Biennale of Sydney

Pedro Wonaeamirri

Pedro Wonaeamirri, Tutini, (detail) 2019, natural ochres on ironwood, onsite at ceremonial location in Milikapiti, Photo: Will Heathcote, courtesy of the artist, Jilamara Arts and Craft and Alcaston Gallery. © Pedro Wonaeamirri

Pedro Wonaeamirri

Born 1974 in Pirlangimpi, Melville Island, Australia
Lives and works in Milikapiti, Melville Island

Steeped in Tiwi tradition, Pedro Wonaeamirri’s contemporary art practice has its foundations in Jilamara – design derived from ceremonial body painting, also applied to tutini mourning poles, tunga (folded bark bags) and associated ritual objects made for ceremony and Tiwi yoi (dance). His artworks are held in numerous national, state and private collections Australia-wide and overseas.

Pedro Wonaeamirri’s contribution to NIRIN hones his long-standing work with hand-carved ironwood tutini poles, and the Jilamara painting styles used to decorate them. For this project, he is working in collaboration with senior Jilamara carver Patriçk Freddy Puruntatameri to create a significant installation of new works. 

The Tiwi word Jilamara describes traditional body painting designs originally reserved for ceremonial practice. It is applied to the face and body using carved wooden combs (pwoja), twigs or brushes. These mark-making designs have been passed down through generations, and disguise people from the spirit of their deceased relatives during Pukumani – a ceremony held a year or so after a person’s death where song, dance and commissioned tutini poles come together to release their spirit back to rest on country.

‘When a person passes away, six months later the family gets together and decides if they will go ahead with the ceremony … All of the in-laws come and bring tomahawks, white ochre, a lighter. A tomahawk to go and cut the timber; the white ochre to paint the timber; and the lighter to burn the grass, to keep the spirit away while you are working on the poles. When they make the poles, sometimes the families of the deceased person – the Pukumani – go and see the workers and sometimes sit down and share food, but someone has to feed them. Pukumani people are not allowed to touch the food. Later, with the Pukumani poles we go to the ceremonial ground, [and] with dancing and singing we show our respect to the dead. Pukumani is more a celebration, more a goodbye ceremony, like: ”Goodbye, see you next time in your country.”’1

While traditionally commissioned by specific family members for Pukumani ceremonies, tutini have a more recent history of being created for collection and public exhibition. The Art Gallery of New South Wales houses a significant historical collection of ironwood tutini from Pedro Wonaeamirri’s home town of Milikapiti. They were commissioned in the 1950s by the then deputy director Tony Tuckson. In the 1990s, Pedro was invited to respond to this body of work, and subsequently created six poles that now sit beside these works of his ancestors. His invitation to exhibit a significant install of new tutini works for NIRIN draws on a long-standing historical narrative within which Wonaeamirri’s unique Tiwi voice resonates through generations.