Speaking Between Worlds: Tiwi Art and Contemporary Art

Quentin Sprague

Spend some time reading about the art of the Tiwi Islands, which lie one hundred kilometres off the coast of Darwin, and it’s hard not to notice a recurrent theme. The Tiwi, we are told, are a people unto themselves, distant both culturally and geographically. This theme extends to their very name, which is generally translated as ‘we, the people’, as if there are no others.

Timothy Cook
Kulama  2012
Natural earth pigments and synthetic polymer binder on canvas, 155 x 224 cm
Artbank collection, purchased 2012

In addition, the Tiwi are “fierce defenders of their island home”, as a recent curatorial text put it. They were historically feared by settler Australians—who attempted, and failed to establish a military outpost there at the turn of last century—and largely avoided by the Macassan traders that for hundreds, and perhaps thousands of years made seasonal visits to surrounding areas. The Tiwi artist Pedro Wonaeamirri is among those who encourage this reading. He once stated, unequivocally, that “Tiwi art belongs to the people of the Tiwi Islands. We have completely different culture and different language from mainland Aboriginal people.”

There is a certain neatness to this narrative. As the art historian Darren Jorgensen recently noted: “The idea of the Tiwi as an isolated group, different to mainland Aboriginal Australian people, has suited the scholarship on the islands.”(147) This is of course partly because it is true that the Tiwi are culturally distinct; they are as different from mainland Aboriginal groups as the Yolngu people from Arnhem Land are from the Pintupi of the Western Desert. It is worth noting however, that this position has a distinctly ethnographic ring to it. In relation to art the inference is clear: art provides a tool for one culture to understand another.

If this is all true, it presents a certain problem. If Tiwi art is focused squarely on the reaffirmation of tradition, how might we begin to truly picture it in terms of the dynamic currents of contemporary art within which it now flows?



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