Jilamara Arts and Crafts - Art Collector

Issue 68, April - June 2014

The history of Tiwi art has had its ups and downs but appears to be firmly in the ascendant now as a cadre of talented painters and sculptors take center stage.

Timothy Cook, Kumala, 2013. Natural ochres with acrylic binder on linen, 120 x 150cm. Courtesy: the artist and Jilamara Arts and Crafts Association.

In 1958 Tony Tuckson, then deputy director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, visited Snake Bay, the tiny Tiwi Island community now known as Milikapiti. Tuckson was hoping to secure a significant commission for the gallery’s collection and his brief visit proved to be a productive one. The 17 tutuni (carved burial poles) that a group of local artists created in response to their request not only gave the gallery an enduringly iconic artwork, it also formed one of the most important early Tiwi engagements with the broader context of the art world.

Regardless of this significant early achievement, by the time Jilamara Arts and Crafts Association opened in Milikapiti in 1988, the community, and Tiwi art more broadly, had largely fallen out of art world favour. Focus had long shifted towards developments in the Western Desert and Tiwi artists had generally been overlooked as collectors and institutions scrambled to identify the next big thing. As an adult education initiative it was expected that Jilamara would simply provide training and support for the production of screenprinted fabrics, a cottage industry that was already well established at Tiwi Design on Bathurst Island. The recognition of Tiwi art as a dynamic force in the broader context of Aboriginal art in Australia was not at the forefront of anyone’s mind.

Soon changing all this was Kutuwulumi Purawarrumpatu (Kitty Kantilla), an old lady who had sporadically sold her carvings from the tiny settlement at Paru before moving to Milikapiti in the early 1990s and turning towards painting. Alongside fellow painter Taracarijimo (Freda Warlapinni) and the senior carver Paddy Freddy Puruntatameri, Kantilla’s distinctive ochre works on paper and canvas established a new benchmark for Tiwi art and placed Jilamara firmly on the art world map. All three senior artists were soon highly sought after by private and institutional collectors alike and a new generation of Tiwi artists were keen to follow in their wake.

Among them were those who are now well recognised in their own right, including Pedro Wonaemirri, Timothy Cook, Patrick Freddy Puruntatameri and Raelene Kerinauia. More than half a century after Tuckson’s visit, it is their increasingly individual takes on jilamara (design) and carving that continue to break new ground for Tiwi art in the wider world. Working from Jilamara’s new architect-designed complex in the heart of their community they now find themselves at the leading edge of a vibrant and forward looking local history.

In recent years it has been Cook’s playfully expressive paintings that have made the most impact. Winner of the 2012 National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award, Cook has also exhibited highly regarded bodies of work at the 2012 Asia Pacific Triennial and the 2012 Adelaide Biennial. Such success displays the strength of Jilamara’s generational continuity. As Wonaeamirri, the art centre’s long-term chairman, once noted, “the art centre is very important … it is strong and has developed and the artists are continuing to go on.”

Quentin Sprague.

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