Kitty Kantilla from Melville Island: Una Rey

SYDNEY- 8 March 2015

Tiwi art stands apart physically and conceptually from mainland Australia’s Aboriginal art. The Tiwi – we, the people, in literal translation – hinge their culture on the ceremonies of pukumani (mortuary) and kurlama (yam), which relate to the funeral ceremony and initiation/fertility respectively. Tiwi did not practise a ‘frightening and dangerous’ form of initiation or ‘law business’ like desert and top-end communities. Even so, they managed, in part through their fearlessness, to hold their islands against occupation despite various outside contacts over the last several hundred years.

In April 2007 the National Gallery of Victoria honoured the life and work of Kitty Kantilla Kutuwulumi Purawarrumpatu (c1928 – 2003), the most highly acclaimed Tiwi artist. This retrospective exhibition and accompanying catalogue presented a celebration of Tiwi contemporary artistic culture, as well as the character and aesthetic sensibilities of a unique Tiwi woman.

With works on bark, paper and canvas, as well as ironwood sculptures, the gallery came alive with a sense of rhythm: fine dots, delicate but painterly strokes and stretches of colour in the deep red, golden yellow and milky white ochres of the Tiwi palette created a breathing, rhythmic experience for the viewer. An open palm and eucalypt forest with negative space of pale sky and reflective seas could be imagined, dust and smoke could be conjured, song and footsteps of ceremony could be drummed up by the presence of these exquisite ‘petitions/statements/invocations’.

Kantilla described her surface with a whimsical, delicate touch, underscored with a bold, tough geometry. An irregular, and sometimes triangular ‘grid’ anchored the blocks of colour, bands of dotted lines and random measures of cross-hatched mesh or cicatrices. Several years working in the robust medium of ironwood (Erythrophleum chlorostachys) without modern power tools gave her time to formulate structure, and gave her work practice a physical rigour. Kantilla generally referred to her work as pumpuni jilamara – ‘good design’, an understatement typical of the artist and her work.

Kantilla started making art around the age of 50 while living in the bush at the small community of Paru, on the Melville Island side of Apsley Strait, opposite Bathurst Island. From this ‘bush workshop’ she learned to carve with rudimentary tools and began the experiments in ochre decoration that would lead to her flowering as a painter after her move to Milikapiti and the newly established Jilamara Arts & Craft centre on Melville Island, the largest of the Tiwi islands, in 1989.

She worked daily at her post at Jilamara Arts & Craft, where she created a body of work that defied repetition and  showcased endless invention within a strict set of visual boundaries. Essentially, the yirrinkiripwoja, or body paint design, employed during the pukumani ceremony is the primary source of Tiwi iconography, but the individual application of jilamara (design, pattern) is applied with a high degree of self-expression and personal nuance – a practice particular to the Tiwi, who encouraged and admired ‘artistic licence’.

Exhibiting primarily under the name Kitty Kantilla, and fondly referred to as Dot Dot at Milikapiti, Kutuwulumi Purawarrumpatu possibly had several traditional-bush-real-names. To outsiders this implies an unknowable world, suggestive of an arcane knowledge that could be considered a potable well of inspiration and private investigation. Kantilla refused a widow’s pension to earn her own living making art, suggesting a supreme confidence in her own cultural currency. She had a strong grasp of the dynamic times she lived in, and she brought the old knowledge forward to communicate with a Tiwi and outside audience made up of collectors, curators and artists.

She worked exclusively with the art centre, which in turn developed professional relationships with select galleries, so Kantilla was protected from the market demand for her work, which was never made quickly. Her intimate scale and precision of manner were a statement against being pushed or hurried by anyone.