Jilamara Arts & Crafts, is an Aboriginal owned art centre based in Milikapiti on Melville Island.
Renowned for its commitment to traditional Tiwi design and craftsmanship, the centre also encapsulates a history interwoven with the broader colonial narrative of the Tiwi Islands.
The Tiwi Islands consist of two main islands, Bathurst Island and Melville Island.
These islands are located off the northern coast of Australia, near Darwin in the Northern Territory. The Aboriginal people of these islands are known as Tiwi people, and they have a distinct culture and language that sets them apart from mainland Aboriginal groups.
Dutch explorers first landed on Melville Island in 1705, though they did not established a colony then, nor on subsequent voyages. The British made an unsuccessful colonisation attempt in 1824 though settlement only took root with the advent of German missionaries in 1911.
Tiwi art, originating from the Tiwi Islands, is a visual feast of abstract and geometric patterns, distinctly different from the art of Arnhem Land. Its vibrant use of ochre colours and compelling designs make it not only aesthetically captivating but also highly sought after.
At the heart of these visually striking artworks are narratives of the Tiwi people. The art serves as a medium to tell tales, where specific hatch patterns signify the intricate friendships woven within the community. Scholars and art enthusiasts from around the globe have delved deep into understanding the symbolism and significance embedded in these artistic expressions.
A crucial aspect of Tiwi culture is its rich oral tradition, where art acts as a conduit to pass on tales, wisdom, and history across generations. And while English is taught in schools, the Tiwi people predominantly communicate in their native tongue, a testament to their preserved cultural identity.
The islanders' deep-rooted cultural practices are evident in their mourning rituals. The death of a loved one sees them adorn their bodies with intricate paintings, expressing their grief and love through a blend of music, art, and dance. The ancient practice of painting has been integral to their ceremonies for millennia. Their renowned totem poles, adorned with these traditional paintings, have garnered international acclaim.
Tiwi Island artworks often revolve around significant Tiwi ceremonies, like Pukumani (burial) and Kulama (initiation), offering glimpses into the island's cultural core.
The term 'Jilamara' in the Tiwi language means 'design', a fitting representation of the Aboriginal Art centre's oeuvre and they are particualry known for;
Ochre Paintings: Artists at Jilamara are renowned for their use of natural ochre paints, which produce earthy, rich hues reminiscent of the Tiwi landscape.
Pwoja Combing Technique: This technique, where artists use a comb made from ironwood, produces intricate geometric patterns that are characteristic of traditional Tiwi art.
Pukumani Poles: Possibly the most famous of Tiwi artworks are the Pukumani Poles, or "tutini" as they are traditionally called which whilst used for ceremony, have also been adapted with different wood as a way to share their culture as artworks also.
The traditional poles are central to the burial ceremonies of the Tiwi Islands. Intricately carved from ironwood trees, they are decorated with geometric patterns, each rendered using natural ochre pigments. Far from random, these designs are infused with deep meaning, representing aspects such as the deceased's status, the circumstances of their death, and their connection to a specific Tiwi clan.
The installation of these poles around a grave forms a key component of the final burial rites. Interestingly, these rites might be performed months, or even years, after the individual has passed away. The meticulous execution of the Pukumani ceremony ensures that the spirit of the departed finds its path to the eternal spirit world.
In the broader context of the ceremony, up to 12 tutini may be crafted and displayed. These poles aren't mere symbols; they serve as offerings to appease the spirits of the departed. As a testament to the transience of life and the inevitable embrace of nature, these poles are left around the grave to weather and decay over time.
Jilamara Art's Mission
In 1911, the Catholic Church established a mission on Bathurst Island, which had profound impacts on the Tiwi way of life. While the mission introduced Western education and healthcare, it also brought about cultural disruption and suppression. Some art forms and ceremonies were discouraged or altered, resulting in both loss and adaptation of traditional practices.
Established in the 1980s, Jilamara Arts & Crafts was born out of a collective endeavour to reclaim, nurture, and share the Tiwi artistic heritage. It operates with dual goals:
Cultural Preservation: The centre is deeply committed to upholding traditional techniques, materials, and narratives. By doing so, it ensures that the authentic voice of the Tiwi people, their tales, and beliefs are passed down to younger generations.
Economic Empowerment: Jilamara also acts as a bridge between Tiwi artists and the broader art market. By promoting their artwork both domestically and internationally, the centre provides a sustainable livelihood to the community and helps to further the recognition and appreciation of Tiwi art.
Jilamara Arts & Crafts stands as a beacon of cultural resistance and resurgence. While deeply rooted in the past, it looks forward with optimism, continually adapting and innovating while staying true to the Tiwi spirit. The centre's existence is a testament to the resilience of the Tiwi people, their undying connection to their land, and their enduring will to express, celebrate, and share their unique cultural identity with the world.