History and Culture

Art of the Tiwi

Tiwi art and culture

The art of the Tiwi people in Melville and Bathurst Islands is unique. About 1500 to 1600 people currently speak the Tiwi language - a sign of cultural strength and continuity in the face of social change.

Tiwi art can not be subsumed within mainland Aboriginal art: it is separate and distinct as the Tiwi have always considered themselves to be. The word Tiwi means, “we people”, as if other human beings are outside their frame of reference, or worldview.

Such separateness is a product of Tiwi isolation. Their homelands - Melville and Bathurst Islands lie about 80 kilometers from Darwin - being separated from the mainland by about 40 kilometers of open sea at the narrowest point. The larger of the two islands is 3,850 square kilometers in area while Bathurst has an area of 1,280 square kilometers. The islands are separated from each other by Apsley Strait, but share a tropical climate, rain forests, long stretches of white, sandy beaches and abundant wildlife, unsullied by supermarket chains, service stations, asphalt jungles and consumerism - the mark of murrintwawi (white) society.

The atmosphere, crystalline light and isolation of Melville Island are captured by the photographs of famous Australian painter Russell Drysdale (1912-81) who visited Snake Bay (Milikapiti) in 1956.  Like other visitors before him, Drysdale was moved to record the idyllic environment and the unique spectacle of the pukumani mourning ceremony.

For the Tiwi, the mainland visible from their islands is known as Timbanbinbumi, the home of the dead, a place where their spirits go after death.  Tiwi explain that Melville and Bathurst Islands were created by Mudungkala, an elderly woman who left her children there to live on the islands before moving south an disappearing.  Tiwi believe her spirit went to mainland Australia.

Tiwi culture differs markedly from that of mainland Aboriginal groups, from who they have been isolated for most of their history. Evidence of this isolation is found in their distinct language, ceremonies, material culture and sexual politics.

There are no secret rituals. Participation in ceremonies is open to anyone regardless of age and sex. Every Tiwi individual is encouraged to participate in the various realms of are - song, dance, body painting, ceremonial-basket making and the carving and painting of ceremonial spears and grave posts. 

Emphasis is placed on innovation and individuality, rather than of reproducing inherited designs according to certain totemic groups or kinship systems.

Tiwi material culture is also distinctive in its form and elaborate painted decoration, based on patterns of lines and dots derived from ritual boy paintings.  The spectacular tutini (grave posts), arawinikiri (barbed spears) and wangatunga (bark baskets), made by men and women for pukumani ceremonies are not found elsewhere.

In place of the curved boomerangs and spear throwers characteristic of mainland Aboriginal technology, Tiwi make murrukuwunga (fighting clubs with bulbed heads) and yirriwala (paddle-shaped clubs), both now largely used as percussion instruments in ceremony.

The two main cultural events for the Tiwi are the pukumani mourning and kulama initiation ceremonies.  The pukumani ceremony is performed to ensure the safe passage of the dead to their spirit home, according to laws laid down by the ancestor, Purukuparli.  He was responsible for bringing death to the Tiwi whom he showed how to conduct their burial ceremonies, carve tutini (grave posts), dance and sing.

Text from “Art of the Tiwi”.

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