Tiwi Mob Bus
A bunch of Tiwi-Islanders roam through the desert plains squeezed in a mini-bus. This is ‘Tiwi Mob Bus’, a picture I painted many years ago while living at Pirlangimpi community in Melville Island, about 80 km. north of Darwin, Australia’s Top End.
I ended up in Pirlangimpi following a volunteering opportunity at the local art centre Munupi Arts and Crafts. My duties at the centre included stretching canvases, grinding ochre rocks, and priming grounds for the local artists. In return, as it is normal with all volunteering work, I got a lot out of the experience.
The locals would take me crab hunting about the mangroves; swimming in in the most stunning waterholes; they would encourage me to dab in their native tongue, so that they could have a good laugh; plus I was given free accommodation, meals and space to work on my own paintings. I was as exotic for them, as they were for me.
The Tiwi people were mostly used to white fellas with Anglo-Saxon blood running through their veins -many still burdened by ghosts of some colonial past- so, I was a bit of an exception. They would gaze at me inquisitively and ask whether I was a quarter-cast. ’I’m full-blooded, brother’ I would reply ’just from a different part of the world’.
The Tiwi people, unlike most of their counterpart indigenous brothers and sisters of the desert, came through as outgoing, approachable, lighthearted and rather jolly. Traditionally, their way of making painting also diverges from the laters’, insofar as it never had figurative motifs, nor was set on bidimensional surfaces. The Tiwi would apply patterns of ochre colour on the skins of those taking part in festivals and ceremonies.
Only in recent decades, Tiwi artwork jumped from the skin onto the canvas, chiefly, I’d argue, for commercial purposes and of dissemination. ’Tiwi Mob Bus’ brings together two painting worlds, that of Tiwi immemorial pattern-making (jilamara) cheek by jowl the long-standing linage my way of making pictures subscribes to, the figuration of Western Painting.
’Tiwi Mob Bus’ painting is based on a photo taken during a 4000 kms. road trip with a group of Tiwi artists, through the desert plains of Northern Australia, to attend the Kimberly Law and Culture (KALACC) Festival of 2005.
Artists from all the three Tiwi Art Centres had been invited to participate in this event, so I was sent with them as a kind of steward. They put us all on a sickly plane from Tiwi to Darwin and from there on we continued on a small bus, crammed with art materials, ritual dancing poles, plastic bags filled with junk food, swags and other camping gear.
I still seem to remember the names of some of the fellows on that bus: Declan Apuatimi, the brothers Brian and Glen Farmer Illortaminni, John Patrick Kelantumama the ’Potter-master’, Jasmine Purutatameri, Josephine Burak… The driver was an ex-boxer from Darwin, also indigenous, at least in part, but from a different part of the country and temperament. I don’t think anyone on the bus could boast of an unblemished ethical record, and so this made the trip most peaceful and fascinating. The empty seat on the lower right corner of the picture was where I would sit.
The KALACC festival is a biennial gathering celebrated in the Kimberly to keep the culture and languages of the area strong. Over two thousand people, of which only a handful of us were white fellas, attended the five-day festival in 2005 in Majarrka community, stone’s throw away from Fitzroy Crossing.
I shared my tent with Regis Pangiraminni, one of the Tiwi artists with an obscure past as a policeman, the gift of the gab, and a treacherous fondness for the bottle and the joint. On the first night, I went out into a pitch-black open long-grass field, stretching my arms and my soul to the endless, star-filled firmament. I remember there were some women and toddlers around. We walked around unconcerned, making jokes, sharing stories and a few words here and there from our respective mother languages.
The next morning someone discovered a king brown snake about our camp, not far from our tent. A bunch of men killed it. The king brown snake is the bulkiest venomous snake in Australia, with a nasty bite. When we heard about it, Regis, like a good aussie bloke, shrugged a wry smile. I asked him to at least keep our tent closed when we were not in it.
The days went by in a torrent of indigenous people’s culture from all over the continent island; there was an incredible succession of performances, workshops, rituals, informal catch-ups (usually involving ganja) and communal meals. I keep an invaluable memory of having been part of that all. At the end of each day, when elated and dead tired went to our tent to crash, I found invariably the zipper of our tent wide open.
Now, what I haven’t told yet anyone is that while assisting at both art centres, Munupi and Jilamara, one of the most prominent artists, whose work sells today for 5 digits sums and is part of the National and State Galleries collections in Australia and some important collections in Europe, secretly invited me to work with him on his paintings. And, of course, you know much of a hoot I give about the aura of authorship.
While most of the Tiwi artists would show no interest in other art than their own (Tiwi actually means ‘we the only people’), he was the kind of fellow who would be transfixed looking at a book of Picasso’s. Our skin may have had different pigmentation, but our hearts beat to the same indistinguishable devotion for painting.
He took me to a secluded place, under the shade of some nearby gum-trees, where he worked and showed me, very unceremoniously, the tupperwares with the white, red and yellow ochres paints and his worn-out brushes. Then, without too much mystery, proceeded to me instruct me on what to do. My task was to place extremely simple patterns, dots and lines, over the dark cosmic background of the linen. If I was to deviate from these patterns and try to be a bit creative, the fellow would say ’no, no’ and insist that I made dots with the tip of the brush. For few days we worked together. I wonder if the eventual owner of those paintings would have ever noticed that extra twinge of richness of my Iberian hand.
On my return to Sydney, I put up an exhibition with the works I had created in Tiwiland in the defunct Gallery 44, in Surry Hills, when I still was a young hot artist (I’ve been now an emerging artist for over two decades). ‘Tiwi Mob Bus’ featured in the invitation card and accompanied the media release. It was the face of a show called ‘Karrakamini Kuwunawini’ -meaning roughly ’nothing money’- which is what you would say, at the open shed serving as a drinkery every evening, when asked for money by the locals.
Just as the exhibition came to its closure in December 2005, Claire and I found out that we were going to have one of those things that keep you awake at night and fill your life with love and poo. We were living not far from Bondi Beach and one day, walking past the Waverly Woollahara Art School, I noticed that submissions for the Waverly Art Prize were open. I grabbed the painting next to this post, walked out in my sleepers the two blocks of maroon-bricked houses to the school, and dropped the painting to the competition.
Then one night, as we arrived home from one of those aussie barbies, dull like watching paint dry, where hardly ever anything interesting happened (I attribute this to the spell of everyone involved circumventing being authentic to each other in order to avoid confrontation at any cost), I saw the light blinking on our black plastic voicemail. I pressed the button. Out of the machine came out the squeaky voice of a lady -from the Waverly Woollahara Art School- saying that Tiwi Mob Bus had been awarded the first prize in the art competition.
With the prize’s cash, I wanted to give my expecting partner a nice surprise. I booked us a table for two in one of the finest, most-celebrated, dearest restaurants in Sydney.
That night, I asked Claire to meet me after work in a pub not far from the restaurant. We had a Resch’s and then started walking down Kent St, chatting idly sheltered by the majesty of the jacarandas. When we reached the restaurant, I stopped and, conjuring up all the credibility I was capable of and pointing casually with my thumb, asked Claire if she felt like going for a bite. She looked at me, still holding her laptop suitcase within her crossed arms, as you look at a madman. And that’s how the mother-to-be ended up at Mr. Tetsuya’s dining-hall in sneakers and wearing shabby tracksuits.
The Wavery Art Prize was an acquisitive prize, so Waverly Council kept the painting. To this day, I ignore the whereabouts of the artwork.