Australia 1940 – 2013
Nguiu, Bathurst Island, Northern Territory, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, natural earth pigments on canvas
Yirrikapayi (male crocodile) was once a man who lived around [Cape] Fourcroy [Bathurst Island]. They been spear him. He crawled into the water and turned into a crocodile.
Jean Baptiste Apuatimi, 2007
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Jean Baptiste Apuatimi is one of the doyens of Tiwi art and an important mentor for the younger artists at Tiwi Design. Her paintings, with their mastery of figuration and conventional designs, or jilamara, are a personal homage to her late husband and instructor Declan Apuatimi who said, ‘One day you will be an artist. You will take my place … Now I am doing that. Painting makes me alive.’
Like her husband, Jean Baptiste’s forte was figure carving, although after his death and her move to Milikapiti, she largely abandoned this practice in preference for painting. She painted her first works on canvas in 1991 and has continued in this medium since returning to Nguiu in 1993.
Her Yirrikapayi 2007 painting refers to the ancestor of the same name who metamorphosed into a crocodile. At Cape Fourcroy, Yirrikapayi dived into the sea after he was stabbed in the back with a spear whose barbs became the serrations along his back and tail. Jean Baptiste’s evocation of this well-known Tiwi story in the form of what she terms ‘yirrikapayi mupurra’ (crocodile skin) has become one of her outstanding signature motifs. Her intricately wrought matrix of irregular squares and triangles appear to ripple across the painting surface, like a crocodile’s scaly skin sliding through water. The emotion of this culturally important image can be felt in her statement:
My husband, he taught me that Yirrikapayi story. It’s an important story for Tiwi people and he said to me, ‘do this painting in memory of me’.
 Artist’s statement, translated by Margaret Renee Kerinauia, in B L Croft (ed), Culture Warriors,2007, p 1.
 James Bennett, the art adviser to Jilamara Arts & Crafts Association at the time, notes that Jean Baptiste’s first canvas paintings were like illustrations of her figurative carvings, painted initially on black backgrounds and then incorporating all-over hatched/dotted designs. See James Bennett, ‘Narrative and decoration in Tiwi painting: Tiwi representation of the Purukuparli story’, Art Bulletin of Victoria, vol 33, 1993, pp 43–5.
 Up until 1997 she only painted part time, but after that she became a regular fixture at the Tiwi Design studio. See Angela Hill in B L Croft (ed), Culture Warriors,2007, p 2.
 Jean Baptiste Apuatimi, personal communication with the author, 24 May 2010.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Franchesca Cubillo and Wally Caruana (eds) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art: collection highlights National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010