Australia 1895 – 1965
Purrukuparli the Ancestral hero
Bathurst Island, Northern Territory, Australia
Materials & Technique: sculptures, natural earth pigments and natural fibre on ironwood
Enraeld Munkara was carving his expressive figurines at an eventful time on Bathurst Island. The long-term ban on ceremonial activity there was lifted precipitating a revival in ceremonial performance during the 1950s. Interest in Tiwi art was also escalating, with visits from researchers and collectors like Stuart Scougall, Tony Tuckson and Dorothy Bennett who collected these sculptures around 1956. At this stage there were only a handful of practicing artists on Bathurst (Nguiu) and the adjacent community of Paru. Prominent among them were Cardo Kerinauia (c 1900 – c 1964) and Enraeld Munkara, who spearheaded the development of the small-figure carving movement that is now the mainstay of Tiwi art. While such figuration was rare at the time it did have a traditional precedent.
The incorporation of human heads into the conventionalised form of the Tiwi burial pole was first recorded in the 1930s, and by the 1950s small softwood figures were also occasionally placed on the grave during a Pukumani mortuary ceremony. These statuettes represented the body of Purrukuparli who drowned himself in sorrow after the death of his baby son. Enraeld’s figures of Purrukuparli and his wife Waiyai are unique in the way they capture the abject grief of these bereaved ancestors with their hunched shoulders and numbed expressions. The vulnerability of the Waiyai carving is especially captivating, as it was due to her adultery with Purrukuparli’s brother Taparra that their baby son died of exposure. She turned into a curlew with its mournful cry after Purrukuparli decreed that humankind should become mortal and performed the first Pukumani burial ceremony.
 The Catholic Church had banned ceremonial activity when it established Bathurst Island Mission in 1911, however ceremonies were often held in secret on Melville Island.
 Charles Mountford collected six small figurines in 1954 and recorded that this innovation was attributed to the Tawny Frogmouth ancestor who left a small carving of Purrukuparli on his gravesite during the first Pukumani ceremony. See C P Mountford, The Tiwi, their art, myth and ceremony, Phoenix House, London, 1958, p 120.
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