“Poetry’s secret lies in the keeping of time, counting the measures, one image may recall another, finding depth in the resounding,” says the poet Susan Howe, quoting Robert Duncan. In TIWI at the National Gallery of Victoria, visual art echoes Howe’s movement, revisiting and redoubling the multiple dimensions of Tiwi song, dance, ceremony and ancestral wisdom. As Tiwi artist Pedro Wonaeamirri says, “TIWI is important because it tells a story from parlingarri (long time) and today.”
The exhibition spans Tiwi artworks from 1911 to 2020, dividing the work into thematic sections across two gallery spaces. A curatorial statement says this is to “avoid a linear chronology”, instead celebrating the work as “art [and] not ethnographic artefact”. Despite the clear curatorial intention to sidestep the long shadow that ethnography has historically cast on Indigenous art, the gallery fails to acknowledge its own complicity in that history. For example, it wasn’t until 1987 that the NGV acquired two collections of Papunya Tula paintings, its first artworks by Aboriginal artists.
In Aboriginal Art (1998), Howard Morphy documents colonial authority over the classification of Aboriginal art and objects. He says that in the late 19th and early 20th century, museums collected these things as “curiosities” or “ethnographic facts”. These objects, which could be typologically ordered to demonstrate the evolutionary nature of culture, provided information about peoples and places that were thought of as “exotic”. The museum and not the art gallery was the place for Aboriginal art (or “artefact”), because galleries didn’t consider it to be art.
The artworks in TIWI, in addition to everything they convey about Tiwi culture, illuminate how the outside perception of Indigenous artistic intent and authorship has shifted over time. Sidestepping linear chronology overlooks this history, rather than countering it.
In the gallery, the work appears to be organised by form, rather than theme or chronology; ceramics, carved sculptures, canvases, and paintings on bark are grouped together in flowing zones.
One space includes a number of sculptures and paintings by artists whose names were never recorded, their authorship discounted. A collection of inverted tunga rests on a low U-shaped platform that wraps a dividing wall. Tunga are distinctly Tiwi three-dimensional sculptural forms. Functional, ceremonial and artistic, they’re used as baskets, in ceremonies where they are placed upturned atop tutini (carved poles), and displayed as artworks. Tunga are made using a single sheet of stringybark, folded into shape and sewn along its edges. The collection of tunga in TIWI are painted with elaborate, idiosyncratic designs back and front.
One such “authorless” work depicts Taparra (the moon) and the clouds (1954) on one side. Painted in the centre is a yellow disc encircled by a black ring. Five similar rounded shapes – three black, two white – interconnected by thick web-like tracts outlined in copper form a constellation. The in between glimmers with yellow and white stippling. These shapes recall stratocumulus clouds, topographical details, stars against a black sky, the full moon. The moon reflected in the water, how quietly night stands open: earth, moon, ancestral breath.
Taparra resonates with Maryanne Mungatopi’s Taparra, the Moon man (2001). Painted on paper with black, gold, red and white earth pigments – a consistent palette throughout the exhibition – Mungatopi’s work uses figuration to portray Taparra’s transformation. Taparra seduced Wai-ai/Bima, the wife of his brother, the ancestral figure Purrukuparli. This led to the death of Jinani, the son of Wai-ai/Bima and Purrukuparli. Enraged, Purrukuparli fought and gravely wounded Taparra, who became the moon. Mungatopi depicts this life-death cycle with three discrete figures that simultaneously reiterate one another: Taparra as human, then golden crescent, and finally full moon.
On the other side of the tunga with Taparra (the moon) and the clouds, the artist has painted what is simply labelled as Turtle myth. Almost but not quite the inverse of Taparra, Turtle myth is an intimate counterpoint, where some – circular forms, geometric tracts, stippling – but not all the elements are shadow reflections. Like many other works in TIWI, Taparra/Turtle myth has a sense of twoness and relentless renewal.
The afterlife, the unyielding echo of this tunga – made by an artist who was not no one – is its non-correspondence with, and its anticipation of, colonial classificatory systems or “the rules of recognition”, to quote Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture (1994). The tunga says something about anthropological practices and art history, as well as Tiwi cultural and artistic practices. It challenges the authority of the ethnographer (who is named), the museum and the gallery to make definitions.
Next to the collection of tunga is an assemblage of pukumani tutini, tall poles carved from ironwood displayed on spiralling socles. Pukumani tutini are grounded in Tiwi mourning ceremony. The columns are painted with jilamara (meaning painting/design in Tiwi) and carved with geometric patterns. The natal pukumani (mourning/funeral ceremony) was performed by Purrukuparli after Jinani died – the originary death in Tiwi cosmology. The caesura of Jinani’s passing brought mortality to Tiwi people, who from that moment would also experience death and be honoured through pukumani ceremonies. After elegiac songs and dances have concluded, the tutini are erected around a grave and left to slowly recede into the earth.
Mario Walarmerpui’s Pukumani tutini (2019) is made from a single ironwood trunk carved into four interconnected sections, or shelves. These abstract forms pile upon one another, creating a single slanted column. Each angle, edge, verge is painted with crosshatched or geometric jilamara. Here, white, gold and black are layered on terra red earth pigment; there, a chevron pattern composed of red, yellow and black is painted on a white background. Pukumani tutini’s runaway “surfaces” create a sense of movement – it’s as though the stationary pole spins away from you as you circle it, evading a single perspective or viewing position.
The potency of Pukumani tutini’s gesture is its serial disappearance, its directionless return. The pukumani tutini say so much about the beautiful complexity of Tiwi art: the entanglement of song, dance, painting, sculpture, ceremony, ephemerality and the impossibility of sequenced recording. It’s not that tutini embody the performative aspect of ceremony, its liveness and materiality; rather, they hold a space at the very edge of death for the serial return of the performance.
Pedro Wonaeamirri’s Jilamara (2019) brings together song, corporeality, performance, the painted surface. Wonaeamirri uses a long, narrow canvas on which he’s meticulously painted a series of rectangle forms on a black background, using the palette that’s consistent across TIWI. He’s filled in these shapes with a pwoja (a comb-like implement unique to Tiwi art), marking the canvas with mellifluous flecking. The vertical and horizontal lines create breaks in the stippling, echoes of the artist’s hand that recall cascading drops of water, pores, alluvium, musical notations.
“Sometimes I paint slowly and sing, take a break, look at it,” says Wonaeamirri, explaining his process. “They’re talking together – the song and the design.” As with Taparra/Turtle myth and Pukumani tutini, his painting produces perpetual redoubling: a concert of song, sounded through the silence of painting.
Contrasting with Wonaeamirri’s precise schematic paintings are Johnathon World Peace Bush’s expansive, gestural paintings. Bush’s Sister Anne (2019) depicts Sister Anne Gardiner, AM – who has spent 50 years working as a teacher and supporting many community programs in Tiwi – as the figure of Mary. Anne as Mary, Mary as Anne, the central figure in the painting opens her arms in an embrace; above her head is a halo, at her foot a red serpent. A corona beams golden light from the top right corner, and to the left is a bush apple tree, the Tree of Knowledge. Eve has joined the chaotic communal scene of impurity, enmeshed within a red and white lattice, painted in loose broad strokes. In places watery white ochre has been dripped down the canvas, creating ghost markings where it passes through other colours.
Sister Anne doesn’t refute Christianity and the violent vicissitudes it chaperoned across the continent; rather the whole inscrutable scene deforms and unsettles the signs of colonial domination that it mimics. An ode to Sister Anne in her twoness of duty.
In their book Songspirals (2019), the Gay’wu Group of Women, claiming their right to opacity, write of multidimensional Yolŋu stories that they’ve translated into an English text, “Remember, the translation is partial, it tells what it tells, not everything.” Everything that is missed in the translation – the classification, the presentation of the artwork – isn’t lost; it’s simply what escapes the moment of categorisation, of framing.
The wonderful artworks in TIWI are unable to be contained; they come into perpetual being, exceeding the very impetus of framing – a resounding, runaway glimmer that can be discerned, but not defined.
TIWI is showing at NGV Australia, Melbourne, until March 8.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 6, 2021 as "Escaping the frame".
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