Tiwi Is­lands artist Pe­dro Won­aeamirri has trans­formed a per­sonal tragedy into an ex­tra­or­di­nary pro­ject to reimag­ine cul­ture, writes Ni­co­las Roth­well

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

IT was mid-Novem­ber 2010, the height of the build-up sea­son across trop­i­cal Aus­tralia. The sun was sink­ing over the Tiwi Is­lands north­east of Dar­win. A troop car­rier set off from Gar­den Point com­mu­nity to­wards Snake Bay, along the wind­ing red dirt haul road, in de­cep­tive light.

Halfway, near the jump-up at Maxwell Creek, an in­cau­tious wal­laby bounded out: the wheels swerved, the truck rolled — and that mo­ment was the end of life for Matthew Won­aeamirri, a leader of his peo­ple, a man of au­thor­ity and charm, some­one no one ex­pected to make so abrupt an exit from this world.

The wreck was found by the road­side that evening. Word spread fast. Dis­traught mem­bers of the dead man’s fam­ily group went wail­ing and crying from house to house, and first of all they went to Won­aeamirri’s gifted, much-loved son Pe­dro, the most fa­mous artist of the Tiwi Is­lands, an in­di­vid­ual of great solem­nity and poise.

He was in his mod­est quar­ters, watch­ing tele­vi­sion on his own. The knock on the door came: in­sis­tent, hard. Pe­dro opened. There were his close rel­a­tives, bunched to­gether.

‘‘ He’s gone,’’ they cho­rused. ‘‘ Your fa­ther’s gone!’’ At once, in him­self, he re­alised: the time had come, the time when he would have to play his full part in Tiwi life, as­sume a man­tle that had long been pre­pared for him.

So be­gan an ex­tra­or­di­nary two years of rit­ual, of paint­ing, carv­ing and self-trans­for­ma­tion as a young, pre­co­cious mas­ter, well known only to col­lec­tors and con­nois­seurs in south­ern gal­leries, be­came a full-fledged cul­tural leader in his own coun­try, and the pain of his mourn­ing was re­shaped, re­worked into tra­di­tional de­signs and pat­terns, on to bark and can­vas, into the free space of art.

Pe­dro be­lieved he knew death al­ready — and in one sense he knew it very well. The story of death and its ar­rival in the world was at the cen­tre of his art: that tale was the foun­da­tion episode of Tiwi re­li­gion. He had painted its themes re­peat­edly, sung its song­cy­cles and carved its fig­ures in the round. It was a drama, a duel saga, set on the north­east coast of Melville Is­land, the larger of the two low-ly­ing is­lands in the Tiwi group. This was Pe­dro’s fa­ther’s coun­try, re­mote, hard of ac­cess, a world of swamps and wind­ing rivers and stringy­barks.

Two broth­ers, Pur­ruku­parli and Ta­para, the an­ces­tral fig­ures of the Tiwi peo­ple, are en­camped on the shore. With them is Waiyai, Pur­ruku­parli’s wife, and her baby son Jinani.

Waiyai goes into the bush, os­ten­si­bly to hunt for food, but there, helped by the owl, she finds her brother-in-law Ta­para ly­ing in wait. They make love: her baby is left be­neath a shady tree. The time flows, the sun moves, the child dies. The fa­ther finds the corpse and from the messenger bird on the beach he learns of his wife’s adul­tery.

‘‘ Our son is gone,’’ laments Pur­ruku­parli. ‘‘ Gone!’’ His brother draws near and of­fers to bring the boy back to life. ‘‘ No,’’ says Pur­ruku­parli. ‘‘ Now that my son is dead, we all shall fol­low him. No one will ever come back. Ev­ery­one will die.’’

The two broth­ers fight with forked, heavy throw­ing sticks, and each of their move­ments and ev­ery blow they in­flict on each other is pre­cisely re­mem­bered in the retelling of the story. At last Ta­para is gravely wounded; he is struck in one eye by his brother, over and over. The con­test is fin­ished. Ta­para sings him­self a song; up he rises, up, up, high into the sky, where he re­mains to this day, and where we see him as the moon. Pur­ruku­parli picks up his son’s body and walks out across the sand flats east of Melville, into the wa­ters, stamp­ing his feet, call­ing up a whirlpool that is still vis­i­ble there to­day. The whirlpool claims the dead boy; only the sea re­mains. Waiyai, trans­formed into the night curlew, haunts the seashore: across the is­lands each night all through the dry sea­son her cries of mourn­ing fill the air.

A sharp tale, with its min­gled ac­cents of com­plic­ity, be­trayal and re­venge, one that pre­cip­i­tates the en­tire elab­o­rate cy­cle of Tiwi mourn­ing cer­e­monies: the cer­e­monies Pe­dro Won­aeamirri had to lead to com­mem­o­rate his fa­ther’s name.

Part rite of pas­sage, part trans­fer of au­thor­ity, is­land fu­ner­als are also the source of the best-known works of Tiwi art: the great carved iron­wood poles that take pride of place in many state gal­leries, and are made nowhere else in the in­dige­nous do­main.

Pe­dro’s task, though, was not to carve a me­mo­rial for his fa­ther. He had to be­come his fa­ther, or fol­low in his foot­steps: be­come a politi­cian as much as an artist, sit on the Tiwi Land Coun­cil, the small panel of chief landown­ers re­spon­si­ble for key de­ci­sion­mak­ing on the Is­lands.

Matthew Won­aeamirri had pre­pared his son care­fully: ‘‘ One day you will have to be­come a leader,’’ he told him. ‘‘ Never feel shy. Al­ways be proud. Al­ways seek to un­der­stand: un­der­stand both in the Tiwi way and in the white man’s way, the two cul­tures to­gether, use them both, and that will make you strong.’’ Pe­dro took on the role: he had to. The artist would have to go out into the world.

He looks back on the change in him. ‘‘ That’s our way,’’ he says, speak­ing slowly, as if pulling up words of great weight from a dark depth. ‘‘ That’s how it is, yes: you move for­ward and take your place. Of course, sad­ness fills you. When there’s a death I feel re­ally sad but when the weeks and months go by, I feel I re­cover, I think then about those fam­ily or friends of mine that have passed away, and I feel they’ve gone to a safe place.

‘‘ It’s like with my fa­ther when he passed away: I know he’s gone to my mother, to my fam­ily, to our land, where the fresh wa­ter and the salt wa­ter meet up the river we call Goose Creek — my fa­ther’s fa­ther’s coun­try, that same coun­try that I’m rep­re­sent­ing on the Land Coun­cil to­day.’’

This jour­ney into cul­ture and cul­tural pos­ses­sion be­gan early in the mid-1970s, when Pe­dro was a boy, spend­ing time with mem­bers of his fam­ily in a lit­tle en­clave called Paru, a site on the thin strait di­vid­ing Melville from Bathurst Is­land, just across from the town­ship of Nguiu.

Paru had an in­trigu­ing his­tory: it was where the Abo­rig­i­nal buf­falo shoot­ers brought over from the main­land had camped; it was where the first Tiwi carvers and painters con­gre­gated, close to the Catholic mis­sion but in their own do­main. And it was there that Pe­dro en­coun­tered the woman he came to call ‘‘ the first old lady’’ — Kitty Kan­tilla, the ge­nius of re­cent Tiwi art-mak­ing, who shaped and trained him in his teenage years.

Back then, con­di­tions for art mak­ing were very dif­fer­ent from those pre­vail­ing in the pur­pose-built is­land stu­dios of to­day. Kan­tilla used to head off into the bush on foot, armed with a rough tom­a­hawk, and cut down heavy iron­wood trunks for her sculpted pieces and carry them back on her shoul­der. But Pe­dro’s child­hood home was the north Melville set­tle­ment at Gar­den Point, and that was where his ini­tial teach­ers found him.

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