Book Review

Tiwi: Art/History/Culture
Jennifer Isaacs
The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne University, 2012

2012 was a marvellous year for the publication of important, richly-illustrated tomes on Aboriginal art—from the serious Larrikitj, the Kerry Stokes Collection of Yolgnu burial poles to the warm-hearted Tjanpi Desert Weavers. But was anything as comprehensive as Jennifer Isaacs’s Tiwi: Art/History/Culture?

What a magnificent effort, the result of an all-too-rare feature of this strange business called Aboriginal art—continuity. Jennifer Isaacs has been involved with Tiwi life and creativity for forty years; and it shows in her range of references, her depth of understanding and, occasionally, her partiality. Having produced the still useful, if populist, Australia’s Living Heritage (1984), Isaacs has been sharing her understanding for a long time. There are not many like her—far too many seek to act as gate-keepers to ‘The Knowledge’; others seek only to profit from their connections to it, however tenuous.

So, who are the Tiwi? An exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia in 2007 translated the name of both the people and the pair of islands north of Darwin (we call them Bathurst and Melville) as, ‘We the only people’. Isaacs does not go quite that far, though she does reveal that, in the rich and still influential Tiwi mythology involving the man who invented death for them, Purukapali, he left the islands for Tipampunumi, the Land of the Dead, aka the Australian mainland, sixty kilometres away! Which does suggest an uncaring isolation in their insular Garden of Eden. She also gives justified space to my old friend, Pedro Wonaeamirri to make a ringing statement of difference between Tiwi and mainland Aborigines. The thirty-eight year old artist and community leader at Milikapiti also worries about the lack of interest in ceremony and the Old Tiwi language by a generation barely younger than himself. A book like this could help him.

For there is constant linkage between the past and the present; and in the Tiwi world, those links have often permitted the involvement of outsiders like Isaacs. She lists all the intruders into that world: from the Portuguese who tried to take slaves, to the British colonists who established Fort Dundas in 1824 as part of their efforts to deny a French or Dutch presence in New Holland, but had been driven out by 1829. ‘Tiwi still wonder why the British came and stayed in a place that didn’t belong to them’, she asserts, suggesting an untouched purity of world-view that has been comparatively muted on the mainland. It took a determined white buffalo-hunter—Joe Cooper—with the help of some well-armed Arnhemlanders, to come and stay. Interestingly, the Arnhem influence penetrated even into the art. 

Then came the Church, of course—and the Catholic Father Gsell was smart enough to ‘marry’ any number of young Tiwi girls in order to hand them on to his nuns for an education! Many a good Christian name survives today.

But so does a culture and an artistic ethos that depends upon the Purukapali mythology to deliver a creation story based on human figures in a way that no other Aboriginal group in Australia does, as far as I know. And such human ancestors naturally lead on to significant statuary—a key element in Tiwi art, as it has been in Christianity, Buddhism, etcetera. Mind you, an even longer-term student of Tiwi culture than Isaacs, Jane Goodale, who first visited on the Geographical Society ‘expedition’ of 1954 under Charles Mountford, did once tell me that Mountford was ‘a meddler who persuaded the Tiwi to paint stories on bark, when story-telling had had no place in Tiwi art before’. I’m quite happy that he did!

It is not a conclusion you would draw from the several versions of the foundation myth in Isaacs’s book—both black and white. But I see the Purukapali story as one of those wonderful pieces of evidence that Aboriginal story-telling here and in Arnhemland still recalls the Matriarchy, and is honest enough to report its demise. So, at first there was Murtankala, the Earth Mother who arrived with three children in a tunga/basket—a universal signifier of woman the provider. She ordered a female sun to rise and shed light on the world (carrying ochre to cause red clouds at sunrise and sunset). Then she departed—allowing Purukapali to take centre stage, find a wife (Bima) and have a son, and then reveal the weakness of women. For his brother took advantage of the lovely Bima, enjoying her company for such an extended period that the son who might have been future of the Tiwi world died of sun-stroke. Brother Tapara offered to bring him back to life; but Purukapali chose to fight Tapara instead (sending his battered face up to become that of the moon), and declared that death would now be the norm, carrying his son above his head into the sea.

He also decreed the appropriate Pukumani ceremony (to honour the dead) for them both; and the Pukumani poles that were collected by Stuart Scougall and Tony Tuckson for the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW)—the first Australian acceptance of Aboriginal art as art—are the result. Jennifer Isaacs also suggests that ‘the aggressive painting and total abstraction’ of Tiwi art reciprocally crept into Tuckson’s own work.

Thereafter, the nexus between Tiwi art makers and white art collectors is at the core of the book—including the fascinating revelation that the major collector and trader, Dorothy Bennett came to discover Aboriginal art as Dr Scougall’s secretary! And it would seem that we may have her to thank for collecting works by Isaacs’s favourite artist—the comparatively unknown Cardo Kerinauia. From the start, the author promotes the ‘fiercely independent Kerinauia family at Paru’, just outside the Mission’s control. Many of them had the advantage of gaining confidence in their dealings with the world through war service in coastal patrols. Later, Kerinauia is hailed as ‘Tiwi’s most dynamic carver’.

You would not know this if you cross-reference to Kathy Barnes’s ATSIC–sponsored Good Craftsmen and Tiwi Art, which lists Kerinauia without suggesting he was bought by any Australian institution. The usually-reliable Bonhams auction house manages to mis-attribute a rare appearance of his work. But I bow to Isaacs’s superior knowledge—though I wonder whether she spent quite as much time at Milikapiti, the rival art centre to Paru, and wish there were more convincing artworks by Kerinauia shown in her book. For instance, there is an extraordinary unpainted work that has a medieval European craftsman’s simple beauty about it, which appears in Lance Bennett’s Japanese volume accompanying a tour of the Bennett Collection to Japan. It was later bought by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, and is now with the National Museum. 

A joy in Tiwi is Jenny Isaacs’s willingness to slip in a politically incorrect googly. Early on she damns the Federal Government Intervention as ‘bad for staunchly isolationist communities like the Tiwi, with a culture based on land’. Sadly, the Tiwi seem to have been conned by no less a figure than Mal Brough, who attended a meeting on the islands at which no local dared to ask any questions, allowing him to introduce the privatisation of community land. ‘We living in future now’, Isaacs reports a long-faced Tiwi as telling her.

And that future includes a disastrous attempt at forestry in which the good ol’ commercial side of things was managed first by Great Southern Plantations (bust) and then by Gunn’s (in receivership). What is worse, the advent of plantations has disrupted remote journeying on the islands, hence the passing on of lore and hunting skills to a new generation. The ancient and timeless trampled by the new.

And then there’s Isaacs’s ‘shocking’ admission that, once they had been discovered by the AGNSW, ‘Tiwi artists saw an opportunity to also gain income from outsiders’. Of course, their prime motive was cultural. But the gate-keepers do not like you to mention money!

I have learnt so much—and still have questions, which has got to be a good thing. I do not yet have an insight into the symbolism behind significant coral paintings that appear in the book. And I understand that Pukumani Poles—an ever-developing form as technology and outside cultural influences intersect with the core of local traditions—are created to signify a person’s life; his/her character and achievements. But how can you create such a pole for an art gallery or white collector?

And finally, I would just love to know more about the unexplained (and inexplicable?) 1911 photo by Baldwin Spencer of an impassioned, solo Buffalo Dance in which the surrounding chorus of men seem to be holding each other’s penises!

Jennifer Isaacs, Tiwi: Art/History/Culture, The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne University, 2012.


Jennifer Isaacs, Tiwi: Art/History/Culture, The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne University, 2012. ISBN: (Hardback): 9780522858556. RRP: $120 AUD