The dances, songs and art of the Tiwi people connect them with what it means to be Tiwi. Now their art and culture will be shared with all in the largest exhibition of Tiwi art ever staged.

In their showing of TIWI, the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) will be exhibiting the unique art of the Tiwi people from the Melville Bathurst Islands, located 80 kilometres north of Darwin, from November 13 2020 to March 8 2021.

The free exhibition will feature works stemming from 1911 to the present day and will consist of almost 300 works by over 70 Tiwi artists.

NGV’s Senior Curator of Indigenous Art, Judith Ryan, said the exhibition avoids a linear chronology and is divided into spaces that reflect aspects of Tiwi art and culture.

“The exhibition ricochets … It begins with more contemporary works and then it keeps going back in time and then forwards in time,” Ryan told NIT.

“The Tiwi artists … recommended that storytelling should come first in the exhibition. So, the figurative works in ceramics, sculpture and painting come first, because most of the other works in the exhibition relate to the non-figurative designs made on the body for pukumani or kulama ceremonies.”

Timothy Cook, Kulama 2012, earth pigments on canvas. Photo supplied by NGV.

Two principle cultural events for the Tiwi are the pukumani (mourning) and kulama (coming of age) ceremonies.

Tiwi people are encouraged to participate in customary visual and performative art as part of these ceremonies—including the creation of tutini (poles), jilamara (body painting), kawakawayi (song) and yoyi (dance).

Ryan said Tiwi art uses innovative materials and heavily reflects connection to cultural ceremonies and ancestors.

“Artists have adapted the works they have made in ceremonial context into new materials through printmaking, ceramics, works on bark, works on canvas, works on paper,” she said.

“The thing about the Tiwi and their painting—to sing is to dance is to sing—there is a wonderful association, because when artists are painting they are remembering the painting they’ve made in ceremony, the song and dances and they all sort of go together.”

Pukumani tutini 2002-09, earth pigments on Ironwood. Photo supplied by NGV.

A highlight of NGV’s extensive collection is the pukumani tutini (poles), which take up an entire room of the showing and are installed to suggest an immersive forest setting.

“There are two semi-circle arcs facing each other in the room. And there are two troughs in which roughly 32 or 34 pukumani poles face each other,” said Ryan.

“The idea is that you’re able to walk around every single pole and see it fully in three dimension, 360 degrees, so you can walk in amongst the arcs and the central circle.”

The pukumani tutini in the exhibition date from 1912 to poles created post-2000. The selection will feature the work of master carvers like Patrick Freddy Puruntatameri from the Jilamara Arts Centre.

Puruntatameri spoke to NIT about his early memories of carving.

“My dad used to do a lot of carving … we’d sit near the beach, lovely wind and dust where we used to do all this carving … every day after school … I would watch him do carving.”

“I thought, I’m going to do something like that. So, when he passes away, I can sit there and do what he did before. That’s why I’m still doing it now.

“We use string bark. We peel it off the bush, then we make bark out of it and we paint on it. Then we use a little bit inside and we use that to carve spears.”

Ryan said another highlight of the exhibition is the entire room displaying contemporary paintings, including ochre paintings on bark, canvas and paper.

“Painting is a primary medium and the ochres that are dug on Tiwi sites are still being used today, and that connects the paintings with the artists to [their] ancestors,” said Ryan.

Painting with a pwoja (comb) is a traditional technique employed by Tiwi artists like Kaye Brown of the Jilamara Arts Centre, whose work features themes about being on Country.

“I like doing landscapes and skies, like the sun coming up in the morning and the beauty of the colour,” Brown told NIT.

Tiwi artists Kaye Brown (L) and Patrick Freddy Puruntatameri (R) of the Jilamara Arts Centre. Photos supplied by Jilamara Arts Centre.

The artists have expressed their excitement to share a part of Tiwi culture.

“We’re proud of our hard work and to show the next generation,” said Brown.

“We’re going to let people know where we are on the map and they might want to come up here and see the community,” said Puruntatameri.

To find out more about NGV’s viewing times, visit: ngv.vic.gov.au.

By Grace Crivellaro