The Tiwi Islands (Bathurst Island and Melville
Island) are located 100 km north of Darwin. The dangerous waters
separating the islands from mainland Australia have allowed
the art and culture of the Tiwi people to develop in relative
Tiwi art and language are markedly distinct
from those of nearby Arnhem Land. Compared with Arnhem Land
art, Tiwi art often appears to be abstract and geometric. With
its strong patterns and use of colour, Tiwi art is recognised
as being very attractive and highly collectable.
Bathurst and Melville Islands are beautiful
tropical islands that are home to nearly 2500 Tiwi-speaking
people. There are three major art centres located on the Tiwi
Islands: two on Melville Island (Munupi Arts and Crafts Association
at Pirlangimpi and Jilamara Arts and Crafts at Milikapiti),
and one on Bathurst Island (Tiwi Design at Nguiu).
The community of Milikapiti has a population
of around 400, and about 40 artists work regularly at the Jilamara
art centre. As well as young and emerging artists, Jilamara
has been the work place for distinguished elder artists including Kitty Kantilla, Freda Warlapinni, Pedro Wonaeamirri,
Leon Puruntatameri, Timothy Cook and Maryanne Mungatopi. There are approximately
300 people at Pirlangimpi where Munupi is an active art centre.
Some of the best known artists from Munupi include Susan Wanji Wanji, Reppie Orsto
and Thecla Puruntatameri.
On the Tiwi Islands the art of body painting
for ceremony has been practised for thousands of years. The
decorative patterning of the Tiwi was also used on tutini
(graveposts or Pukumani poles) and tungas (bark baskets).
The traditional form of mark making was derived from the creation
story Palaneri and associated stories - for more, see the pages
on Tiwi creation stories and Tiwi
Today Tiwi artists produce high quality paintings,
fabrics and sculpture for exhibition in Australia and overseas. There
is no 'story' as such for individual paintings. The main themes relate
to the Pukumani ceremony and pwoja (body painting). The body
painting imagery is used as a way of masking people's identity so
the deceased cannot reclaim their loved ones. Detailed jilamara
(design) also decorates the tutini in honour of the dead.
These poles are now recreated for the fine art market, and are always
made of cured ironwood. Smaller figurative and bird sculptures are
Tiwi is the main language spoken on Melville and
Bathurst Islands. Whilst English is taught at schools as a second
language, the Tiwi communicate principally in their own language.
Since contact with the western world the Tiwi language has changed
and younger Tiwi now have difficulty understanding the older version.
The land on both islands is heavily forested, mainly
with eucalyptus, stringy bark ironwood, woolly-butt, and paperbark.
There are also tall cabbage palms, pandanus, wild plum, bush apple
and yams provide a rich but seasonal source of food. The bush provides
a habitat for many different animals, including wallaby, possum, bandicoot,
snake, lizard, and numerous bird species. Waterholes fed from freshwater
springs are often surrounded by pockets of monsoonal vineforest. Open
marshlands and swamps can be found near the mouths of some waterways.
Beaches on the islands vary, with clay cliffs, rocky
outcrops and expanses of white sand. The sands provide a haven for
turtles to lay their eggs, the rocks provide a habitat for oysters
to grow in abundance and the cliffs provide the varieties of ochre
used by the Tiwi for painting. Crocodiles, sting rays, dugong, turtle,
sharks, manta rays and many varieties of fish can be found in the
waters surrounding the islands.
Mangroves line the estuaries and some of the shorelines
on both Bathurst and Melville island. The mangroves provide a habitat
for a multitude of sea life: including cockles, mud crabs, mangrove
'worms' (actually shellfish) and many varieties of fish, especially
Barramundi. Fruit bats, also known as flying foxes, are commonly found
in the mangroves along with a multitude of birds. Tiwi believe ningawi
- mysterious little people who are linked to ceremony - also inhabit
Each community has a store selling essential foods,
but hunting for traditional food is still an important part of Tiwi
life. On the land, people hunt for wallaby, lizards, possums, carpet
snakes, pig, buffalo, flying foxes, bandicoot, turtle and seagull
eggs and magpie geese. From the sea people hunt for turtle, crocodiles,
dugong and they catch a large variety of fish. Tiwis collect cockles,
oysters, yuwuli 'worms', mud mussels and crabs, bush apples, plums
and yams, sugar bag (native honey), mangoes, cashews, paw paw and coconuts.
The social aspects of hunting remain important - although traditional
tools in many cases have been replaced by rifles, plastic buckets
and 4WD vehicles. For Tiwi people, hunting, collecting and cooking
food is a shared activity.
Dancing or yoi is a part of everyday life
on the Tiwi islands. Tiwi inherit their totemic dance (for example,
magpie geese) from their mother. There are a number of different
skin groups on the Tiwi islands. These are patri-lineally handed
down from generation to generation. Different dances are performed
for different reasons. Some dance spontaneously happens at celebrations
as an expression of emotion or some happen in a more structured
manner at ceremonies. Dancing plays an important role in ceremonial
events, for example, during the Pukumani ceremony the dances
performed reflect the relationship to the deceased.
Narrative dances are performed and can depict everyday
life or historical events. The bombing of Darwin in the Second World
War has been portrayed through song and dance as have many other significant
events. Singing always accompanies dancing and new songs are continually
being created. The Tiwi traditionally paint their body for ceremony
using natural ochre pigments. This tradition of mark making is the
foundation for modern Tiwi art.