Timothy Cook: As Rituals Fade From Memory - Art Collector

Issue 62, October - December 2012

Timothy Cook, the winner of this year’s National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, occupies a strange place in Australian art, sitting as he does between generations and between styles. His win, however, should bring fresh attention to both his work and his subject matter, a ceremony that sadly has not been performed in his community for three years writes Timothy Morrell.

This year for the first time the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award was won by an artist from the Tiwi Islands, north west of Darwin. Timothy Cook is one of the few Tiwi painters who is well known to collectors, strongly supported as he is by dealers in Perth and Sydney. His work is in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia and the principal state galleries, as well as the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. The late Michael Jackson reputedly owned a painting.

The rather low profile of Tiwi art, at least relative to Arnhem Land or Central Australian art, may be due to the fact that the best known artefacts from Bathurst and Melville Islands are three dimensional. Aside from the spectacularly beautiful group of funerary pukumani poles, or tutini, commissioned for the Art Gallery of New South Wales by Tony Tuckson and Stuart Scougall in the late 1950s, most admirers of Indigenous Australian art would have difficulty thinking of a great Tiwi work.

If the role of the NATSIAAs is less certain than it used to be, as some critics are suggesting (Nicholas Rothwell, for example, writing in
The Australian on 13 August 2012), this year the event can at least take credit for helping to bolster an area of Australian art that deserves more serious attention.

Cook was born in 1958 on Melville Island, where he has spent his entire life. He began painting and carving in the mid 1990s, using designs taught to him by elders, and first exhibited his work in 1997. He lives at Milikapiti and works there in association with Jilamara Arts & Crafts. His paintings are directly related to the motifs painted onto pukumani poles and the stringy bark bags or tungas that are made for practical use and are also overturned on top of the pukumani poles at Tiwi grave sites. Tungas, which have been made in increasingly large sizes over the past 20 or so years, are essentially bark paintings folded in half and stitched with fibre. The decoration is based on body painting designs and, while these remain discernible in some of Cook’s paintings, they take on an expressive life of their own when expanded into large compositions. His paintings are done in natural ochres on canvas. He also paints on paper and makes prints.

The use of ochre, aside from being culturally significant and forming a link with tradition, is an important influence on the appearance of his paintings. Unlike the suavely modulated paint surface possible with the synthetic polymers used by painters in Central Australia, Cook’s work has a rougher appearance due to the granular consistency of the crushed ochres. This quality in his paintings, which his Sydney dealer Gabriella Roy says can be off-putting to viewers not familiar with tribal art, is a large part of their appeal for collectors. The earthy and conspicuously handmade finish of Cook’s work, combined with the confident looseness of the composition, sustains the vitality of body painting in a way that a more refined and precise execution would not.

This is not to say that Cook is anything other than a highly refined painter. His compositions are reminiscent of the seductive expanses of plain ochre that distinguish the works of Rover Thomas. Cook’s meandering wobbly line and big flat slabs of muted interlocking colour could also be compared with the early Brett Whiteley paintings recently shown in Sydney. The breadth and simplicity of his compositions is unconventional and innovative in Tiwi art, which is characterised by intense patterning and detail.

Sometimes he works with more complex patterns, but as with most of his paintings, the simple composition of Cook’s winning work is a large, slightly off-centre circle divided into quadrants by four irregular bars radiating from a target-like roundel. It is also identified by his recurring title, Kulama. The kulama yam ceremony, a celebration of life, and the pukumani mortuary ceremony are the two most important elements of Tiwi ritual. The iconography of his paintings is strongly connected to elements of ceremonial practice. The yams harvested for the kulama ceremony are round and the concentric circles in Cook’s paintings (and elsewhere in Tiwi art) describe the dancing ground where the ceremony is performed. The ceremony is timed to coincide with the end of the wet season, when a ring around the moon provides a celestial sign of the changing season.

The Catholic church also has an influential and long standing presence on the Tiwi Islands, which is reflected in the cross at the centre of Cook’s painting.

Many collectors value the look of spontaneous vitality in Cook’s paintings because it reminds them of old work. Professional contemporary artists in Indigenous communities are inevitably (and rightly) making work that is different from the art of their elders. Cook is of a generation that bridges this divide, but the significance of ceremony for Tiwi artists in the future is uncertain. There has been no kulama ceremony in their community for three years.

Timothy Cook’s work
Kulama, which won the major prize in the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards this year, is on view in the award exhibition at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in Darwin until 30 October 2012.

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