Tiwi people

Australia 1905 – 1979

Coral [Bark painting with coral pattern (#5)] 1974 Place made: Paru, Melville Island, Northern Territory, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, bark paintings, natural earth pigments on eucalyptus bark

Dimensions: 37.5 h x 62.0 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1984
Accession No: NGA 84.3037
  • Nellie Wanterapila lived at the small settlement of Paru on Melville Island adjacent to the Bathurst Island mission. The residents were referred to in their day as the ‘Paru pagans’ because they preferred to live a traditional style of life away from the Catholic mission’s influence.[1] As a result their paintings, like Wanterapila’s Coral, retained the bold, graphic directness of earlier Tiwi art in contrast to the increasingly elaborate patterns and figuration used by the younger artists on Bathurst Island, especially at Tiwi Design. Diana Wood Conroy, the coordinator at Tiwi Design in 1974, was particularly interested in what she describes as the vivid abstract designs painted by Wanterapila and her lesser-known fellow painters Alice Wamba and Maudie Kerinauia (c 1899–1984) among others.[2] As part of her job she undertook regular buying trips to Paru and subsequently acquired Wanterapila’s Coral, which was later adapted for a popular repeat textile pattern at Tiwi Design.[3]

    Wanterapila and her fellow Paru artists often painted coral in their own distinctive ways, with circular icons depicting the reefs that surround their island home. In Coral she uses the bright yellow and white ochre obtained from a special source at Imilu to create shimmering irregular shapes against a stark background of black. The artist gives no further interpretation for her painting, although it was not uncommon for seemingly ordinary items to also have ancestral references. A number of Tiwi artists from this time depicted coral motifs to symbolise the drowning of the ancestor Purrukuparli in the seas off south-east Melville Island.

    Margie West

    [1] Jeannie Devitt (a former teacher at Nguiu, Bathurst Island), personal communication with the author, 25 May 2010.

    [2] Diana Wood Conroy, ‘Notes on bark paintings acquired by the National Gallery of Australia’, unpublished, Canberra, March 1984.

    [3] K Barnes, Kiripapurajuwi – skills of our hands: good craftsman and Tiwi art, Kathy Barnes, Darwin, 1999, p 45.

    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