Tiwi: Art, History, Culture

Among the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, with all the variety of language and culture they encompass, the Tiwi still stand apart.  Their language is an isolate, unrelated to those of the mainland.  Despite being among the first people to come in contact with Europeans  (the Dutch landed in 1705), they remained uncolonized until the turn of the twentieth century.  Their art shares superficial similarities to that of Arnhem Land in some of its materials if not in its manifestations.  Even today, their political relationships with the state of Australia have their own, independent character.  They share a passion today for footy, but even that sometimes seems to outstrip their mainland counterparts.

For anyone who wants to know more about Tiwi life, there are a few classic studies.  Baldwin Spencer visited the islands in 1912-13 and published his accounts in Native Tribes of the Northern Territory of Australia (1914).  Hart and Pilling’s Tiwi of North Australia was only published in 1960, and based on fieldwork conducted more than thirty years earlier.  Hart’s protege, Jane Goodale, contributed the important Tiwi Wives, one of the best studies of women in the Australian anthropological canon.  Colin Macleod reported on some aspects of life among in the Tiwi in Patrol in the Dreamtime, and Eric Venbreux has contributed signficantly to the analysis of contemporary social conditions in A Death in the Tiwi Islands.

Tiwi-coverBut each of these books has a relatively restricted focus; the broadest in scope, Hart and Pilling’s work, is a mere 120 pages in length.  There is much reason, therefore, to rejoice at the publication of Jennifer Issacs’ aptly named Tiwi: Art/History/Culture (Miegunyah Press, 2012), an encyclopedic compendium of information that is the result of forty years of engagement by Isaacs with the people of Melville and Bathurst Islands.  And while there is much of historical and anthropological interest in this volume, those of us who love Aboriginal art are in for a special treat in the extensive, exhaustive treatment of the subject to be found here.

Much of the art that comes out of the Tiwi Islands these days is inspired by ceremony, either the kulama (yam) initiation rites or the pukumani mortuary practices.  Both are resonant with Tiwi cosmology, and so it is fitting that Isaacs opens her book with a series of chapter on Tiwi culture in general, relating the origin myths of the blind mother Murtankala and the famous cycle of stories involving Purukupali, his wife Wai-ai (Bima), brother Taparra, son Jinani and the coming of death into the world.  After retelling the stories, she details the ceremonies themselves, and concludes with an overview of the arts associated with them.

With this general cultural introduction concluded, Isaacs then steps back to discuss the history of the Tiwi, largely through the lens of contact stories.  She begins with the Makassan visitors who came to the Islands, as they did to nearby Arnhem Land, in search of trepang.  She recounts the difficult early attempts by Europeans to settle the Islands, including the failed attempt to establish the foothold of Fort Dundas in 1824.  That expedition did, however, leave behind a population of feral buffalo that became the occasion for the next incursion, when the European Joe Cooper arrived with Iwaidja men from the mainland to hunt the beasts for shipment back to Darwin.  From that point on, the fates of the Tiwi and settlers from the mainland were intertwined.  The arrival of the Catholic Church in 1911 in the person of Father (later Bishop) Francis X. Gsell brought, in Isaacs words, “settled ways, new ideas, and irreversible change.”

In an extended chapter Isaacs presents the history of the Tiwi through the twentieth century, up to about 1970 and the immediate aftermath of the Referendum.  She outlines the growing influence of the Church, recounts the famous stories of Tiwi involvement in World War II (including the unheeded warning of the approaching Japanese bombardment of Darwin in 1942), and the growth of interest in and a market for the art and artifacts that gave the Tiwi a foothold in modern economic life.  Post-1970, her focus is more on the art centres, and while I am deeply impressed by the work she has done in documenting the evolution of art production in the last forty years, I am slightly disappointed that the political and other cultural aspects of Tiwi life are not given as much attention as the earlier years of contact and missionization.  The work of the Tiwi Land Council, Tiwi responses to neoliberal policies, and the controversies over forestry development on the Islands are all examples of recent history that could have found better documentation here; but this, in the big scheme, is a minor quibble.

Tiwi-Victor-PuoaheniHaving established the general cultural and historical background, Isaacs then turns, for the last two-thirds of the book, to a detailed examination of the art of the Tiwi and the history of the art centres and art production on the Islands from about 1970 forward.  She begins her story with a survey of early collectors and curators ranging in time from Spencer and Herbert Basedow at the start of the twentieth century’s second decade and concludes with the significant acquisition of the famous set of pukumani poles (tutini) by Stuart Scougall and Tony Tuckson for the Art Gallery of New South Wales in the late 1950s.  Subsequent chapters in this intermediate section on “artefacts and art” provide profiles of the major carvers and painters in the settlements at Paru and Snake Bay on Melville Island.  (Although much of the art was marketed through the mission settlement at Nguiu on Bathurst Island, it was largely produced across the Apsley Strait, away from the eyes of the missionaries.)  Isaacs also records the activities of important collectors whose activities created the market for Tiwi art (Dorothy Bennett, Helen Groger-Wurm, and Sandra LeBrun Holmes chief among them) and the ways in which engagement with the mission and the market changed the production of Tiwi art.  I found it fascinating to read accounts of how both Christian and Tiwi iconography informed the art, and delighted in the ways that artists responded to the tyranny of distance by miniaturizing the cumbersome tutini to allow for easier transport to the mainland (in the photo above left, one such miniature, 57 cm tall, by Victor Puoaheni).


The last two major sections of the book focus on the history of the art centres on Bathurst (Tiwi Design and Ngaruwanajirri) and Melville (Munupi and Jilamara) Islands.  The chapters that focus on the evolution of artistic production in Nguiu—what is now collected under the rubric of Tiwi Design but represents a long story of printing, fabric design, pottery, sculpture, and painting over the course of decades—are especially fascinating and satisfying in their historical detail.  I discovered that I knew very little of the story of Tiwi ceramics and how production shifted from the manufacture of pots and plates to the larger earthenware sculptures of artists like John Patrick Kelantumama and CJ Kerinauia (above right, Bima, 2002), or why the large double-kiln in the pottery shed at Tiwi Design now stands unused.

Another welcome feature of these chapters is the manner in which Isaacs traces the connections among the art centres on the two islands and the movement of artists and their families among them over time.  By tracing the movements of potters between Nguiu and Pirlangimpi, for instance, or the dispersion of Delcan and J. B. Apuatimi’s children, including son Declan (who now carves at Munupi) and daughter Maria Josette Orsto (responsible for much of the vaunted painting of the vaulted ceiling at Ngaruwanajiri), Isaacs weaves a rich presentation of influence and reception among Tiwi artists.  Similarly, her extensive study of painting on bark, both prior to the establishment of the art centres, and in the 1970s under the auspices of Tiwi Pima (the organization that supported the marketing of traditional arts on Bathurst Island) helps to provide context for the recent revival of the form in the hands of prominent painters such as Raelene Kerinauia.

Finally, I must as always comment on the production qualities of the physical artifact: the book itself.  Miegunyah Press has a sterling record of achievement in this regard, but Tiwi: Art/Culture/History is especially delightful.  To say the book is copiously illustrated is to offer faint praise.  It is replete, bursting with brilliant color reproductions of art work and ceremonial regalia.  There are dozens of historical photographs, many dating back to Basedow and Spencer’s times, but even more—in color—from the latter half of the twentieth century.  Throughout, the quality is stunning; I often had a Proustian moment of transport back to the church at Nguiu or the carving shed at Jilamara, and even to the dim galleries of the Musée du quai Branly.  (I also couldn’t help noting how many of the photographs of the art came from the camera of Régis Martin, formerly of MAGNT; if there were evidence needed to show what a loss has been inflicted on art history by the budget cuts at the Museum, many pages in this book can offer testimony.)  There is excellent supporting material at the back of the book: an extensive bibliography and a separate index of artists and artworks are especially welcome.

For me, Jennifer Isaacs is one of the giants of the literature of Aboriginal art.  I remember buying her enormous compendia Australia’s Living Heritage: Arts of the Dreaming (Landsdown, 1984) and Aboriginality (UQP, 1987) at the Australian Museum in Sydney on my very first trip to Australia when I was fired up about this newly discovered art, but sadly ignorant of its context.  A decade later, Spirit Country: Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Art was one of the first major exhibition catalogs I acquired.  Her monographs, Thancoupie the Potter (Aboriginal Arts Agency, 1982), Wandjuk Marika: Life Story (UQP, 1995) and Emily Kngwarreye: Paintings (Craftsman House, 1997) are among the all-too-rare books devoted to a single artist’s life and work in the literature.  Tiwi: Art/Culture/History is a splendid addition to her list of achievements, a delight to the mind and the eye.

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6 Responses to Tiwi: Art, History, Culture

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  6. Ironic how the Commercialization of Fine Art (Marketing in Galleries and Books), cuts immediately and by about half, of the profound ” Meaning and Significance” of an Indigenous Creation.
    Note: one example; the Tiwi Totems immediately were reduced in size for portability to Galleries and beyond. Galleries and Tourists thought this to be clever. I know it as the Death of True Fine Art. In time, and very soon, these essential foundations of Indigenous Society in Fine Art, will become so watered down as to contain less than nothing of their original integrity and meaning, until they contain as much nutrition as a Warhol image of a tin of soup. Just tracks in the sand, where a Noble, Living, Breathing Deer once walked. Good luck with that. CCR.

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