The Tiwi Islands – Culture and Country

The Tiwi Islands (Bathurst Island and Melville Island) are located 100 km north of Darwin. The dangerous waters separating the islands from mainland Australia have allowed the art and culture of the Tiwi people to develop in relative isolation.

Tiwi art and language are markedly distinct from those of nearby Arnhem Land. Compared with Arnhem Land art, Tiwi art often appears to be abstract and geometric. With its strong patterns and use of colour, Tiwi art is recognised as being very attractive and highly collectable.

Bathurst and Melville Islands are beautiful tropical islands that are home to nearly 2500 Tiwi-speaking people. There are three major art centres located on the Tiwi Islands: two on Melville Island (Munupi Arts and Crafts Association at Pirlangimpi and Jilamara Arts and Crafts at Milikapiti), and one on Bathurst Island (Tiwi Design at Nguiu).

Map of Tiwi Islands

The community of Milikapiti has a population of around 400, and about 40 artists work regularly at the Jilamara art centre. As well as young and emerging artists, Jilamara represents Kitty Kantilla, Freda Warlapinni, Pedro Wonaeamirri, Leon Puruntatameri and Maryanne Mungatopi. There are approximately 300 people at Pirlangimpi where Munupi is an active art centre. Some of the best known artists from Munupi include Reppie Orsto (see the Paintings Gallery for Reppie’s work) and Thecla Puruntatameri.

On the Tiwi Islands the art of body painting for ceremony has been practised for thousands of years. The decorative patterning of the Tiwi was also used on tutini(graveposts or Pukumani poles) and tungas (bark baskets). The traditional form of mark making was derived from the creation story Palaneri and associated stories – for more, see the pages on Tiwi creation stories and Tiwi ceremonies.

Today Tiwi artists produce high quality paintings, fabrics and sculpture for exhibition in Australia and overseas. There is no ‘story’ as such for individual paintings. The main themes relate to the Pukumani ceremony and pwoja (body painting). The body painting imagery is used as a way of masking people’s identity so the deceased cannot reclaim their loved ones. Detailed jilamara (design) also decorates the tutini in honour of the dead. These poles are now recreated for the fine art market, and are always made of cured ironwood. Smaller figurative and bird sculptures are also available.

Tiwi is the main language spoken on Melville and Bathurst Islands. Whilst English is taught at schools as a second language, the Tiwi communicate principally in their own language. Since contact with the western world the Tiwi language has changed and younger Tiwi now have difficulty understanding the older version.

Tiwi country

The land on both islands is heavily forested, mainly with eucalyptus, stringy bark ironwood, woolly-butt, and paperbark. There are also tall cabbage palms, pandanus, wild plum, bush apple and yams provide a rich but seasonal source of food. The bush provides a habitat for many different animals, including wallaby, possum, bandicoot, snake, lizard, and numerous bird species. Waterholes fed from freshwater springs are often surrounded by pockets of monsoonal vineforest. Open marshlands and swamps can be found near the mouths of some waterways.

Beaches on the islands vary, with clay cliffs, rocky outcrops and expanses of white sand. The sands provide a haven for turtles to lay their eggs, the rocks provide a habitat for oysters to grow in abundance and the cliffs provide the varieties of ochre used by the Tiwi for painting. Crocodiles, sting rays, dugong, turtle, sharks, manta rays and many varieties of fish can be found in the waters surrounding the islands.

Mangroves line the estuaries and some of the shorelines on both Bathurst and Melville island. The mangroves provide a habitat for a multitude of sea life: including cockles, mud crabs, mangrove ‘worms’ (actually shellfish) and many varieties of fish, especially Barramundi. Fruit bats, also known as flying foxes, are commonly found in the mangroves along with a multitude of birds. Tiwi believe ningawi – mysterious little people who are linked to ceremony – also inhabit the mangroves.

Traditional culture

Each community has a store selling essential foods, but hunting for traditional food is still an important part of Tiwi life. On the land, people hunt for wallaby, lizards, possums, carpet snakes, pig, buffalo, flying foxes, bandicoot, turtle and seagull eggs and magpie geese. From the sea people hunt for turtle, crocodiles, dugong and they catch a large variety of fish. Tiwis collect cockles, oysters, yuwuli ‘worms’, mud mussels and crabs, bush apples, plums and yams, sugar bag (native honey), mangoes, cashews, pawpaw and coconuts. The social aspects of hunting remain important – although traditional tools in many cases have been replaced by rifles, plastic buckets and 4WD vehicles. For Tiwi people, hunting, collecting and cooking food is a shared activity.

Dancing or yoi is a part of everyday life on the Tiwi islands. Tiwi inherit their totemic dance (for example, magpie geese) from their mother. There are a number of different skin groups on the Tiwi islands. These are patri-lineally handed down from generation to generation. Different dances are performed for different reasons. Some dance spontaneously happens at celebrations as an expression of emotion or some happen in a more structured manner at ceremonies. Dancing plays an important role in ceremonial events, for example, during the Pukumani ceremony the dances performed reflect the relationship to the deceased.

Narrative dances are performed and can depict everyday life or historical events. The bombing of Darwin in the Second World War has been portrayed through song and dance as have many other significant events. Singing always accompanies dancing and new songs are continually being created. The Tiwi traditionally paint their body for ceremony using natural ochre pigments. This tradition of mark making is the foundation for modern Tiwi art.