Pedro Wonaeamirri

In Issue 39, John von Sturmer discusses how Tiwi Islander Pedro Wonaeamirri engages with tradition in his multilayered paintings and prints.

Tiwi Islander Pedro Wonaeamirri’s beautiful, intricate work is part of a touring art exhibition called Being Tiwi, which is crossing Australia this year. Spanning works on canvas, bark and printmaking, Mr Wonaeamirri’s art springs from ancient Tiwi teachings, especially the dance story of betrayal and death that is the legend of Purukupali and his brother, Tapara.

The Museum of Contemporary Art show ‘Being Tiwi’, currently touring various regional centres, has already been to Moree in New South Wales, Tandanya in South Australia, and Mackay in Queensland. The national tour will be visiting other centres in the rest of 2017: Albury and Port Macquarie in New South Wales, and the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery at the University of Western Australia. I wonder how it would be received on the islands themselves? Being Tiwi. A good question. And where does art or art production figure in that self-definition?

There is little point asserting uniqueness unless the content of that uniqueness is specified. And not just what it is but what the implications are. In the case of the Tiwi one manifestation is that they have a degree of political and administrative autonomy: they are a people apart – with the implication that they are less defined by outsiders than driven towards internal differentiation.

In the contemporary scene this is easily seen in the arena of Aussie Rules football. There the Tiwi are skilled practitioners – a single code with multiple teams each with its own uniform. This may be a good way of thinking about the art scene: multiple players but each with their own take on the principal games.

On the Tiwi Islands, Pukumani and Kulama, the yam ceremony, rule the roost – especially Pukumani. The why of this is not easily answered, except to suggest that it represents something earnest. And indeed, death is an earnest business – not just the death of the individual but the potential death of the society and its modes of being. It’s not just about maintaining custom or customs, as if they are things that can be donned or taken off at will, like optional accessories.

I had the great privilege of witnessing the peerless Christopher Tipungwuti perform Purukupali and give instruction in this dance in 1972. In his hands and in the precise movements of his feet, the scrupulousness of his movements, we witnessed one of the great dances of the world performed by one of its greatest dancers. We live in a society that has never sought a World Heritage Listing for its great dance traditions.

The story of Purukupali is well known. His wife Waye (in some accounts) has a lover’s tryst with Purukupali’s brother, Tapara. She has left her child in the sun and it perishes from exposure. Tapara the Moon Man has the power of life and death and offers to bring the child back to life. Purukupali refuses, and enraged and grief-stricken, stamps out to sea leaving his footprints.

Intuitively we all have a sense of Purukupali’s refusal. He is subject to a double betrayal, both by his wife and his brother, and it is in this scenario of betrayal that death is inaugurated in the world – inaugurated and made certain.

The notion of the lifeworld as a scene of betrayal is a profound one – and nothing to be done. But there is nothing on the surface of it that would seem to exalt Purukupali to the status of hero or founding father – yet he seems to occupy that position. His Everyman seems to be a version of sorts of Rabelais’s Panurge: cocu, battu et desrobé – cuckolded, beaten, stripped (bare). But Purukupali transcends Panurge’s abject status as a sort of poor man’s Christ.

Purukupali, in my reading, is betrayed but refuses to be dishonoured. He remains a man of action – disappearing into oblivion but putting a curse on the whole of humanity to follow in his footsteps. Self-annihilation is preferable to annihilation by the other. It’s an Othello story with Purukupali playing his own Desdemona. What is it then to live under the curse of Purukupali? Is shame always just around the corner? Is death truly to be preferred to dishonour? In Fiji the Fijians wept to see Christopher dance – what did they grasp that others do not?

At first glance Pedro Wonaeamirri’s work is rather dry-eyed. Indeed, the expression I would use is ‘lockered up’. If we go to Jilamara (2015), we might think of it as an ordering machine with little drawers for everything under the sun – a Whole Earth Catalogue or compendium. Whether the drawers are empty or full can be a matter of conjecture. Rather than objects (pins or little sketches) perhaps what is meant to be contained are ideas – memories, grievances, thoughts both thought and unthought; the whole body of being.

The surface of our cabinet de trouvailles is like marquetry inlay – devilishly arranged so that instead of being flat we might be reminded that it could equally be circular – the two side edges meeting if not directly but with a little imagining. Otherwise it is entirely static – an anti-activity apparatus. And it is true: all art works freeze – even the most strident expressive sweep of the brush.

That isn’t what is going on here. It is about orderliness, assignment, precision, punctilio. How that relates to the medium I do not know. What interests me is the certainty of the ‘installation’ – what goes where. At the present conjuncture it looks like architectural designs for a set of grand edifices yet to be constructed. There is nothing “bushy” about it. It shows the artist’s mind at work but does not reveal its secrets. Our curiosity can get the better of us but it will never finally reveal the truth.

There are two early prints that come to us from the Australian Print Workshop Archive. They interest because they are – at least on first appearance – diametrically opposed to each other. The first work, Pukumani objects (2000), has a definite western cast to it and raises the question of the impact of western visual forms and conventions, through school and other channels. Without a fuller survey of Mr Wonaeamirri’s work it is impossible to establish whether this is a one-off or not: an experiment not only in the medium but in what might be called strategies of representation. The forms are well-enough known for anyone with even a passing encounter with Tiwi culture: the beard, the circlet with goose-down tassel, on one side, the heavy saw-toothed spear (for ceremonial purposes only) juxtaposed and opposed on the other. These are all parts of Purukupali’s regalia.

Even so, there is an immediate and unmistakable sense of western perspective and its tradition of still-life composition. Equally let us remark on the way these paraphernalia extend beyond the frame – or to its very verge at least. They are not isolated from the other objects – or from the world out there. This suggests two sorts of complex: one, of things in this world, and two, a relationship between this world and that other world – what we might call the ancestral. We might suggest that representation in this world is a direct representation of what exists in that other world. This challenges any notion that the work is merely decorative. Art brings the other world to us.

As for the poles, which in my reading are both representational and phenomenal (that is, they stand for something and they are things in themselves with their own presence and force and being), his reside on the pure rather than the flamboyant side of things. One exception I have noted is a pole with the figure of Purukupali carved at the top. I am inclined, perhaps mistakenly, to see this not so much conventional as an effort – rather like the Aurukun/Kugu story carvings – to explain the significance of the dance performance and the poles themselves to outsiders: like subtitles but at the top rather than at the bottom.

I choose to locate the second work, also a print (not titled, 1999), as a basic template. Apparently simple and emitting only the most subdued of tonalities, it calls forth an activating play which sets the work in a mazy motion. Yet underlying it all is the insistence on the grid. Its moves underlie much of his other – and later – work.

Tradition provides secure anchoring points – external, transpersonal meanings, a sort of objective condition that can nonetheless be felt. Tradition is sentiment channelled into forms. The art product is rendered impersonal. It has an objective force that gives it solidity. It acquires a special visuality that renders it opaque. You can see it but you can’t see through it. Repetition can of course subside into the perfunctory yet we have no sense of this in Mr Wonaeamirri’s work. His work involves something like a stubbornness that wards off such a fate. Through time there is perhaps a tendency towards a greater elaboration of surface elements and interrelationships, and a wider range of tonalities though in fact it is the works with limited tonality that strike me as of the greater integrity. His work is studious, unhurried. There is no great sense of crisis, either personal or societal. One has a sense of a secret encyclopaedist: caught between a desire to notate and a desire to extend the range of the notional.

It is at base modest.

The move from the skin to the painted or worked surface represents a first-degree detachment. The print pushes the detachment further – into repetitions and seriality and multiplicity. Everyone, anyone can acquire a body – a process in which the artist remains in control and become as it were a super cultural mediator. The ready transfer of designs and stories from one medium to another cannot surprise us too much given the stability of the principal ritual forms.

Meanwhile the Tiwi are in the world – not just their own world. Pedro Wonaeamirri is one of the artists selected for this year’s Triennial at the National Gallery of Australia: Defying Empire. His work is neither defence nor defiance nor challenge. There is nothing disquieting about it – and it makes no exuberant flourishes.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 39, 2017

Pedro Wonaeamirri in conversation with Jonathan Jones
19 February 2020, 6–8pm
Artspace, Sydney

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