Munupi Arts, Pirlangimpi, Melville Island, NT

The third and final stop on our tour of the Tiwi Islands was Munupi Arts in Pirlangimpi, near the northwest tip of Melville Island. This general area was the location of the first British settlement on Melville Island, Fort Dundas, founded in 1824 and quickly abandoned. In the middle of the 20th century, the Garden Point mission was established near the ruins of the old fort, whence came the current community. “Munupi” is the traditional name of the the country that borders the northern end of the Apsley Strait.

Munupi Country

Clouds cast their shadows over the forests near Pirlangimpi

The art centre is a very short walk from the airstrip, not even a five-minute stroll. The centre comprises a painting shed, with attached offices and a small display gallery. A carvers’ shed stands off to one side. Although there was some activity there when we arrived, the buzz of chain saws gave way to an intermittent pounding on an ax, and after a while, to silence broken by a voice calling out to the occasional passer-by.

Welcome to Munupi Arts

It was nearly impossible for eight of us to occupy the two small rooms where small sculptures and pottery were on display and racks of works holding unstretched canvases were ready for browsing. We all managed to keep out of one another’s way until the selection process began, and then it became clear that we’d need to take shifts in the small galleries. Remembering a small patio with benches and tables outside, I decided to take a respite from the business of art and watch the men at the carving shed pack up their tools for the day.

The carvers’ shed

The general air of quiet around the art centre seemed to have deepened at the afternoon wore on. Maybe I was still not used to the more tropical climate after the relatively cool and dry desert air. But I was about to doze off when a little fireball whose name I later learned was Bella appeared on the scene. 

Like most of the children I met on the tour, Bella didn’t have a shy bone in her body. She also seemed to understand that whitefellas and cameras go together: this was another nearly universal trait across the Top End’s juvenile population. I’m guessing that she was four or five years old, and she had a pretty good grasp of the practical end of a digital camera, even though she clearly had a lot more experience being in front of one.

Bella with Margo (left) and Khadija (right)

We were also joined by Regis Pangirminni, the chairman of Munupi Arts, who was most generous with his time. He talked about the business end of Munupi, the work of organizing art for exhibitions, his role in community relations, and his suspicion of the forestry initiatives that are underway in the area. 

Nina Purutatameri Regis Pangirminni

As the afternoon waned, Nina Puruntatameri joined us briefly, along with her daughter. But soon it became clear that the art centre’s business was drawing to a close, and people began to wander off towards the main part of town. 

Looking towards the football oval

I walked around a bit, and discovered a wall of paintings that appeared to be the work of some teenaged graffiti artists. It featured a combination of traditional Tiwi designs, pukumani poles, clan animals, and the Aboriginal flag. 

Tiwi graffiti

Our party headed back to the airstrip, where I found another example of local art, a map of Pirlangimpi, on the wall of the small building that serves as the “terminal.” The black strip at the upper left seemed to be the airstrip, with the art centre below it, and the football oval just beyond.

A map of Pirlangimpi township

As we headed back to Darwin I had one last look over the islands, at a landscape that speaks of countless years gone by, and that in its very form seems to suggest endlessle the presence of the ancestors.

Tiwi country

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