Timothy Cook

With Melville’s traditions as background, the eye roams over the delicate, fine lines and blizzard-like dots of Timothy Cook’s canvas’ surface. One can trace a trajectory along and against the currents of these lines and dots. Cosmic, concentric, they serve to release the eye, and, perhaps, the mind.

Already a well-known Australian artist, this year is set to foster further recognition for Timothy Cook. From his studio on Melville Island, Cook’s paintings will appear in domestic and international arenas – and a spate of new prizes are on the horizon. With exhibitions planned in Australia, Europe and the United States at the time of writing, Cook has been selected as a finalist in the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ renowned Wynne Prize, as well as the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery’s ‘National Works on Paper’, and the King Wood Mallesons Contemporary First Nations Art Award.

Coming months will feature a solo exhibition at Sydney’s Aboriginal & Pacific Art (led by the long-standing Indigenous art ambassador Gabriella Roy) and at the Berlin gallery division of Michael Reid. Also overseas, a new textile design will be exhibited at UCLA’s Fowler Museum in the survey ‘Textiles from Australia’s Top End’. To top it all off, Cook’s artworks appear in the National Gallery of Victoria’s forthcoming ‘TIWI’ exhibition, presented among 153 artworks from Tiwi peoples of the Melville and Bathurst Islands, along with an array of curated historical objects and artifacts. Cook’s dance practice – a meditation on culture and dreaming – will be presented in a new, four-channel video installation along with twenty-five other artists from within the Northern Territory’s Jilamara Arts Community.

Cook’s prominence reflects a rapid momentum. Taking up painting and carving as a formal art-making endeavour in the 1990s, he first exhibited in 1997 and has been a part of the Jilamara Arts & Crafts Association since 1999. He won the prestigious Telstra Art Award in 2012.

Cook’s entry to the Wynne, Kulama (2019) registers as a milky foreground of white, brown, and red-on-white dots. Rendered in the natural ochres of the Northern Territory, the painting invokes a vortex, with detailed, blizzard-like specs layered between deliberate, concentric, drawn circles. The painting’s strong, directional lines are balanced by the a-directional, centreless dots. They suggest an element of (either) peering into, or out of, a space; a reminder that it, and we, are merely an aperture for somewhat more universal mysteries: chance, the random, and the idea of cosmic exploration.

For the National Works on Paper prize in Victoria, Cook has presented Kulama (2020). Broad, concentric circles appear
to contain a spectrum of looser, larger dots. At the center is a black abyss, punctuated by white, irregular circles: almost, but not quite, equidistant. The artwork toys with symmetry, yet doesn’t quite adhere to the construct. Instead, it suggests formal perspective, and assumes an aerial point of view. As such, Cook presents a tension between the painting’s black background (a common starting point across multiple of his artworks) and the vibrant, thickly layered geometric patterns which appear in overlay. A three-quadrant, colored plane at the artwork’s periphery assumes the shape of a boundary – a defined region suggesting containment.

Cook’s paintings echo the inherited designs of the Tiwi (the parlini jilamara, or ‘old time designs’) but also reflect on motifs employed by the recognised Milikapiti artists of Melville Island. The Tiwi people reside across both the Melville and Bathurst Islands, as places shaped by two main cultural happenings: the mourning ceremony of pukumani, and the coming-of-age rituals of kulama (which also translates to ‘yam’). The kulama ceremony revolves around the moon and represents, in a more literal way, the landscape of the Tiwi region. Both ceremonies articulate certain metanarratives: death, mortality, maturity, memory.

‘Japarra is the moon – it also means Moonman. He is important to the Tiwi people, they know. Japalinga means stars,’ says Cook, who talks about his art in a direct, committed way – describing to me, ‘I like painting for culture way – Kulama – that means painting culture. We teach culture. Kulama also mean[s] ‘yam’ – they eat that one, they get it from the ground and eat it. Kulama is ceremony where they yoi [dance] … my dance is Tartuwali – shark – [and] I paint Japarra, Kulama and Japalinga.’ He paints every day, usually until 2.30 in the afternoon.

Melville Island has developed a separate identity to mainland Australia, and Cook’s artworks speak to the region’s long and unusual past. Aboriginal ceremonies of singing and dancing have been mostly autonomous in terms of their unique and important arts, dance, and community crafts (this is despite a degree of engagement with Catholic missionaries dating back to 1911). The Tiwi language is itself is largely unadapted, stemming from an extended period of geographical isolation.

In many ways, Cook’s paintings open up a window into the history of the Melville islands, by engaging the region’s traditions of dance, culture and ritual. With their expressive, airy repetition of elder’s motifs they invite the viewer into a tribal culture, rich in art. Cook’s artmaking thus expresses an enormous individual creativity, and – at the same time – seems to allow for a full scope of Aboriginal ceremony, including singing and dancing, in great diversity. At once energetic, delicate, and ephemeral, his carvings, paintings and dance hold deep meaning in representing the traditional indigenous culture of the Island.

Whilst Cook’s paintings communicate a sense of Melville Island’s history, they also stand alone. ‘People recognise my paintings wherever I go,’ Cook remarks. The originality of the artist’s brushstrokes are at the forefront of his apparently abstract designs – the trace of the artist’s hand being readily apparent on bark or canvas.

At a time of global uncertainty, Cook’s practice is a touchstone. ‘I travelled all over the place, travelling long time – Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Germany, Paris’, he tells me, ‘I like travelling for exhibition and now nothing. It’s all different now.’ Even though he can’t attend his upcoming exhibitions in Sydney and Berlin, one senses that as an artist, Cook is not easily limited.   

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 53, 2020


23 November 2020 – 8 March 2021
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

2020 National Works on Paper
5 December 2020 – 21 February 2021
Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, Vic

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