Jilamara Arts, Milikapiti, Melville Island, NT

The second leg of our day-long exploration of the Tiwi Art Network took us across the Apsley Strait and north to Snake Bay and the settlement of Milikapiti, home to Jilamara Arts and some of the greatest names in Tiwi art, including past masters like Kitty Kantilla and Leon Puruntatameri as well as contemporary dazzlers Pedro Wonaemirri and Raelene Kerinauia, Timothy Cook and Kenny Brown. 

Jilamara was buzzing with activity when we arrived, plenty of artists on hand to greet us, starting with the irrepressible Glen Farmer who met us at the airport. A quick ride brought us to the art centre where newly installed managers Michelle Newton and Quentin Sprague made us welcome.

A view of Snake Bay from the air on approach to Milikapiti
Glen Farmer with Nana, Margo, and Kerry at the Milikapiti airport

We’d recently seen Glen’s aquatint etching of the Sydney Harbour Bridge at Northern Editions in Darwin, and he was delighted to tell us all about his adventures on behalf of the Jilamara Collection, published by those premier printmakers, not only in Darwin but in Melbourne and Sydney as well. 

The artists of Jilamara seem to be remarkably well traveled in comparison to many of their fellows at other places we’d visited. Indeed, part of the buzz the day we visited was attributable to last-minute preparations in advance of the departure of several members of the community for the Netherlands. The event, “Jilamara sculptors at Den Haag Sculptuur,” was part of a large exhibition of Australian art taking place in the Hague in June, which included Brook Andrew and Tracey Moffatt among other indigenous participants. 

Patrick Freddy Puruntatameri in particular was hard pressed to finish up some pukumani poles, although he was gracious and proud enough to take some time out from his labors to tell us about the paintings of ceremonial spears and poles he’d recently completed for a wall in the newly constructed carving shed out behind the art centre’s main building.

Patrick Freddy Puruntatameri takes a break from carving to teach us about ceremonial spears

Also at work in the carving shed was Pedro Wonaemirri, who delighted in showing us around the centre and in explaining the process of Tiwi art and the tools used in carving and painting. Pedro is one of the few artists who still makes extensive use of the pwoja or kayimwagakimi, the carved wooden “comb” that the Tiwi use to create rows of dots in their abstract designs.

Pedro Wonaemirri demonstrates the use of the pwoja in painting (photo by Wolfgang Schlink)
The pwoja in the hands of the master

We got more lessons in the process of making art from Dymphna and Raelene Kerianauia as we wandered the gronds of Jilamara. Dymphna was seated out back grinding yellow ochre with a file, laboriously turning rock into the raw material of art. And I think we were all surprised to discover that on the Tiwi Islands, where there is no ready source of red ochre (like there is in the desert), the reds in Tiwi paintings are achieved by cooking the yellow ochre over a fire–or on the stove. Sufficiently heated, the yellow ochre turns red!

Dymphna Kerinauia grinding up yellow ochre… …which Raelene Kerinauia cooks into red ochre

If I might return to the theme of sculpture for a moment, it was interesting to note in hindsight that while there was a lot of activity in the carving shed, and sculpture dominated the museum and graced the grounds of the art centre, there wasn’t a great deal of it on offer in the retail areas of the centre. At Tiwi Design, there was much three-dimensional work to be had, as well as fabric. At Jilamara, there was a far great emphasis on painting and printmaking in the shop, including a generous stock of paintings on bark: the only significant examples of bark painting we saw that day on the islands.

Sculpture on the grounds of the Jilamara Arts Centre; I’ll wager that that the large honeyeater (Tokwampini) on the far left is the work of Leon Puruntatameri.

A partial view of the museum at Jilamara Arts

And while many ofthe artists work in more than one medium, it is in painting that I believe Jilamara Arts truly distinguishes itself. Perhaps for that reason it was especially exciting to find that a large number of artists were there for our visit–and I was particularly pleased to have loaded up my iPod with images of Tiwi work from our collection to show them. I think I got a more boisterous reaction to the notion of artists seeing their work in America here than anywhere else. And it wasn’t just an artist reacting to one of his or her own works–it was the notion that Tiwi art had crossed the ocean to find a home that exciting them all a great deal.

The fellow on the right is Kenny Brown, one of the modern masters of Jilamara Arts; if anyone can identify his mate, I’d be grateful.
Another master: Timmy Cook
The talent never stops: Raelene Kerinauia and Conrad Tipungwuti

I suppose there’s good reason for all this talent to be concentrated on the shores of Snake Bay. After all, it to the east from here that Purukupali carried his son Jinani into the sea after instructing the Tiwi on the proper way to conduct pukumani ceremonies for the dead. His footprints can still be seen at low tide where a whirlpool forms at a place called Tinganu, or Kippikippi in the old Tiwi language that Pedro can speak. 

The Tiwi have have held fast to their traditions. They have a reputation for keeping intruders out of their country, and a tradition therefore that varies significantly from that of the mainland. Today that singularity is threatened by the forestry industry and ninety-nine year leases. But I suspect, I hope that Tiwi culture will survive with such guardians as we met that day. After all, it’s been 400 years this year since the Dutch grazed the shore at Purrampunarli, just a short drive from Jilamara Arts, and although the Tiwi have elected to celebrate that brief contact, little remains of the encounter save what the Tiwi have chosen to remember.

The beach at Purrampunarli where the Dutch landed in 1607.
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