Pedro Wonaeamirri

(Australia 22 Jul 1974 – )

Milikapiti, North region, Melville Island, North region
Language group
Tiwi, North region

Pwoja - Pukumani body paint design

Not on display
Further information

This painting is a variation on the body paint theme that is the basis of a large portion of contemporary Tiwi art. Pedro Wonaeamirri was a finalist for the Northern Territories Young Australian of the Year in 1999. This is in recognition of his importance to the community at Milikapiti, Melville Island. Wonaeamirri is currently President of Jilamara Arts and Crafts Association. Although he is a young man he is also one of the few speakers of the old Tiwi language and is vitally concerned with cultural maintenance. In recent years Wonaeamirri has organised visits to institutions including the Museums of South Australia and Victoria in order to look at their collections of Tiwi objects dating back to the turn of the century. The visits have inspired several series of prints and a revival in the manufacture of similar objects.

Documentation provided with the painting states:
"The art of Pedro Wonaeamirri is steeped in Tiwi tradition; he has known no other way of communicating and thus his paintings, based on pwoja – body painting and his carved Pukumani poles are his link to the tradition and to the future of the Tiwi people. Tiwi art is derived from ceremonial body painting and the ornate decoration applied to Pukumani funerary poles, Yimawilini bark baskets, and associated ritual objects made for the Pukumani ceremony. Traditionally the deceased Tiwi people are buried on the day they pass away but the Pukumani ceremonies are performed six months to several years after the death".

"The Pukumani ceremony is very important to us" Pedro Wonaeamirri states. "It's a time when we get together and the old people sing and dance. Paintings and sculpture are about that ceremony. The designs are already in my head and I use our traditional wooden comb and ochre to paint."

The relatives of the deceased commission their in-laws to make the poles and tunga bags. The importance of the person usually indicates how many poles would be carved and painted, but also for varied reasons, how many relatives were available to make the objects. Ironwood is extremely heavy and the ochres need to be obtained from some remote sites. The in-laws time and effort in producing a pole was always valued (paid for) and in the old days they received food, ceremonial ornaments and young women as gratitude.

The tunga bag, or bark basket, was once used to carry food and water, but as the deceased person no longer needs these fundamental requirements, the bags are placed empty on top of the pole at the burial ground. The burial grounds are spectacular, with masses of weather worn poles; as many as six or seven poles surrounding each person's grave. The poles and tungas which are produced today are symbolic and created for the art market, however the Pukumani ceremony is still integral to contemporary Tiwi life.

The use of a black background is typical of much Milikapiti Tiwi art indicating its link with the old ceremonial body-painting. The decorative motif Mulypinyini amintiya pwanga (lines and dots), form as a common basis for many of the abstract designs, which have no specific meaning. The use of a white background on canvas or bark relates to the ritual covering of the body in white ochre for ceremonies. These patterns may sometimes be used in combination with images of ritual objects such as pamijini (armbands), arawinjkiri (ceremonial spears) or a favourite bush tucker, which is still hunted on Melville Island.

"My father's side (father's father) paint me up. He knows the design – he is no longer with us (he gave me that design). My totem is Brolga – my totem for dancing. I have a song to go with that – it comes from my father's father (he was a Brolga too!) All my children and my brother's children are Brolgas".

Wonaeamirri is considered an ambassador for his Tiwi people. In this capacity he has represented Tiwi people extensively at group exhibitions in most States of Australia and internationally.

© Australian Art Department, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2004

Place of origin
Milikapiti (Snake Bay), Melville Island, Northern Territory, Australia
natural pigments on paper
76.0 cm x 56.0 cm sheet
Purchased with funds provided by the Aboriginal Collection Benefactors' Group 2004
Accession number
© Pedro Wonaeamirri, courtesy Jilamara Arts. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney