Tiwi Design, Nguiu, Bathurst Island, NT

The second week of our tour through indigenous art communities began with a visit to the Tiwi Islands. We were met at the airport in Darwin by Niru Perera of the Tiwi Art Network, who was to be our guide and host for the day. The first delight and surprise was a gift for each of us of t-shirts from the recent Tiwi Football Weekend.

We left Darwin Monday morning on the thirty-minute flight to Nguiu on Bathurst Island, the location of the Catholic mission established in the early years of the 20th century and Tiwi Design, home of renewed and flourishing work in painting, sculpture and ceramics. The forested lowlands of the Tiwi Islands are quite unlike any other landscape I’ve seen. Rich green, marked by smoke from the occasional bushfire, pierced by looping, ancient rivers, and surrounded by aquamarine seas laced by lines of low breakers and the occasional startling white beach.

Two view of Bathurst Island on the approach to Nguiu

Three main structures comprise Tiwi Design. The largest of them contains the retail operations, offices, painting studio, and a long annex devoted to the creation of silk-screened fabrics that can always be spotted, transformed into fashions, at art openings across Australia. Next door is a very high-ceilinged shed devoted to sculpture, and beyond that the pottery studios where the distinctive, brightly colored ceramics–plates, jugs, and innovative translations of figurative Tiwi wood sculpture–are produced.

The entrance to Tiwi Design’s main facility

Manager Tim Hill started us off with a guided tour of the main facility, where a painting renaissance is underway. The community has recently been involved in painting large, representational depictions on canvas of important stories of the Tiwi ancestors as a means of regenerating involvement in the studio’s production. Several of the artists we spoke to in the course of the morning stressed a new work ethic of “painting slow” that Hill has been encouraging: rather than rushing works to market, they have decided to relax, enjoy the work, and raise the quality of their output rather than the quantity.

Tim Hill shows off the new community paintings of the Purukaparli story, left, and detail of one of the paintings, right

To my eyes, the work scored on both counts. There were plenty of works available on canvas and paper, and much of it was exquisite. The fabric workshop had also clearly been very busy with rolls of printed cloth vying for space with heaps of printed designs that showed evidence of a steady stream of customers having examined and selected material to take away to tailors on the mainland.

Paintings and fabric for sale at Tiwi Design

The sculptural work–mostly variations on tutini, or pukumani ceremonial burial poles–was extraordinary. Carved out of super-hard and super-heavy ironwood, the tutini speak most commonly and forcefully of mass. But much of the work on display at Tiwi Design that day had a grace and lightness to it that gave them a surprising lyrical quality. The buzz that morning was all about Romolo Tipoloura, who had just learned that one of his sculptures had been accepted for the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. Photographs of the piece itself were strictly embargoed until after the show opened, but Romolo was happy to pose for us in front of another, similar piece. Below and to the right is the Telstra entry. Both of these works refer to Taparra, the moon man, whose adulterous relationship with Bima, wife of his brother Purukaparli ultimately brought death into the world. Today, of course, they also conjure up the footy.

Romolo Tipoloura poses with a recent work; at right, his Telstra entry, Taparra – Moonman

One final photo from the main workshop at Nguiu shows a series of posters, affixed to the rear wall of the annex, that speak for themselves.

Beat the Grog, Tiwi style

After admiring the tutini, I decided to head next door to see the sculpture workshop for myself. A series of roars and crashes helped draw my attention that way, and a small group of men used a tractor, a large chain, and a lot of shouted directions to drag a massive ironwood tree trunk in from the bush. Several more already well-trimmed trees were being transformed by master sculptor John Patrick Kelantumama, known locally and affectionately as “Yell.”

The sculpture shed is behind the trees on the left; the pottery is housed in the brightly painted building on the right.
John Patrick Kelantumama (on the right) smoothes the surface of a ceremonial pole with a hand ax. The poles are shaped these days with the aid of a chain saw.

The sculpture shed itself was almost completely empty that morning, except for what must be a permanent feature–one of the largest tutini I have ever seen. I’m no good at estimating sizes, so use the plastic chair at the base of the sculpture to assess its height for yourself.

The extraordinary ceramic work that has come out of Tiwi Design in the last decade has been beautifully documented in Judith Ryan and Anna McLeod’s exhibition catalogYikwani: Contemporary Tiwi Ceramics (National Gallery of Australia, 2002). But Tiwi pottery has a long history reaching back to the 1970s when Eddie Puruntatameri and John Bosco Tipiloura built Tiwi Pottery at Nguiu and began making pots and plates. This early work is documented in a small catalog from a show of the Potter’s Gallery in Darlinghurst, Tiwi Pottery Bathurst Island , published in 1980. Their first apprentice was none other than John Patrick Kelantumama, who started making pots in 1976.

Work in progress at the pottery

Today the pottery also turns out figurative sculpture depicting ancestral characters from the Tiwi creations stories, but also illustrating contemporary social activities like hunting, fishing, and of course, football.


Unfortunately, our schedule didn’t permit us to visit the grounds of the Catholic mission at Nguiu, where there’s much evidence of the settlement’s rich history. It was from here, for example, that Father John McGrath radioed Darwin on the morning of February 19, 1942 that he had sighted Japanese fighters heading south. As they flew over, they strafed the Nguiu settlement, including the shack from which McGrath was transmitting. Shown in the photo below with the propellor from a Japanese Zero that crashed into the Apsley Strait later in the war, the telegraph shack is a focal point of local pride.

The radio shack from which Father McGrath sent his unsuccessful warning of the impending Japanese attack on Darwin in February 1942.

The Church itself is another of those fascinating examples of missionary accommodation and Aboriginal adaptation. Although the paintings, which were done in the 1970s, are showing signs of the ravages of the tropical climate on wooden structures, and their future is uncertain, this glimpse of the sanctuary (taken on a trip to Nguiu I made in 2005) shows the fusion of the two traditions.

Tiwi motifs decorate the sanctuary of the Catholic church at Nguiu.

The Mission grounds also house a museum of local history that encompasses both black and white stories. It’s really predominantly mission history, as that is to some degree the whitefella story on Bathurst Island. But the back rooms tell the creation of the world when Murtankala, an old blind woman, emerged from the earth, carrying her three children in a bark basket on her back. As she crawled across the landscape she created the Dundas Strait that separates the Tiwi world from the mainland. She also divided the Tiwi homeland itself in two, digging out the Apsley Strait that separate Bathurst from Melville Island.

Tiwi art in the Nguiu Museum

The Apsley Strait is quite beautiful and, I’m told, quite lethal, with strong currents and plenty of sharks. Nonetheless, there are strong connections between settlements on the two islands, especially to Paru, which lies just opposite Nguiu.

A view across the Apsley Strait to Melville Island

We were soon back in the air and crossing the Strait on our way to Milikapiti on Snake Bay, home of Jilamara Arts, the next stop on our day-long tour through the Tiwi Islands.

Looking down on the beaches of Bathurst Island on our way to Milikapiti on Melville Island.
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