An Introduction to Tiwi Islander Art

The beautiful Tiwi Islands are located in the Timor Sea, 100km north of Darwin. The islands are known for their beauty and distinct culture. The word ‘Tiwi’ loosely translates as ‘one people' and the island's culture is characterised by a shared belief in keeping Tiwi culture alive. Art is an integral part of Tiwi culture, it is a means of communicating cultural traditions and ceremony. Tiwi artistic styles have been developed over time, across a diversity of mediums, incorporating and expanding upon traditional motifs (MCA, 2015).

Tiwi Designs gorgeous printed fabrics. Courtesy of Eventfinda, 2021.

The Tiwi Islands have two main inhabited islands, Melville Island and Bathurst Island. Since the islands lay in the tropical zone, the Tiwi people have three separate seasons in which they identify as: the dry season (smoke), the build up to the wet (cicadas song) and the wet (tropical storms). The seasons are an important part of the Tiwi cycle of life, they help determine the availability of foods and the timing of ceremonial rituals (Japingka Aboriginal Art, 2021). These ceremonies and Tiwi creation stories often inform Tiwi art. The Pukumani (funeral) ceremony and the Kulama (yam) ceremony are two of the key ceremonies artists focus upon. Two dimensional forms of Tiwi art, such as printmaking and painting, are influenced by the traditions enacted in these ceremonies, which include body painting and carving (MCA, 2015). 

There are three key art centres in the Tiwi Islands: Tiwi Designs, Jilamara Arts and Munupi Arts and Crafts. The majority of the island's artists are members of these centres. Located in the community of Wurrumiyanga on Bathurst Island, Tiwi Designs is one of the oldest and most artistically diverse art centres in Australia. Their artists produce a diverse array of art, including ochre paintings on bark, ironwood carvings, ceramics, limited edition prints and screen printed fabrics, in which they are best known for (Tiwi Designs, 2021). Jilamara Arts is a cultural hub for the Milikapiti community on Melville Island. The artists are renowned for their unique, traditional Tiwi artistic style. They produce contemporary works based on ceremonial body paint designs, totems and Tiwi creation stories (Jilamara Arts, 2021). Munupi Arts & Crafts Association is also located on Melville Island, along the north-western coastline. Drawing inspiration from the rich natural environment of the Tiwi Islands, Munupi artists use ochre, gouache and acrylic paint. They are highly regarded for a diversity of artistic mediums including painting, pottery, carving, weaving, screen prints, etchings, linocut prints, lithographs and screen printed textiles (Munupi Arts & Crafts Association, 2021).

Beautiful painted feature wall at Tiwi Designs. Courtesy of Sail Darwin, 2021.

Printing in the Tiwi Islands first emerged in 1969 when two young men, Bede Tungatalum and Giovanni Tipungwuti, began carving wood blocks and printing textiles. Together, Tungatalum and Tipungwuti established Tiwi Designs, and after word got out to the wider community about their works they became known as the first Indigenous printers in Australia. The duo’s work received so well in their community that it ignited a tradition of printmaking in the Tiwi Islands that continues to this day (AIATSIS, 2021). As printing techniques continue to evolve, screen printing has become one of the key forms of printing used in the islands. Tipungwuti’s father’s ancestral country is Port Hurd, Bathurst Island and his mother’s is Malawa, Bathurst Island. His skin group is Miyaringa (Pandanus) and his dance is Jarrangini (Buffalo). He was first taught woodblock printing under Madeleine Clear in the late 1960’s, and through Tiwi Designs he continued to develop his print-making practice until the mid-1980’s (MCA, 2021). His work was based upon traditional motifs and representations of Bathurst Island Wildlife. Bede Tungutalum’s country is Munupi, Melville Island, skin group is Yarrinapinilia (Red Ochre) and dance is Train. He learnt carving from his father, Gabriel Tungutalum and was first taught how to cut woodblocks for printing while attending Xavier Boys School on Bathurst Island. Currently, Tungutalum lives and works independently in Wurrumiyanga, Bathurst Island creating paintings and carvings from a broad range of mediums, but he is best known for his abstract textile designs (MCA, 2021). 

Arlipiwura (Pelican) (1969-1996 ) woodblock print by Giovanni Tipungwuti. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, 2021.

Two Fishermen (1969) woodblock print by Giovanni Tipungwuti. Courtesy of Australian Prints & Printmaking, 2021.

Tiwi Bird by Bede Tungutalum (screen printed length of fabric) designed in 1974, printed 2003. Courtesy of AGSA, 2021.

Tiwi Island artists have also become well known for their unique paintings. Despite changes in technology and access to different materials, Tiwi artists continue to use natural yellow, red and white ochres in their paintings. Many paintings portray traditional body paint designs from important traditional ceremonies. One of these artists is Timothy Cook, a member of Jilamara Arts, who first began exhibiting his work in the 1990’s. His country is Goose Creek, Melville Island, skin group is Marntupuni (House Fly) and dance is Tarduwuli (Shark). Featuring circular and cross motifs, Cook’s paintings are strongly connected to aspects of Tiwi ceremonial practice. Many of his works feature the Kalama and Pukumani ceremonies, as well as the story of Purukapali, a Tiwi ancestral figure. Raelene Kerinauia is another incredible Jilamara artist who’s country is Pickertaramoor, Melville Island, skin group is Yikwani (Sun) and Dance is Yirrikapayi (Crocodile). She is known for her unique paintings created with a kayimwagakimi - a traditional Tiwi wooden painting comb. With the kayimwagakimi and ochre, Kerinauia creates distinctive paintings full of colour and texture on paper, canvas, fabric and bark (MCA, 2021).

Kulama (2018) by Timothy Cook, ochres painted on linen. Courtesy of Vivien Anderson Gallery, 2021.

Kayimwagakimi Jilamara (2006) by Raelene Kerinauia, ochres painted on linen. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art, 2021.

The Tiwi Islands have a unique and vibrant artistic culture that brings together tradition and some contemporary techniques. Tiwi people are proud to share their culture through art, and continue to use natural materials such as ochre and ironwood from the land to create their art. Through using these materials, they reinforce the strength of their country and culture (AIATSIS, 2021). If you ever have the opportunity to visit the beautiful Tiwi Islands, we highly recommend visiting each of the art centres to see the beautiful artworks and fabrics in person!