The recognition that traditional art possibly communicates many levels of meaning has been central to the vast increase in public appreciation of black Australian art over the last several decades. Historically, such an acknowledgement has been essential to the process of validating Aboriginal art as ‘fine art’, permitting it to be seen as more than just ethnologically curious collectors’ items – which is how it has been viewed far more recently than most of us care to remember!
Yet this attention to meaning in Aboriginal art has not occurred in isolation. We are living at a time when the art of our own culture appears increasingly preoccupied with the ramifications of text as the raison d’être of art. For many contemporary practitioners art is increasingly perceived as a kind of text, and it could be argued that the ready acceptance of Aboriginal art by the art establishment is due in part to its being able to find therein parallels for its own esoteric concerns with open/closed hierarchies of meaning.
For many people, however, the need for explanation is simply a genuine response based on a desire to understand the otherness of black culture. What often is not understood is the degree to which the popular ascendancy of painting from both Central Australia and Arnhem Land has influenced people’s perceptions of Aboriginal art as a whole. Many Australians, both white and koori, are unaware of the vast differences between the various Aboriginal societies that survived the European invasion of this continent intact. When we speak of Pintupi, Yolngu or Tiwi, we are not describing regional variations but individual cultural systems, with their own languages, religious beliefs and modes of visual expression. These differences are even more profoundly significant in an approach to the aesthetics of Tiwi culture, located on Bathurst and Melville Islands, a culture that for so many thousands of years was separated from mainland contact.
As in all Aboriginal cultures, there existed an intimate link between art and ceremony in traditional Tiwi society. But Tiwi ritual life does not focus on specific totems, designated ‘Dreaming’ sites, or secret closed rituals such as mainland initiation. Instead, Tiwi rites of passage are concentrated in a series of public ceremonies that ensure the lifting and clearance of complex pukamani taboos associated with death and mourning.
In the past the central artistic expression of Tiwi culture was concentrated in an extensive variety of ceremonial objects, which had to be made and decorated to ensure the success, on both a worldly and a spiritual level, of these mortuary rites. The tutini in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria are impressive examples of the graveposts that are still placed around the grave at the completion of the pukamani cycle. But these rituals also required the production of richly decorated bark baskets, spears, armbands and headbands, false beards and other body ornaments.
In Tiwi language, the word for ceremony is yoyi, which actually means ‘dance’. It is the dances which are central to the pukamani rituals. Indicative of their importance is their division into two distinct categories: the yurruma ‘Dreaming’ dances and the ‘relationship’ dances, the latter known variously as jurraga, kujungura or amparruwu. Both men and women at the ceremony are expected to participate in these dances, for which they are paid. By contrast with white attitudes, which often seek to differentiate worldly and spiritual affairs, the Tiwi view is that such payment enhances the significance of yoyi. Material responsibilities are central to Aboriginal social systems, and here the importance of ceremony as an expression of complex kinship obligations is clearly indicated in economic terms.
Since at this time and place, people are in danger from the mapuriti (spirits of the dead), the dancers have traditionally decorated their bodies with a rich variety of designs in ochre in order to conceal their true identities. Although the pukamani ceremony was decreed by Purukuparli at the beginning of the world, and the accompanying songs may contain allusions to this and other palaneri creation events, the ceremony is not a dramatic re-enactment of narrative where the use of specific designs provides the totemic context for ancestral stories. Since much of the decoration for pukamani is connected with the concept of disguise, symbolic function becomes less important. Instead, imagination and invention are the key elements on each artist’s creative agenda.
In this connection much of the art produced for this ceremony could be regarded as stage-props for a series of sacred dance performances rather than as ritually consecrated objects. This theatrical aspect is exemplified by the richly decorated yimwalini bark baskets, which are ceremonial versions of the plainer, everyday wangatunga. Likewise the arawinikiri is an elaborate symbolic version of a barbed hunting or fighting spear.
A recognition of the link between ceremonial body-painting as disguise and decoration, and Tiwi art in general, is essential to understanding the aesthetics of Tiwi culture. The most obvious example of the influence of body-painting is the rich ochre decoration on pukamani poles, said to represent ancestors and carved for the final ngirripingikunikiyarri ceremony, and the link continues to be clearly manifested in contemporary two-dimensional Tiwi art. Despite their radically different personal styles, senior women artists in the 1992 National Gallery of Victoria exhibition Ngingingawula Jilamara Kapi Purunguparri (Our Designs on Bark) all make this clear connection. Nancy Henry invariably describes her designs (fig. 1) as miyinga, the scarification once commonly practised, and as body-painting. Kitty Kantilla and Jean Baptist Apuatimi always commence on a black ground, the colour of the skin. This is a common practice, for Milikapiti artists young and old, whether they are decorating wooden carvings or painting on bark, canvas or paper.
Many of Kitty Kantilla’s paintings are derivative of designs representing ceremonial body-painting for yoyi – designs that she formerly applied to the carved figures and funeral poles she made when younger. Any adaptation of these designs in their new context appears to involve changes in format rather than alterations in symbolic meaning – for example, the predominantly vertical lines of pwanga dots applied by the artist to elongated graveposts assume a horizontal alignment on the rectangular barks.
Although Jennifer Hoff in her authoritative monograph on the pukamani poles of Milikapiti speaks of ‘story’ in connection with the meaning of these tutini designs,1 J. Hoff,Tiwi Graveposts, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1988, p. 4. there is a danger in applying such terminology to contemporary Tiwi art. This is clearly demonstrated in a conversation held with Kitty Kantilla, a senior artist, at the time Jilamara Arts & Crafts was sending her paintings for inclusion in the recent exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria.
We were sitting on the ground looking at each picture for the last time before packing when, gesturing to one bark (fig. 2), I asked in English if there were a story there. Pointing with her finger to this picture, Kitty Kantilla answered: ‘… Ngaki tutayingini arigayayninga yaringa …’
‘… This is white, this is yellow, this is red …’ She proceeded to describe where the ochres for the painting had been collected and how she had painted the picture. Following this, I asked in Tiwi if the painting had a ngirramini (story). The reply was that this picture was like a bark basket that was made by her deceased husband and in which he kept his sugarbag. He painted the bark on both sides and it was made strong so that it did not break or leak.
In fact both of these ‘stories’ encompass the meaning of this painting without yet providing any clear interpretation of its symbolism. Subsequently that morning Kitty Kantilla was to describe several specific symbolic readings of pictures. Yet having known and worked alongside this old lady for four years I had the distinct impression that these stories were more about her perceived expectations of whitefellas’ responses to Aboriginal art than about revelations of absolute meaning. This view was reinforced
by a comment made later by her niece, who had been present during this conversation:
‘Maybe the pictures had a story, maybe didn’t’.
Most writers in recent years have proffered the interpretation that Tiwi painting consists of a series of generalised motifs, which each artist uses and interprets according to his or her own intentions. For example, a circle may represent the kurlama yam ceremony, the moon or sun, a coral reef, or a pukamani armband. But perhaps such an interpretation, correct though it may be on the surface, is highly misleading in terms of the Tiwi artist’s aesthetic intentions.
We might all feel more comfortable once a subject or title has been established
for a work, and in my own experience the Tiwi informant often perceives the use of a
title as an acceptable and clear way to ‘explain’ the art and its function to outsiders. As
a result, however, the subtle interaction that occurs in this art between conceptual and
decorative elements becomes confused. The ‘whitefella way’ of trying to fit knowledge
and information into neat, definable boxes is singularly inappropriate for tunuwuni
From observing local Tiwi reactions to paintings brought into the art centre at
Milikapiti, I find that reference is rarely made to ‘story’ (i.e. ‘meaning’) as a significant
criterion for appreciating paintings or carvings. Nor does anyone consider it important
to ask an artist his or her intention in the use of motifs, which may or may not have a
variety of symbolic meanings. People’s response is directly expressed in terms of the
brightness and quality of the ochre, and the skill in the corresponding application. For
a Tiwi, the verbalisation of meaning is not an essential key to appreciating the spirit of
a work of art.
Living as we do in a society where verbalisation is everything, we might mistakenly
assume that a title necessarily implies the primacy of narrative, or ‘subject matter’,
over decorative elements. In fact, the expressive power of mature Tiwi art has its
source in the dynamic visual tension between concept and decoration, where neither
becomes subservient to the other.
A clear example of this occurs in the set of four large paintings in ochre on canvas
by Jean Baptist Apuatimi that was recently acquired by the National Gallery of
Victoria (fig. 3). The artist is the widow of a famous carver, Declan Apuatimi, and has
in recent years established her own individual style as a painter.
The Gallery’s panels are called Purukuparli Ngirramini – the story of
Purukuparli – and describe how death came to the world. Even though this story of
how Purukuparli taught the first pukamani ceremony is central to Tiwi spiritual
expression, it is rarely painted as a narrative.2 This story is documented in full by M. West, in Declan: A Tiwi Artist,, Australian City Properties, Perth, 1987, pp. 26–7. Jean Baptist Apuatimi’s four panels were initially commissioned by the mainland agent representing Jilamara Arts & Crafts, and the artist’s response to this commission reveals much of the dynamics of contemporary Tiwi painting.
Like Kitty Kantilla, Jean Baptist Apuatimi initially worked principally as a
sculptor. In recent years she has found carving in ironwood too physically demanding
and has commenced painting on canvas the themes of the sculptures she once carved.
One of her earlier paintings portraying Purukuparli at the first pukamani ceremony is
illustrated here (fig. 4). The sculptural inspiration is clearly evident in the three figures
whose limbs merge into solid bases, and the ancestral bird who taught the first dances
is depicted as part of the mortuary pole, a common subject of carvers on Bathurst and
The artist’s recent treatment of this same story in the National Gallery of
Victoria’s set of panels expresses a subsequent reassertion of traditional aesthetic values.
The images symbolising the narrative and decorative elements are visually inseparable. The important mortuary poles in each of the panels are depicted as part of this pattern matrix and act as a device for drawing our eyes inwards. Conversely, the predominance given the star in the third panel belies the fact that its role is decorative, in a story that is actually concerned with the creation of the moon.
Those unacquainted with Tiwi culture may feel that the most comfortable way to commence an understanding of these paintings’ meanings is to extract key recognise able images and interpret these as elements of the story. That this artist has chosen to avoid a clear or formal narrative sequence is a salutary warning that such an approach to reaching into the heart of Tiwi painting is inadequate. The mulypinyini amintiya pwanga (lines and dots) motif that forms the ground of this painting is directly based on body-painting conventions for the pukamani ceremony central to the Purukuparli story. Each section of this motif functions only as pattern and often acts as a disguise for the subject-matter elements of this painting. Here the analogy exists with actual ceremony, where ritual participants, though specifically designated according to strict kinship guidelines, use mulypinyini amintiya pwanga decoration to conceal individual identity.
The fourth panel, depicting ritual objects associated with the pukamani ceremony, no longer provides a figurative narrative but is a metaphor for the whole Purukuparli story. Among the three pamijini armbands and yirriwala fighting sticks used in the widows’ dance is a forked fighting stick, an allusion to the argument between Purukuparli and Taparra the Moon. The unexpected exposure of three prominent areas of black ground has no inherent meaning beyond being an idiosyncratic pictorial device commonly used by this artist.
That our own visual tradition, and contemporary taste, are decidedly uncomfortable with decorative art is a warning that our definitions can be narrow in dealing with the aesthetics of black culture. In Purukuparli Ngirramini the decorative and narrative elements co-exist in a harmonious symbiotic relationship, whose visual significance cannot be understood in terms of conventional ‘either/or’ definitions. Meaning in Tiwi painting more often exists not within a picture, but in the relationship of the art to the culture as a whole.
Perhaps this can be more clearly understood through a comparison with a bark painting made by a younger Tiwi artist in response to Jean Baptist Apuatimi’s picture of the story of Purukuparli. Harold Porkilari is an experienced carver and painter in his late twenties. Despite the respect and awe with which the works of the older artists are regarded it was his painting for the National Gallery of Victoria exhibition (fig. 5) which perhaps was most admired by the Tiwi community at Milikapiti.
Apart from the brightness of the ochres and their confident application, iconographically this painting contains all the elements of the story that for the people of Melville Island so much defines their Tiwi-ness. Certainly in terms of illustration this picture tells us much more than does Jean Baptist Apuatimi’s about those tragic events that occurred at the beginning of time. In Harold Porkilari’s painting, the depiction of the three protagonists – their body decorations, gestures and physical attributes – and the accompanying decorative borders, of ritual armbands and moon and stars, communicate clear information that we can express in words.
Yet in terms of traditional Tiwi aesthetics this painting reflects a society increasingly acculturated and removed from the art of parents and grandparents. The clear differentiation between subject and decoration – where a naturalistic image (here the ancestral heroes are portrayed as contemporary wooden sculptures) is superimposed on an unrelated, patterned background – is very recent in Tiwi art. Equally, the predominating use of geometrically precise cross-hatching, nowadays regarded by Tiwi people as epitomising their traditional art, appears only rarely in earlier designs. Such cross-hatching features particularly in Tiwi art produced on Bathurst Island at the old mission settlement of Nguiu, where Harold Porkilari grew up. Although the reasons for this have still to be thoroughly researched, it seems likely that the use of cross-hatching is directly connected with the Roman Catholic mission’s active discouragement, and banning, of ceremonial life. This ban lasted many years, and it appears that during this period many of the older-style motifs, still found on Melville Island, were lost from the Bathurst Island repertoire. Further to this, increasing communication and intermarriage with the people of the mainland has had an influence on younger artists, in terms of the lineal designs of Arnhem Land Yolngu painting.
The reasons for these changes reflect the increasing influence of European culture. There is pressure on younger artists to meet perceived European expectations of neatness and ‘professionalism’, especially when they produce works for the white art and craft market. Despite the relatively low levels of literacy, among the younger artists the use of the ballpoint pen, taught from an early age in the whitefella classroom, is increasingly influencing style in the application of colours. The European brush has largely been substituted for the frayed stick, porta (wooden comb), and finger dipped in ochre that were the traditional methods of mark-making. It was these methods that gave early Tiwi art so much of its highly idiosyncratic and gestural dynamism.
Yet, despite the vast differences in the approaches of Jean Baptist Apuatimi and Harold Porkilari, to suggest that the work of the latter artist is largely removed from traditional aesthetics would astonish the Tiwi viewer. Not only are the ochres in Harold Porkilari’s paintings suitably bright, but their patterned application, combined with identifiable elements of the Purukuparli story, firmly establishes these paintings as an authentic expression of Tiwi culture. An artist’s choice of style, modern or old, is considered an individual, and hence personal, matter.
It is essential in this connection that black artists speak for themselves to determine the agenda for the interpretation of their art. This is not a mandate for us to subsequently adjust this information to fit white frames of reference more comfortably. By contrast with our society, Aboriginal culture values far more non-spoken, as distinct from spoken, modes of communication. Despite the rapport that has developed over several years between Jean Baptist Apuatimi and the author, the artist has remained reticent as to her own interpretation of the painting discussed here. The obvious enthusiasm felt for the commission was expressed in the actual act of painting, not in talking about it, before or after.
This is appropriate. It has nothing to do with the possibility that the Purukuparli story might be considered secret or sacred ‘closed’ knowledge, as might be the case with the stories of many mainland cultures – every Tiwi knows from childhood the story of Purukuparli. Rather it is about the subtle etiquette of interpersonal relationships, and modes of communication that are as foreign to our culture as the contrasting European concepts of narrative and decoration are to Tiwi art.
If an artist chooses to give only the most perfunctory explanation for a painting, or even to remain silent, it may be as much an indication of personal humbleness as a profound respect for the power of the visual image.
It is this power, born out of the complex traditions of Tiwi culture, that is central to this art. Despite the increasing abandonment of ceremonial obligations by the present generation, Tiwi artists maintain a remarkably clear vision of their identity in society. It is this continued vitality of Tiwi painting at Milikapiti that is clearly in evidence in the recent exhibition Ngingingawula Jilamara Kapi Purunguparri. The real challenge for the artists of this and coming generations will be whether such vitality and integrity can be maintained in the face of what appears to be an increasing social disruption and loss of culture.
James Bennett, Co-ordinator, Jilamara Arts & Crafts, Milikapiti, Melville Island (in 1993).
1 J. Hoff, Tiwi Graveposts, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1988, p. 4.
2 This story is documented in full by M. West, in Declan: A Tiwi Artist, Australian City Properties, Perth, 1987, pp. 26–7.