To the Tiwi, contemporary culture does not exclude traditional culture. On the contrary, the inextricable link between life on the islands today and ancient cultural traditions is what creates the strong sense of Tiwi identity in both the people and their art. As …for most indigenous people, the past is a living force pertinent to their existence today and ensuring their cultural survival into the future.1
Ceremonial life is one of the nurturing forces in contemporary Indigenous culture in different ways across Australia. It is also a great opportunity for the creative production of art. For the Tiwi people of Bathurst and Melville Islands, to the north of Darwin in the Top End of the Northern Territory, art and cultural life are inter-woven and inseparable.
The mourning ceremony usually takes place some time after an individual’s death, with the in-laws of the deceased being ‘comissioned’ to create the tutini. Their bodies ritually painted in yirrinkuruwu pwoja (pukumani body design) - often the same designs which are painted onto the tutini and tunga - the artists are assisted throughout the ceremony by other family members, who prepare food for the artists for the duration of the pukumani rite.2
The finished tutini are then installed over the deceased’s grave - at times accompanied by Christian objects such as wooden crosses and flower wreaths – and left to the elements to deteriorate over time; weathered by tropical storms, fire and termites, all of which take their toll. Eventually, the tutini will collapse back into the earth, at which point the spirit of the person they represent also becomes one with their traditional lands again.3 The pukumani mortuary ceremony is the inspiration behind the tunga. This ancient tradition incorporates the bark baskets, which are placed on top of the Pukumani grave posts during mourning ceremonies. Such active ceremonial activity provides the opportunity for creative involvement in body painting and the production of tutini, armbands and tunga.
Alice Wamba’s Bark basket with sun pattern 1974 has correspondences with bark painting from the area of a similar date where the natural pigments are applied to the sinewy bark fibre in designs relating a particular clan affiliation and further the depiction of plants, animals, constellations and other natural phenomena - Wamba’s design depicts a sun pattern.
Jeannie Dibatu’s Bark basket with a pattern of vertical stripes 1974 has missing fibre and loss of pigment suggesting its use for ceremony before its transition to a gallery domain. The form has been fashioned by folding a bark sheet in half and sewing up the sides, while the bark is still moist. The form is filled with padding, or sand, so that it may maintain its shape absorbs the moisture from the bark casing. The bark fibre, or bush string, is also used to stitch and join the edges/sides together and the finished basket is then painted.
Bonaventure Timpaepatua’s Pukumani basket 1982 with its grid design in thickly applied and complete pigment is likely to have been made directly for the outside market although such items are in use today, the ‘grid’ design relates strongly in mark-making to pukumani poles (and body painting), where a recurring pattern is achieved with a traditional tool, a wooden comb dipped into the pigment.
Beyond its inclusion in pukumani ceremony to adorn grave posts, the tunga – like sacred dilly bags elsewhere in Arnhem Land - has its place in a creation story of Melville Island:
Geoff Campion Nyinawanga’s and Jimmy Yanganiny’s Carved and painted dilly bag with sacred bat dropping design 1984 is also made of wood, an unusual medium for the dilly bag form, which is usually woven with fibre. Both the wooden form of the vessel and the painted surface lends credence to the bag having ceremonial associations. The use of wood in this instance suggests a close association with the body, for the bark of a tree is analogous with the skin of the person. Historically, in Arnhem Land dilly bags were used in an interim stage of burial. Following their disinterment, the bones were kept in a dilly bag or bark parcel, often carried/worn by a close family member, before finally being deposited in a hollow log coffin. The new outer layer of fibre – whether pandanus or bark, invests the bones, thought of as the deceased’s soul, with a new skin and hence body.
The painted surface of the dilly bag also lends an association with body painting for ceremony. The painted design on Carved and painted dilly bag with sacred bat dropping design is a Ganalbingu design depicting the ancestral flying foxes who taught the Yirritja moiety people of Central Arnhem Land the laws of age-grading and, in particular, circumcision. The pattern depicts a particular site, which is a cave in a hill; the droppings of the bat falling on the cave floor expressed by the flower-like motif. This is the key iconographic design, which identifies the Ganalbingu people. In painting these designs, the Dhuwa moiety Rembarrnga makers of the dilly bag fulfill djungayi, or custodial rights to the painter Yangganiny of the opposite Yirritja moiety.
Margaret Rinybuma, Michael Gadjawala’s and Nancy Bandiayama’s Golbordok (traditional bush honey-collecting bags) 1989 are made of pandanus, the tightly woven surface painted with natural pigments, again imparting a ceremonial association. Woven and dyed dilly bags are commonly used for hunting and the containment of personal possessions, whereas painted bags are more commonly the domain of ceremony. These bags, however, have a break in the painted bands towards the back end of the bag, (as often woven ridges of more sculpted bags are also broken at the back) to allow a smooth surface which is the area in contact with the wearer’s body. The close weave is indicative of honey-collecting bags made for hunting sugar bag or wild/bush honey. In addition to a tight weave, the embedding of wax into the base ensures a 'fluid-tight' vessel.
Mary Mewal’s Yukuwa (yams) 1984 have an association with the honey spirit. Mewal is from the Wurrkiganydjarr people of the eucalypt forests of Central Arnhem Land. It was through these lands that a Dhuwa honey ancestor, sometimes called Mewal in its female manifestation, travelled through from the east, linking Dhuwa clans. Stories commonly tell of how the honey spirit cut down trees and water and honey gushed forth and imbue the land with the creative forces of the honey – a metaphor for seasonal replenishment and abundance of the landscape. The yams, which are the subject of this sculpture, allude to the food or harvest of the travelling spirits and signal ‘increase’ of the food in this area. As well, yams across clans in Arnhem Land generically bear connections to the spirit world, including mortuary ceremony.
Brenda L Croft
1. Dunn, Jackie for Artbank, Kiripuranji: contemporary art from the Tiwi Islands (Sydney: Artbank 2002 p 4)
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