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