About the NGV
National Gallery of Victoria


Waiyai 1995
earth pigments on ironwood
91.2 x 22.9 x 27.7cm
68.1 x 21.2 x 26.5 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased through The Art Foundation
of Victoria with the assistance of The Peter and Susan Rowland Endowment,Governor, 1995
© The artist’s estate, courtesy of Jilamara Arts & Craft Association


1998, printed 1999
etching, lift-ground aquatint, ed. 7/30
printed by Martin King at APW, Melbourne
44.5 x 34.5 cm (image); 69.5 x 50.5 cm (sheet)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Presented through The Art Foundation of Victoria by Christine Collingwood, Member, 2000
© The artist’s estate, courtesy of Jilamara Arts & Craft Association


earth pigments on Stringybark,
Pandanus string
141.0 x 64.8 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, 1999
© The artist’s estate, courtesy of
Jilamara Arts & Craft Association

Kitty Kantilla

From the moment the artist’s sculptures, paintings or prints were seen in any quantity in group exhibitions, when she was already sixty years old, Kantilla’s personal style stood alone — a hallmark of Tiwi art made for ceremony where individual expression is highly prized. A delicate rhythm of variable dots, so inevitable a leitmotiv as to occasion her epithet ‘Dot Dot’ from other Tiwi at Milikapiti, prevails but never as a trite formula or mechanical infilling device. Each dot bears the mark of the artist’s hand and sensibility, deeply immersed in the business of making art.

The exhibition, a tribute to a consummate artist, comprises 78 works and represents all aspects of Kitty Kantilla's practice, encompassing bark paintings and sculptures, tunga (bark baskets), paintings on paper and canvas and prints. The exhibits will be drawn mostly from the collection of the NGV and other public institutions including the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the National Gallery of Australia, the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory and Museum Victoria. Other significant loans will be sourced from private collections. The exhibition will comprise three sections, reflective of different periods of her career and her work across different mediums, as follows:

1. Early sculptures, barks and tunga
Kitty Kantilla was born at Piripumawu around 1928 and grew up at Yimpinari on the eastern side of Melville Island. Later she moved with her second husband to live at Paru — an important centre of art production on Melville Island from about 1960 to the 1980s. Here she made ironwood carvings and tunga (bark baskets) that were marketed through Tiwi Pima (1978–89) when she was known as one of the Paru women. Kantilla’s male and female figures are distinguished by her abstract and conceptual reduction of the human form, devoid of naturalistic features, except for genitalia. These minimal carvings, which conform to the block and break down the human form into simple geometric shapes, stand out as being distinctively modern in conception. Kantilla’s move to Milikapiti in 1989 occasioned a shift in emphasis. She began to paint regularly in 1992, supported by the infrastructure of Jilamara Arts & Craft Association, producing only occasional carvings from this time. Most of her early paintings (1992–97) consist of multiple dots, lines and blocks of colour on black, following Tiwi custom of painting directly upon the skin or on the charred surface of the individually carved tutini (grave poles) for the Pukumani (mortuary) ceremony.

2. Works on Paper and Prints
In 1995, Kantilla was introduced to printmaking, a medium far removed from working in natural ochres, which challenged her to think out her ideas afresh, in crystalline tones of black and white. Kantilla’s first long and narrow etchings differ substantially from her ochre paintings, generally comprising combinations of fine lines, freely drawn onto the copper plate, rather than dots. Like reverberations in a mirror, the etchings are about tonal reflections and optical sensation and reveal an artist momentously reinventing herself in a profoundly unfamiliar and pristine medium.

3. Paintings on Canvas
Kantilla made her most audacious paintings on canvas, enabling her to work on a larger scale than previously, on either white or black grounds. Her first canvases echo her work in the bark medium composed of multiple dots, solid blocks of intense colour and small motifs on black backgrounds that echo those found in designs on Pukumani tutini, tunga and markings used on the face, torso and limbs to disguise relatives from the mapurtiti (spirits of the deceased). The year 1997 was a watershed in Kantilla’s practice. Following her visionary etchings, the artist was introduced to painting on a white ground virtually by accident when, due to the absence of a support primed with black paint, she was prompted to work upon white. Like the print medium, the white canvas broke the direct link between Tiwi ritual mark making and contemporary art. Kantilla’s radical use of white as a background changed the visual dynamic, enabling the solid sections of ochre to stand up on the surface as a pronounced geometry rather than emerging almost imperceptibly from the black ground as before. Instead of encountering predominantly dark paintings with shafts and points of lighter ochres, a sensibility of light is awakened in her work.
Kantilla’s 2002–2003 paintings exhibited in her last individual show and in the 2003 Clemenger Contemporary Art Award also amount to a radical departure in her practice. Composed largely of densely textured expanses of ochre suffused with black underpainting, rather than a myriad of delicate markings, loosely applied within a structure, these tough distillations forgo intricate detail and dotting. Unlike previous works in which solid ochre shapes provide points of focus upon surfaces covered with rhythmical dots and lines, the artist is working with broader linear gestures and fields of cloudy white, intense red and yellow on black or white: chords in a four-part harmony.

Kantilla’s poetics of intimacy taught the art world that quality is not contingent upon scale. Her means were few: she needed only dots, lines and ochre colours to create infinite variations of rhythm, balance and beauty, of which no two are exactly alike. Kantilla’s works, like those of early European modernists, do not map space or tell a story but radically affirm the painted surface and thereby guarantee the autonomy of art. Yet the power and inwardness of Kantilla’s innovative art hinges on its deep resonance with customary ritual. For the viewer, Kantilla’s inescapably modern works are also highly charged with ceremony, with something spiritual and untouchable.

Kantilla’s sophisticated form of abstraction eludes explanation in terms of narrative because she strenuously pursued her art from deep within her culture. By painting, Kantilla was also singing and dancing: she sensed and invoked holistically, through a special music of natural ochre and design, the decorated objects, the painted dancers and their kinetic movement, the percussive rhythm and dynamism of ceremony. For the viewer, Kantilla’s works are highly charged with ceremony, with something spiritual and untouchable. This was her Tiwiness, her identity: it drove her to make art and was her special form of activism. Painting was central to her identity as expressed to Felicity Green: “I will paint until the day I die”.


Judith Ryan
Senior Curator, Indigenous Art


NGV: Art like never before