Nurturing the spirit: Aboriginal artists

Aboriginal art (© CameliaTWU)

Aboriginal art and music is receiving growing international recognition. To mark the UN Year of the Indigenous People, Eric Beauchemin visits Melville Island, north of the Australian city of Darwin and home to one of the most dynamic centres of Aboriginal art. 

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: August 25, 1993


I think the profoundest things in contemporary Australian art are happening in Aboriginal art.

Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “Nurturing the Spirit – an inside look at an ancient culture”. The programme is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

Aboriginal artists aren’t the only ones who have been making a name for themselves in recent years, exhibiting in such places as Amsterdam, Düsseldorf in Germany, New York and Mauritius. Aboriginal musicians – like the group Yutti Yindhi – have also burst onto the scene, incorporating Western sounds in their age-old musical traditions, and creating something quite original and popular. The emergence of Aboriginal are in all its forms on the mainstream cultural scene is a source of pride for Australia’s Aboriginal community, which numbers approximately 170,000, only one percent of Australia’s total population. It’s particularly welcome this year, 1993, which has proclaimed by the United Nations as the Year of the Indigenous People.

One of the most dynamic centres of Aboriginal art is located on Melville Island, which lies off the northern coast of Australia, 100 kilometres from the city of Darwin. The island is home to about a thousand Aborigines – known as Tiwis – who are spread out over three small communities. One of the three communities – Milikapiti – has established an association – Jilamara Arts and Crafts – to encourage local artists and promote their work down south, in other words in mainland Australia, and abroad. James Bennett is the centre’s full-time coordinator.

Jilamara Arts and Crafts like most Aboriginal art centres, it grew out of an adult education programme, and then about four years ago, it was incorporated as an Aboriginal enterprise. So it’s managed and run by Aboriginals or Aboriginals being trained to management positions. The local artists produce artworks which then Jilamara buys on their behalf and sells on their behalf. So it’s like an artist-run enterprise. The community like ours which is a closed community, meaning that access to it is only available through permits, and because of our distance from any mainland centres, it’s very difficult for artists producing work to then arrange the sale of their works and in fact leaves them very open to being exploited by people who might come in and pay very low prices for their art. So, it’s very important that there’s some type of organisation promoting them for their benefit, that they’re not being forced to just hand over their art at cheap prices to a third person who mightn’t have their interests at hand or understand traditional values.

The Tiwis’ traditions and rich ceremonial art – unlike those of other Aboriginal communities have been able to survive European contact because of the treacherous tideway which separate Melville Island from the mainland. Many of the Aboriginal peoples’ complex and highly evolved traditions and kinship relations are shrouded in secrecy, and the Aborigines intend to keep it that way. So how can James Bennett, an artist in his own right but a white Australian, run Jilimara Arts and Crafts Association, when he is so clearly an outsider?

Well, I’m employed by the Tiwis. I was invited here, and they hire and fire. I act as an intermediary between the artists and white society. It also means as a white fellow, I can act with a certain freedom which traditional custom mightn’t allow the artist here. For example, I can deal with in this community as a white outsider, in inverted commas, I can deal with anybody on this community openly and with much more freedom than with a local Tiwi who might be bound by certain kinship taboos, also customary obligations or reasons for avoidance or there might be matters of traditional etiquette where they can’t for example where they can’t talk to a certain man or a certain woman, where I as a white person can move freely around the community theoretically. And also, for example, with the younger artists, there is a certain attitudes and etiquette about discussing culture to foreigners, meaning to strangers. For example, a lot of the younger artists are very embarrassed about discussing issues of traditional belief or customs publicly to white strangers. They’re much happier in fact that they designate another white fellow who they know and trust to do this, to do the discussions with strange white people, rather than they being forced to themselves. An example actually is one that occurred last year where an exhibition in Melbourne, in a gallery down in Melbourne. Four artists travelled down to the opening of that exhibition, four of our most senior artists. The gallery actually invited one of them to make the opening speech, and they were very reluctant to because of their shyness and also issues of language. People don’t feel comfortable talking in English publicly. And they were quite happy to have me open it on their behalf. If we are discussing art, I’m always very conscious that I’m only acting as a voice piece and that really the most important things are said by the artists themselves. 

There are about 20 artists who work at the centre, producing traditional artefacts, carvings, fabrics based on traditional Tiwi motifs and paintings. Pedro Onomeri is one of the centre’s most gifted artists, and he like the others still relies on Melville Island’s rich natural habitat to provide him with the materials he needs, for example, bark from tree trunks.

Get axes around the tree and ?? in the middle and cut and pull around. Push it off. Scale the skin off and when the skin is off, then dry it in the fur and ?? on the ground. EB: And then what type of paints do you use to paint these? Black charcoal, battery acid, yellows from rock. We scrape the yellow and burn it in a fire with ?? and the red comes out. 

The colours red, yellow, white and black are the basic ingredients in the Tiwis’ paintings and carvings. The colours are used in a wide variety of combinations to make traditional Tiwi designs, according to another Jilimara painter, Patrick Freddy.

At the centre, we got lines and dots and circles. And we got some zigzag lines, and we use our own traditional paint sandstones. 

Dots, straight lines, zigzag lines are the main elements of Tiwi art, simple forms which become highly intricate designs, based on those which the Tiwis paint on their bodies during traditional ceremonies. The artists themselves divide their artworks into two categories: traditional and modern, though none of them was able to explain the difference between the two. So what does traditional mean?

Well, traditional is really a very vexed word to use. It’s very complex because even though the projected image might be of Aboriginal art as something unchanging, it appears that it has always changed immensely and will go on changing. Traditional, when we use the term traditional, we mean art that really takes its standpoint or its aesthetic direction from traditional ceremonial art, for example from designs that were used for ceremonies, not for example in a naturalistic portrayal. They’ll mean we might draw a naturalistic image of a kangaroo or of a wallaby or a crocodile. Even though the Tiwis often they might regard drawings of crocodiles if they contain traditional Tiwi motives, they’ll regard it as traditional Tiwi art but in fact the ideal drawing of a realistic image of a crocodile has come from white fellow society. The old painters here still paint with their fingers a lot, and this means the art is incredibly gestural. The ocres are splashed on. They’re cross-hatched or dot patterns or circular patterns, quite abstract. In fact, jokingly, I refer sometimes to one old painter here as Nancy Pollock referring Jackson Pollock, the action painter because the ocres are splashed on, they’re very gestural.   

Even though the artists themselves don’t seem to be able to articulate the differences between traditional and modern painting, the older painters, like John Olson, feel it’s important that they carry on their community’s traditions, and they tend to take a dim view of the modern motifs used by the younger painters.

Mostly the Tiwi boys doing modern Tiwi painting. Some of it is white influenced. Some of these boys are doing like modern Tiwis because that’s what they were taught in schools. Traditional painting is a bit different than what this mob is doing at the moment. I wanted to start painting in the Aboriginal way because we are trying to revive our culture because maybe in about 5 or 6 years’ time, most of these paintings will be gone because it looks like nobody is interested in doing painting anymore, only us folk We try to carry the tradition. 

Indeed, James Bennett believes that the work of the younger artists, many of whom have studied on the mainland in Darwin, represents a clear break with traditional Tiwi art.

The younger artists who’ve been to school are often very influenced by white fellas’ concept of neatness and will insist on using a Western style brush and draw very neat cross hatched patterns, very neat dotting, orderly rows of dots, whereas the older artists will just dot sort of randomly. Now nothing is ever going to undo that kind of schooling or those kind of influences that are occurring here nor necessarily should they, but it’s just interesting that it is a transition that has occurred, and certainly watching the artists working here, I’ve become very conscious that the younger artists have begun to reassess their own traditions, once they have become aware that maybe their style of working, it has been unconsciously influenced by white fella methods of writing or white fella methods of drawing. Another example would be like in the pukumani polls. Pukumani poles are the mortuary poles are central to the main mortuary ceremony,  the pukumani ceremony held about six months after death. It’s really the only main Tiwi ceremony that still has survived white contact relatively intact. Most of the other ceremonies are now sort of perfunctorily performed, but they are still incredibly important these poles that are commissioned and paid for, paid for in money. Payment is an important part of traditional Tiwi art in pre-white times it would have been with food or gifts or promised daughters or ceremonial objects. Now it’s in money. But the things is that nowadays, the artist might use a chainsaw, whereas the older artist will just carve with a hand axe, and obviously there’s a difference in the sculptural and the cut qualities is quite apparent. 

But this does not make the younger artists’ work any less authentic.

The question of authenticity and whether it’s traditional is really a vexed issue. I mean, it’s authentic. It’s done by full Tiwi traditional land-owning artists. Now that doesn’t mean that there’s not a variety of styles or influences at work. There are some paintings that are obviously show white influence, show influence of white concepts, of painterliness, white stylism, in terms of realism, like realistically showing animals or motives like that, and they are more likely to occur among the younger artists who have had greater exposure to white society. There are other paintings which could have been done 60 years ago before white people came to Melville Island.

The recording ends abruptly at 12’46”.