The Arts

Celebrating arts & culture

Pedro Wonaeamirri and Tiwi art tradition

One of the Tiwi artists featured in a new book Tiwi: Art/ History/ Culture written by Jennifer Isaacs, Pedro Wonaeamirri is carrying on the tradition of painting ‘Jilamara’ or ‘good design’. He works out of the Jilamara Arts and Craft Association at Milikapiti on Melville Island.

Pedro has been painting at the Jilamara Arts and Craft Association since he was 17 years old. Now, at age 39, he is a senior artist at the centre. Apart from creating his own work there, he also assists other artists with their work, travels and promotes the work of the centre.

“As senior artist, my art is based on myself as an artist and Pukumani body-paint design,” Pedro says.

“I paint my own designs on paper and canvas. We all have a different style of painting at Jilamara – Tiwi art and culture is completely different to mainland Aboriginal Australia. We are Island people and the art represents our culture – who we are as people of the Tiwi Islands.”

Pedro paints and he also makes Pukumani carvings and figures. This ceremony is the traditional Tiwi burial ceremony. It includes singing, dancing and the making of special carved poles called tutini, as well as tungas and armbands. These large poles are made from the trunk of the ironwood tree and are carved and decorated to celebrate the dead person’s life and spiritual journey.

“Sometimes my art is based on Pukumani Ceremony – or disguised as spirits of the dead. The design that comes from me when I paint on canvas or paper is Tiwi design based on body painting.”

He says he often uses traditional ochres on canvas, paper, barks, tunga bags and ironwood sculptures. He has also used tools such as traditional wooden combs and sometimes he uses a brush.

Pedro has also travelled overseas and has been a spokesperson for Tiwi Art.

“I come from a small community, but I have exhibited in Australia and overseas – in Seattle and Germany… twice – taking the art from the Jilamara centre over to Europe,” he says.

“As a senior artist here, I also encourage the up-and-coming artists. We work together as a team.”

Pedro says the Tiwi Islands is a beautiful place to live.

“The Tiwi Islands are home to the Tiwi people. It is wet season now and it is beautiful. There are about 500 people in my community of Milikapiti. The largest community is on Bathurst Island – there are two communities on Melville and two on Bathurst Island.”

He says there are up to 60 artists at the Jilamara Arts and Craft Association, with 15–20 regular artists working at the centre and others working from home.

“We get lots of tourists coming here to the art centre and buying art through the centre. It is good for the community,” he says.

Pedro also has work included in installations at the Museum of Victoria, the National Gallery of Victoria, and the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney. He has nine ironwood Pukumani poles made from ochres, feathers and beeswax in the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW.

He is also a traditional dancer who often performs at ceremonies and important events. Pedro honours his traditional culture and is intent on cherishing and passing on Tiwi culture to future generations.

For more information on the artists at the Jilamara Arts and Craft Association visit:

Jennifer Isaac’s book Tiwi: Art/History/Culture is out now (published by The Miegunyah Press, an imprint of Melbourne University Publishing).

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