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Bathurst and Melville, Tiwi Islands, Northern Territory

Tiwi country

Give and take

I want to share this culture of mine with other cultures, to understand about Tiwi Islands ... It makes me really strong and very proud of who I am. And where do I come from and what language do I speak – it’s Tiwi.

Pedro Wonaeamirri, Tiwi, 2013

A photo of bushland populated with tall trees. The backdrop is a bright blue sky.
Tiwi country, Bathurst and Melville islands, Northern Territory. © Peter Eve, 2007.

In Tiwi belief, the creation figure Mundangkala moved across the landscape, forming the Tiwi Islands. It is a place with a distinct culture. Objects like tunga (bark baskets) and pukumani poles are only made by Tiwi people.

Basket made of folded bark with a geometric design painted with pigment.
Tunga (bark basket), Tiwi people, collected by William Dawson in 1912, 67.4 x 50.7 cm x 40.5 cm (diameter). British Museum Oc1913,-.145.

By the early 20th century, the Tiwi were trading cultural items such as spears, dance ornaments and baskets to Darwin’s growing non-Indigenous population.

There’s this give and take – I’ll give you this, and you pay me this, or give me some money.

Jedda Puruntatameri, Tiwi, 2013

In 1912, Dr William Dawson briefly served as Port Darwin’s quarantine officer. During his short stay, Dawson collected some 50 items, mostly from Melville Island. Frustratingly, he left almost no information about the people he met or the objects he collected.

Our material goes away and Tiwi people don’t know about it.

Gibson Farmer Illortamini, Tiwi, 2013

Old objects

In 1913, Dawson gave his collection from northern Australia, including this tunga (bark basket) pictured right, to the British Museum. After his posting in Darwin, he returned south and worked in Newcastle, New South Wales.

New objects

A bark container, made of eucalypt bark and natural fibre painted with natural ochres
Tunga (bark basket) 2013 (front and back), by Kenny Brown, Tiwi people, 73 x 56 x 30 cm (diameter). National Museum of Australia. Photos: George Serras.

We want to share objects with people, so they can understand what we do, and how we do it ... They can see what I'm doing now – they can learn.

Kenny Brown, Tiwi, 2013
Kenny Brown
Artist Kenny Brown (centre), Tiwi, preparing bark for a tunga (bark basket). National Museum of Australia.
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