Tiwi Bark Painting
Attributed to Pulanimbuli
Tiwi, Melville or Bathurst Island OR Kunwinku, Injalak
Eucalyptus bark and black and white ochre
Researched and written by Courtney Erickson, Tim Dodson, and Michael Watson, Western Albemarle High School Advanced Placement Art History Course, led by Kelly Burnette, Young Art Historians Program
This painting depicts an interaction between the Tiwi people of Melville and Bathurst Islands and a group of foreigners. In the upper right hand corner, there is a ship with two masts. There are two sails on the left mast and one sail on right mast. To the left of the ship, there are smaller ships that may be launching from the larger vessel. Approaching the ships are three figures carrying spears. In the lower left hand corner, there is a large figure with an oval head and a protruding belly, with arms raised and knees bent. To the right of the figure, there is a variety of sea life, namely dugong, turtles, eels, and a shark. Above the marine animals there are four dead frog-like bodies floating in the water. Lush, fern-like vegetation borders the left and bottom sides of the painting. The ochres are unstable and there is some severe paint loss. The white pigment is now tannish-brown, perhaps due to aging, and the plane of the bark is warped.
Professor Edward L. Ruhe purchased this painting from Geoffrey Spence in 1968. The records associated with Ruhe’s acquisition of a number of works from Spence at this time indicate that this work was created in 1964.
There are two possible identities for the large figure in the foreground. The first is that it is Luma Luma, which was suggested by Dr. Judith Ryan. She suggests that the painting could have been made by a Kunwinjku artist rather than a Tiwi artist. In Kunwinku culture, Luma Luma is represented as a cultural hero, but was also known for stealing men’s wives. He is said to have travelled from Indonesia to many regions of Australia, where he was attacked by local tribesmen as an unknown stranger. He then taught them dances and painting styles associated with each man’s ancestral country. He is also described as being a giant, meaning physically large in size. Because the figure is larger than all of the others, and because his body paint designs are similar to other Tiwi designs, it is possible that the large figure in the foreground is Luma Luma. In the middle ground there are people with spears that seem to be attacking the invaders, or what could be Luma Luma’s travelling companions. The ship in the background also looks similar to a prau sailboat, which is common for the area of Indonesia that Luma Luma is supposed to have originated from.
An alternate theory is that the larger figure in this work is Jirakupai, an ancestral being in Tiwi culture. Jirakupai lived near a lagoon on Bathurst Island, and the lush vegetation on the left and bottom sides of the painting may be indicative of a lagoon environment, establishing a geographic connection to Jirakupai. Jirakupai is known as the creator of barbed spears, which had gender associations depending on the placement of the barbs. Male spears had barbs on one side, while female spears had barbs on both sides. The figures in the painting appear to be carrying male spears to fight against a group of invaders. The spears also resemble tunkalinta spears, which are associated with the Pukamani mortuary ceremony. In this case the spears may relate to the dead frog-like bodies rather than indicating some kind of attack. According to the story, Jirakupai was killed by raiders from neighboring Melville Island. The large ship in the painting may be the one that carried the raiders. However, it resembles a prau sailboat, which is most often associated with the Macassan people of Indonesia and would therefore be anachronous with the story of Jirakupai. It is also possible that the painting represents a situation in which perhaps Jirakupai is protecting the Tiwi people from Macassan traders and is arming the Tiwi people with spears.
Since both theories about the identity of the large figure have evidence to the support them, no definite conclusion has been made.
Although the artist is listed as Pulanimbuli, this could not be verified. This name does not appear in other public collection databases and this seems to be the only known work by this artist. Additionally, in Geoffrey Spence’s original notes of the sale of this painting, the artist is listed as unknown.