which the moon has his camps. Three of these camps may be indicated by the squares on the left margin of the painting. The image in Mountford’s volume shows three camps, but they are positioned closer to the white disc than in this work. The white square above the waning moon may thus also indicate one of Taparra’s camps. Mountford notes, however, that both the sun-woman and the moon-man camp below the eastern horizon. The broad white bands to the left and right of the crescent correspond to designs that Mountford glosses as the western horizon.

The cross-hatched areas represent the Maludaianni, the men of the Milky Way. These were originally men of the caterpillar clan who ascended to the skies at the conclusion of the pukumani rituals that Purukaparli initiated. The image in Mountford lacks the dotting shown here; it does however include a small area of white dots on a dark ground, and these Mountford identifies as Tapalingas, or star-women. The artist may here be building an iconography that combines these male and female elements into a single design. I’m unable to identify an explanation for the solid white area to the right of the upper part of the crescent. However, several of the barks in Mountford’s illustration do show blank areas that are said to represent the dark areas in the Milky Way where no stars are visible. I’m not entirely comfortable with that extrapolation, and it does nothing to explain the short horizontal white bands that stretch from the inside of the crescent to the western horizon.

The final element, the four linked yellow ochre circles to the right edge of the painting also remain ambiguous. Another bark painting reproduced by Mountford shows a similar design of linked circles that represent the sun. The circles in this painting lack the radiating lines that are commonly used in depictions of the sun-woman, Wuriupranala, and my guess is that such an interpretation would be out of place in the work at hand. The discs in Mountford’s image of the sun-woman are linked in the manner shown here however, and Mountford notes that those linking lines represent the journey of the sun through the underworld, Ilara, at night, when she is not visible to men on earth. It may be that this painting provides a corresponding image of the moon-man’s journey through Ilara during daylight hours. Mountford also notes that Taparra is usually thought to have four wives, celestial bodies we recognize as the visible planets of Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter. There may thus be an association between these four circles and Taparra’s wives.

The literature on the Tiwi is not vast, and much of it–rightly so, perhaps–focuses on the myth of Purukaparli and the pukumani ceremonies. I’ve been surprised and delighted to find the works of Mountford, Hart, Pilling, Goodale, and Venbrux to guide me to a deeper understanding of both the art and culture of these northerly islands.

Tiwi carvings on the beach near Milikapiti on Melville Island. In the background, Purukaparli hoists Jinani on his shoulders. In the foreground in the figure of Tokwampini, the honey-eater, who informed Purukaparli of the death of his son.
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