Deaf Tommy Mungatopi
Deaf Tommy Mungatopi
1923 - 1985
800 kilometres north of Darwin, the Tiwi Islands are home to a distinctive culture, isolated from the mainland by treacherous seas and in earlier times a determined resistance to outsiders. Plentiful food and freshwater, abundant forest and varied shorelines produced a rich island culture of ceremony and art making for which some families became particularly renowned. The Mungatopis were one such family and Deaf Tommy Mungatopi was their revered leader during some of the crucial years of the emergence of today’s contemporary Tiwi art form. Alongside his five brothers who also were bark painters and carvers, he built upon the foundations of traditional ceremonial life in a process of both artistic continuity and creative innovation. Deaf Tommy was a sought after maker of Pukumani or funeral poles which, besides being commissioned for important funerals in his community, have become emblematic of Tiwi culture, displayed in and around state galleries nationwide. Deaf Tommy was rendered deaf by an exploding bomb when, as a young man, he worked as a coast watcher on Melville Island during World War II. During these years of European socialisation and religious conversion, artistic and ceremonial pursuits were strongly discouraged. Steady interest by early anthropologists and collectors, however, broadened during the 1970s when the Tiwi gained more control of their own affairs. Appreciation of Aboriginal Art and the deep traditions that lay behind it began increasing. Tiwi Art picked up a contemporary momentum and this in turn helped reaffirm Tiwi culture and identity. Deaf Tommy lived at Milikapiti (originally meaning milk and cup of tea) and worked at the Jilamara Art Centre, which is known for its high esteem of Tiwi history. In the museum attached to the art centre his works (and war medals) are now displayed alongside other famous figures (including the Baldwin, Spencer and Mountford archival photographs) that still inform the modern tradition. Today’s best known painters and carvers on Melville and Bathurst islands still seek guidance and inspiration there. The two seasonally distinct ceremonies that mark the Tiwi calendar are the rituals of increase and the rituals of mourning. In the Pulinari (creation times) death was unknown to the Tiwi until Tapara, the moon man, seduced Bima, the wife of his brother Purukapali. This caused the neglect and death of her baby son, Jinani. Purukapali found his dead son and created the first Pukumani ceremony. Then, weeping and wailing, he walked into the sea, holding the body in his upstretched arms. It is this final stance that is said to be the origin of the tall, elaborately painted Pukumani poles or Tutini. They are brightly and exquisitely painted in ochre bands of geometric design that may also include figurative elements. Over time they gradually weather away until only black stumps remain, standing amid the stringy bark trees. The Tiwi do not overly intellectualise their art. They watch, listen, dance and sing and their knowledge arises in a more sensate way, seen in the fierce beauty of their dances, body decoration and painting design. Deaf Tommy had a distinctive painting style that incorporates alternating bands of dotting applied by his wooden comb, the pwoja, and sequences of dashes or linked diamonds. Particularly in his bark painting he could evoke the physical atmosphere of a landscape or place through the juxtaposition of sequential repetition and variation. He captured the shimmering effect of sun or moonlight playing across the surface of the water, skilfully evoking the sense of ancestral presence. It is a visual language of pattern and rhythm that constantly evolves and re-invents itself, as it has done for generations. Deaf Tommy was a master of mid-century painting, one of the leading artists of his generation and is represented in most major collections of Tiwi art, including five Tutini poles that are part of a group installed in the sculpture garden at the National Gallery of Australia. Profile author: Sophie Baka Collections: Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. Australian Museum, Sydney. Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth. Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. National Museum of Australia, Canberra. Group Exhibitions: 1993/4 - ARATJARA, Art of the First Australians, Touring: Kunstammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf; Hayward Gallery, London; Louisiana Museum, Humlebaek, Denmark.1991 - Aboriginal Art and Spirituality, High Court, Canberra. Bibliography: Caruana, W., 1987, Australian Aboriginal Art, a Souvenir Book of Aboriginal Art in the Australian National Gallery, Australian National Gallery, Parkes, Australian Capital Territory. Caruana, W., Aboriginal Art, World of Art Series, Thames and Hudson, London, 2003 Crumlin, R., (ed.), 1991, Aboriginal Art and Spirituality, Collins Dove, North Blackburn, Victoria. (C). Isaacs, J., 1984, Australia's Living Heritage, Arts of the Dreaming, Lansdowne Press, Sydney. (C).1993, Aratjara, Art of the First Australians: Traditional and Contemporary Works by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Artists, exhib. cat. (conceived and designed by Bernard Luthi in collaboration with Gary Lee), Dumont, Buchverlag, Koln. (C). Le Brun Holmes, Sandra, 1995, The Goddess and the Moon Man: the Sacred Art of the Aborigines,Craftsman House Sydney. Norton, F., 1975, Aboriginal Art, Western Australian Art Gallery Board with the assistance of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council.
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