Saturday, June 18, 2011

ArtCloth from the Tiwi Islands
Art Review

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

This article first appeared in the Summer Edition (2007) of Jane Dunnewold’s ezine – Art Cloth Quarterly – for which I was the guest editor. For other Art Reviews on this blog site use - "SEARCH THIS BLOG" tool - employing keyword: "Review".

The Art of Making ArtCloth from the Tiwi Islands
There are approximately 65 Aboriginal tribes and clans in Australia. The Tiwi people are one such clan. The word Tiwi means: “…we the chosen people”. There are approximately 2500 Tiwi speaking people living on two tropical islands, Bathurst and Melville, which are located in the North-West of Australia, just 80-100 kilometers off the coast of the city of Darwin (Australia). The Tiwi Islanders have for more than 20,000 years lived off the land and the sea. An Aboriginal land council representing the Tiwi people was established in 1978.

Tiwi Islands - Bathurst and Melville Island - off Continental Australia.

The “old” people have handed down stories of contact with Japanese “pearlers” and Portuguese slave traders. Since at least from 1650 AD Macassan (Malaysian) and Indonesian fishermen from Sulawesi visited northern Australian waters and traded with the Aboriginals for tortoise and pearl shells. In April of 1705 the Dutch landed on Melville Island. In 1788 a fleet of eleven ships under the command of Captain Phillip arrived in Botany Bay (just south of Sydney Harbor) carrying a cargo of 700 convicts to be- gin a new British colony within Aboriginal Australia. In 1818 Phillip King explored the Tiwi Islands. By 1824 the English established a settlement in Nguiu, in Melville, and a Catholic mission was established on Bathurst Island in 1911.

Tiwi art, culture and language were different from mainland Aboriginal groups, as there was little contact between them. The “Dreaming” or creation stories (Pukumani) stemmed from Mudungkala – an old blind woman who arose from the ground on Melville Island, with her three infants. She found it too large, and so created a strait to separate Melville from Bathurst. After she made them habitable she vanished. Nobody knows where she came from or, having completed her work, why she disappeared. With the death of her grandson, Jiani, the creation period came to a close, transforming the “creators” into various manifestations (animals, plants, natural forces or heavenly bodies) and establishing the cycle of daily events such as dark and light. The structure of Tiwi society is based on these stories.

The traditional form of mark making was derived from the creation and associated stories (Pukumani). On the Tiwi Islands the art of body painting for ceremony has been practiced for thousands of years. The decorative patterning of the Tiwi people is far more abstract than continental Australian Aboriginal works. It is used on tutini (graveposts or Pukumani poles) and tungas (bark baskets) to showcase an art style, iconography and ritual design specific to a clan or language group.

The traditional methods of producing the artwork of the Tiwi people centre on the distinctive Tiwi four color palette: white, yellow, red and black. The white and yellow ochre is dug from the western side of Bathurst Island. Heating yellow ochre produces red ochre.

Black is produced from charcoal. It should be noted that ochre is any of a class of natural earths (which are mixtures of hydrate oxides of iron) with various earthy materials, ranging in color from pale yellow to orange to red.

The contemporary art movements involving hand printing, dyeing or painting on fabric were introduced to Aboriginal Australia in the middle of the last century by non-Aboriginal art advisors, who organized workshops to teach these non-traditional techniques. Hence, contemporary textile markings are produced using modern fabrics, dyestuff and pigments as well as more traditional methods of coloring. Bede Tungutalum, a famous Tiwi ArtCloth artist, who draws on his Tiwi artistic traditions to produce his printed ArtCloth, observed: “It is good to show the other Australians that we can produce beautiful works of art, using white man’s techniques but doing Aboriginal way of art”.

Tiwi textiles are not underpinned with historical traditions related to production, prestige and wealth. In 1969 Tiwi Design was established at Nguiu. Initially it was set up to produce woodblock prints of totemic images (e.g. fish, bird and lizard motifs). Aboriginal artist and the founder of Tiwi Design, Bede Tungutalum, first learned design and printing in school on Bathurst Island. In 1969, after he finished school, he established a screen-printing business called Tiwi Designs with Tiwi artist Giovanni Tipungwuti at Nguiu on Bathurst Island - initially printing works on paper, and then textiles (from 1971). Run by men, between 1979 and 1988 the workshop developed a repertoire of 120 designs, which were inspired by the flora and fauna of the island and the distinctive crosshatched patterning that decorated the Pukamani or mortuary poles. Today, the print workshop takes up about a third of the total workspace making printed textiles, a cornerstone of Tiwi Design.

Some of Bede Tungatalum images are included here. His Yam design is on cotton drill. A yam is the starchy root of various climbing vines, much cultivated for food (e.g. sweet potato). The yam ceremony is important for the Tiwi Islanders, since the complete yam ceremony occurred at the close of creation time and signals the preparation of the poisonous Kulama yam as food.

Yam. Bede Tungatalum. Cotton Drill. Image courtesy of Tiwi Design.

The second image is a Snake design on cotton drill. The Tiwi Islanders hunt carpet snake. The snake may be an agent for sickness or healing. The Snake design exhibits the distinctive crosshatched patterning that decorates the Pukamani or mortuary poles and so in this instance, indicates sickness.

Snake. Bede Tungatalum. Cotton Drill. Image courtesy of Tiwi Design.

Although textiles at Tiwi Design have been predominantly the domains of male artists, there are also important female artists including Jean Baptiste Apuatimi and Natalie Tungatalum. Jean Baptiste Apuatimi is one of the most senior female artists. She was taught to create designs associated with important ceremonies and narrative by her late husband Declan Apuatimi, famous in his lifetime as a wood carver and painter. Jean Baptiste Apuatimi’s Jilamara is printed on raw silk. Jilamara is translated in English as “design” but is associated with the yoi ceremony, which is associated with body painting. The body painting imagery is used as a way of masking people’s identity so the deceased cannot reclaim the loved ones. Jilamara also decorates the tutini in honor of the dead.

Jilamara. Jean Baptiste Apuatimi. Raw Silk. Image courtesy of Tiwi Design.

The Carpet Snake by Declan Apuatimi is printed on light cotton. Large concentric circles are featured, and often appear as the main element of Tiwi painting, representing the Kulama circle or dancing ground. These circles are icons of the Tiwi spiritual belief.

Carpet Snake. Declan Apuatimi. Light Cotton. Image courtesy of Tiwi Design.

Osmond Kantilla, a master printer and senior designer at Tiwi Design, has over twenty years experience working with printed textiles. His general print practice involves using ready mixed pigment print pastes. He prints one-color designs onto pre-dyed fabrics in various colour combinations often creating a blended effect by pulling two or more colors through the screen simultaneously. He sees their role as a means of recording traditional practices that are disappearing or under threat of disappearing.

In Kantilla’s Blanket a visual language appears as a sophisticated pattern, which overlays twill and brocade fabric. The markings refer to country and kin. It is an iron pigment screen-printed on fabric 203 cm x 138 cm. On the other hand, Kantilla re-developed the design of Giovanni Tipungwuti for his textile length named Jurrukuni (Owl). It is a black screen-print on rust-red cotton, which was showcased in the Powerhouse Museum (Sydney) in 1996 and is now part of the museum’s collection.

Blanket. Osmond Kantilla. Cotton Drill. The University of Wollongong Art Collection (Australia). Image courtesy of Tiwi Design.

Jurrukuni. Osmond Kantilla. Rust-Red Cotton. Powerhouse Museum Collection (Australia). Image courtesy of Tiwi Design.

The abstract patterns and visual language of these contemporary Tiwi ArtCloth artists, demonstrates the continuing vitality of the totemic mark making, which were traditionally painted on the body, but are now translated to silk-screen designs for fabric. Their works are exhibited in galleries in Australia and internationally, preserving and promoting Tiwi culture through their visual art practice.

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