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It is arcs and flowing dot-mark lines and angles, it portrays the world in patterns and in rhythms, in every bark, every carved ironwood pole and canvas it asserts itself.

The sun’s glare, the moon’s glow, the black of night, all these shown in ochre, the land’s own pigment. Such is the art of the Tiwi Islands north of Darwin — the longest-known and most thoroughly recorded indigenous creative tradition in all Australia, and for many years the most influential and admired.

But despite this prominence there has been no defining survey of the islands and their culture, no work of overview and reference offering a detailed account of Tiwi art in its multiplicit forms, not even an exhibition catalogue offering a quick sketch for the perplexed. It is as if the sheer distinctiveness of Tiwi culture and its deep familiarity had somehow removed the need: as if the sustained and glorious inventiveness of painters, carvers, ceramicists and print-makers on two low-lying, mission-settled, heat-infested coastal islands over a full century was a routine affair.

Now, at last, comes Tiwi: Art/History/Culture, sweepingly titled, lavishly illustrated: a comprehensive guide and handbook by long-time Aboriginal art observer Jennifer Isaacs: a volume decades in the making that does much more than merely fill a gap. Isaacs recasts our understanding of Tiwi art’s evolution and the influences that helped shape it. She brings together the deep past of creation stories, the murky period of early contact on the islands and the present day. It is a tale rich in surprises and intriguing revelations. For the first time, a rounded narrative of Tiwi art-making emerges: its continuities and innovations become obvious, the tradition can be followed in the stages of its progress and properly appraised.

Isaacs opens her book with an account of the key meeting on economic development six years ago that inspired her to write. If fast-paced modernisation was in the offing, what, then, would become of the old beliefs and stories coded in Tiwi art? She gained the support of today’s leading artists for a deep plunge into their background and traditions — a look at how their own art was shaped by great carvers and painters whose names are now almost forgotten. Isaacs herself is something of a precursor figure. She was first on the islands decades ago looking at the artworks being made there.

The field of Aboriginal art curation and appreciation is thronged today with latecomers, in the universities, art schools and state galleries; but her perspective is informed by deeper experience, and it is particularly in evidence in the investigations she reports here.

The Western story begins, of course, with contact: the Tiwis were among the first indigenous people in Australia to repel outside visitors. But even the initial brief reports and memoirs by British sea captains recorded a distinctive culture: patterned body paint, vivid dances, bright ochre, tall, sombre grave posts amid the stands of stringybark. When the exploitation of the islands got under way, it went swiftly. They were too large and lush and too conveniently close to Darwin to be overlooked: a privateer set up a buffalo-shooting camp on Melville Island in the 1890s. In 1911 the Catholic church dispatched a mission to the south coastline of Bathurst Island. That settlement became Nguiu, today’s community of Wurrumianga, the administrative centre of the Tiwis.

Almost immediately, artefact making began, and Western eyes responded to the vigour of the work. Long before carvings or paintings made in desert Australia or Arnhem Land had become well known, art lovers and collectors were making quick buying trips to the Tiwi missions. As Isaacs makes plain, outsiders were struck by what was unique to the pieces made on the islands: the burial poles of tall ironwood, the serrated spears, the beaded armbands, the richly decorated barks and mourning discs. But the islanders were equally struck by the influences that were impinging on them.

Tiwi thus brings together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and presents a new picture. Isaacs has come upon extensive evidence that the design of the great carved “tutini” poles has changed since first contact: the decorative scheme has been developed, figure motifs have been introduced. “Over the decades many sculptors have improvised, using positive and negative space and playing with solidity of form to create lightness and balance.”

Much of the impetus for this innovation came from Paru, across Apsley strait from the Nguiu mission: the old camp of the buffalo shooters and their families. Several of those families could trace their descent from Tiwi women and the mainland Iwaidja Aboriginal hunters who were brought to Melville Island when the shooting operation began. Many of the men who became prominent carvers had served in World War II in coastal patrol operations, and some had travelled widely, into the Indonesian archipelago. Perhaps the key figure in this group was Cardo Kerinauia, a high ceremonial leader who had worked for years on coastal mission luggers, and even danced for Queen Elizabeth in Toowoomba in 1954. He was closely related to the great conceptualist among the early Tiwi painters, Don Hocking Tipakalippa, and was the father-in-law of Albert Croker, one of the mixed-background carvers, best-known for his massive buffalo-head funerary poles.

Cardo’s sister had married another key sculptor, Holder Adams, who specialised in black, skeletal ironwood figures, and had taken part in submarine raids on Japanese targets: he shared this military background with the five Mungatopi brothers, the masters of mid-century Tiwi painting, all of whom had been enlisted into the Snake Bay patrols between 1943 and 1945. Their medals can be seen today in the new museum at Milikapiti, displayed alongside examples of their art.

These figures Isaacs plucks from discreet obscurity: she gives capsule sketches of their lives, and images of them working, and of their finished, majestic work. It is much as if accounts of Western art had somehow neglected the renaissance, and the visual breakthroughs of Leonardo and his contemporaries were being quietly slotted back into the record. The best-known Tiwi painters and carvers working at the art centres on Melville and Bathurst Islands today are the descendants of these innovators, and also keen students of their work — and the transmission process has itself been intriguing. Early researchers such as Herbert Basedow and Baldwin Spencer were on the islands as long ago as 1911. The first anthropological recordings were made there, on wax cylinders, and short films of the dance ceremonies from that era still survive. In mid-century, a range of photographers made field trips to the missions: the anthropologist Charles Mountford led a National Geographic expedition of 1954, which resulted in a book, complete with detailed records of ceremonial body paint designs. “Perhaps,” suggests Isaacs, “the earlier elaboration of body art occurred as a vibrant and determined display of Tiwi-ness to non-Tiwi after the Tiwi first came into full contact with the outside world following World War II.” Mountford’s The Tiwi: Their Art, Myth and Ceremony is little read in mainland Australia today, but on the islands its pictures are a vital resource, much consulted.

For art production on the islands has been a managed, complex process ever since the first Tiwi craft centre was set up at Nguiu in the late 1960s. Initially the focus was on fabrics, on ceramics, on applied arts that might find a ready market. The emphasis shifted gradually to fine art, and museum collections of Tiwi work deepened. Curators and collectors shifted their emphasis from tribal to contemporary forms. When the Aboriginal art market developed, Tiwi art was thus in an ambiguous position. It had a glorious past, and new masters, little known. The vogue of fashion was focused elsewhere — on the deserts, on the Kimberley and northeast Arnhem Land. Tiwi artists were recognised by specialists, and a handful gained attention as fine artists of original stamp. By far the most prominent among these was Kitty Kantilla, whose career at Jilamara art centre at Milikapiti inspired many of today’s best-known Tiwi painters and carvers. Yet the poise and the centred splendour of Tiwi work seemed to go largely unrecognised in the boom years from the mid-1990s until the financial crash of 2007, and there are complex reasons for this neglect.

In part, the problem was simply a question of positioning: the Tiwi artists were seen as too conservative, too Catholic, somewhat too neat and precise in their work, too familiar and established.

A project to reconnect the artists of today with their traditions was engineered and funded. Young artists from the art centres were taken on inspection tours of archives where old artworks and photographs from the Baldwin Spencer and Mountford archives could be viewed. So was born a “neo-traditionalist” current on the islands.

But this directed revival pales by comparison with the organic unfolding of Tiwi traditions. At Jilamara, the art centre that carries the chief legacy of the early carving innovators, new chairman Pedro Wonaeamirri has a clear picture of the way tradition is passed down. In his foreword to Tiwi he sums it up: “The knowledge is when you listen, then look — the knowledge is by words, singing, talking, and also the dance, meanings of dance, and the song that goes with the dance and also art as well. And now I am creating my own art, my own style, totally different.”

Isaacs gives a context, in these pages, for the rituals and story-cycles underpinning Tiwi art. She describes the background to the work being made today, the sediment of memories, the great shaping events of war and politics. She explains much about the islands: but the greatest gift of her book is her awareness that not all can, or should be explained. Tiwi art is above all a phenomenon of look, pattern and transmitted gleam, and the artists are often reluctant to provide a direct interpretation of what their work might signify.

“They feel,” says Isaacs, “the interior meaning of paintings is changeable and is theirs to know or think about at a given time. Recording a story tightens the meaning of a work in a restrictive manner. The real feeling in the work is primarily only in the artist’s own mind and not necessarily something the purchasers of the painting, whether galleries or collectors, should need or want to know. As meaning probably only occurs subconsciously during the making process, expanding on it for others would seem, to Tiwi, somewhat irrelevant.”

Profound words that stem from deep understanding of the tradition, and deep sympathy for its creators. This insight caps a landmark piece of scholarship that is at the same time a visual treasure. The Tiwi have waited a hundred years for a work that captures the grace and strength of their artistry. Here it is.

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