Arts Law Outreach to the Tiwi Islands

Artist Gordon P and Director of Artists in the Black Legal Donna Robinson sitting together in a large art centre
Donna Robinson with artist Gordon P at Ngaruwanajirri Art Centre

Arts Law had the privilege of visiting art centres and organisations across the Tiwi Islands in April and May 2024. The artists we met work across a broad range of practices reflecting the Tiwi Islands’ rich cultural and artistic history – painting, mainly with ochre, carving, weaving, print making, textile printing and fashion. The strength of Tiwi culture is reflected in there being five art centres from a population of fewer than 3,000 people on Melville and Bathurst Islands.  This also highlights the fundamental importance of art centres and women’s centres where art is practiced, as community centres and as economic centres for their communities.

Louise Buckingham (CEO, Arts Law), Jack Howard (Solicitor, Arts Law) and Kelly Williamson (Solicitor, King & Wood Mallesons) travelled to Melville Island to visit Jilamara Arts & Crafts, Milikapiti, and Munupi Arts & Crafts, Pirlangimpi.

We delivered workshops at both art centres on copyright, moral rights, Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property (ICIP) and wills, followed by legal advice and wills clinics with artists at each art centre.

Flying into Milikapiti, we saw the lush forest across Melville Island and the winding rivers of what was named “Snake Bay” when the community was established. Driving west from Milikapiti to Pirlangimpi, artist, carver and art centre worker at Jilamara, Wally Brooks, pointed out to us the ironwood trees that Tiwi artists have used for generations to create carvings, including poles for pukumani funerary ceremonies. He also showed us areas where ochre is collected as pigment. Taken as found, the pigment is a deep, earthy yellow. When fired, it oxidises into a distinctive, ferrous red.

While Jilamara artists exclusively paint with natural ochres, Munupi artists create canvases with a mix of ochres and acrylic paint. At both art centres, there is a strong sense of both tradition and contemporary practice, with works that draw on the traditional designs used in body painting for ceremonies, as well as figure and history paintings that apply the Tiwi way of seeing to figures like the popes and saints of Catholicism or events like the Bombing of Darwin.

Donna Robinson (Director, Artists in the Black Legal) travelled to Wurrumiyanga, Bathurst Island, to meet with the artists, art centre managers and arts workers at Ngaruwanajirri Art Centre, Bima Wear and Tiwi Designs. She was accompanied by Andrew Logie-Smith from Colin Biggers & Paisley.

We delivered workshops on copyright, licensing, ICIP,  the importance of artist-art centre agreements and wills at Ngaruwanajirri and Bima Wear and gave legal advice and prepared wills for the artists.

We would like to extend our sincere appreciation to the managers, arts workers and artists at the art centres for hosting us so warmly. Jilamara and Manupi art centres were among the very first visited by Arts Law in 2008 shortly after our Wills Project began and this was our first visit to Ngaruwanajirri and Bima Wear.

We look forward to continuing to support the artists on the Tiwi Islands for many years to come.