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Aboriginal Carvings

About Aboriginal carvings

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The phrase “Australian Aboriginal carvings” is  synonymous with the Tiwi Islands.

The majority of aboriginal bird carvings seen in galleries come from the Tiwi artists.

The Tiwi people have occupied the islands in the Arafura sea about 80 Km North of Darwin

for at least 10,000 years. They have their own unique culture, language song, dance, art  and carvings. 

Tiwi Island Carvings


The aboriginal peoples of the Tiwi islands have a long and ancient tradition of carving.  Traditionally carving totem poles for the dead which is part of an ancient burial ceremony.

In addition, separate carvings of the Ancestral Beings connected with the mourning ceremony were also made decorated with natural ochres and brilliant feathers, and their significance in the ceremonies is still taught to descendants down through the ages.

The late 1950’s saw some of these skilled traditional carvers starting to carve small mini  replicas of the burial poles and the other figurative beings as artworks for sale to island visitors.


Turning their traditional taught skills towards producing artefacts the Tiwi Islander carvings are now collected sold and exhibited in many galleries.

How Man Became Mortal

The Tiwi ancestral beings were immortal until an event brought about the formation of the moon which also resulted in the death of the son of leading immortal being known as Purukapali. Purukapali’s wife  Wai-ai  transformed into a curlew. A curlew is a bird that makes a sound like someone crying at night as the moon rises. This is Wai-ai  forever crying her grief. Purukapali performed the first Pukumani ceremony which would call on all to follow his son’s fate.  And from that day on man became mortal.


The moon continues to remind all of the life and consequential death cycle.  New moon…Full moon… No moon.


The Pukumani ceremony ( funeral ceremony ) is reenacted when a person dies. It also entails that the relatives of the deceased arrange for the carving of burial poles which will be painted and placed as markers of the place where the once living will rest forever. 


As to the actual event that lead to the first Pukumani ceremony, there are many variations.  This is one given to us and very similar to that told to us by Eymard Tungutalum.


Purukuparli, the first Ancestral Being of the Tiwi tribe living on Bathurst and Melville Islands, went out hunting one day, leaving his wife Wai-ai (Bima) and baby son Jinani under the shade of a tree. His brother, Tapara, came into the camp and persuaded Bima to go off into the bush with him, leaving the baby still sleeping. Gradually the sun swung around and dehydrated him, and Purukuparli became very angry when he returned and found him in this condition.


When Tapara and Bima walked back into the camp the two men had a bitter fight, and to escape further injury Tapara flew up into the sky and became the man in the moon. Purukuparli picked up his son and started to walk backwards into the sea, vowing that death, hitherto unknown to the Tiwi tribe, would now come to everyone. In vain Tapara called down from the moon, begging Purukuparli to retract this decree, and promising he would come down and try to revive the baby, but Purukuparli kept on walking until the waves closed over his head. Bima changed into a curlew bird, and every night she can be heard crying for her lost husband and child as she wanders through the mangroves along the shores of Melville Island. Bima's father, Tokwampini the Honey Bird Man, was grief stricken that his daughter had been the cause of this terrible tragedy, and in an effort to make amends he organised a pukumani, or final mourning ceremony, to be performed after a number of carved ironwood poles, the number of which would be determined by the importance of the dead man, had been made from ironwood and decorated with body designs and totems. These poles would then be placed around the grave of the deceased person, and for three days mourners, their bodies and hair painted with ochres, would perform a series of songs and dances around the poles.


Bracelets and necklets made from cane and pandanus, with feathered attachments dangling from them, were to be twirled around as the singers and dancers went through the ritual song cycles.

Eymard Tungutalum Pukumani Totem

Eymard Tungutalum with a Pukumani pole in our  the gallery in Darwin NT

Figurative Carvings

 Anthropological interest in some figurine carvings from the 1930s, influenced local Pukumani carvers and they began carving male and female figures usually titled after the names of the ancestral beings of the Pukumani mythology or Murtankala the greater of the Tiwi Islands. This then extended to bird carvings as birds have special significance in Tiwi culture.  however , other believe that that traditionally and culturally the figurine were often carved and placed to watch over the spirits of the deceased. The fact that they wereactualy carved from ironwood would support this ( explained further  on).

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These fantastic early figurine images were copied from a website owned by Richard Aldridge who is a collector and dealer of early Aboriginal and New Guinea tribal art. The Aboriginal site has over 100 articles on Aboriginal Art and is well worth visit.

We dont have any carvings by the artists that carved the figures above. If we did they would be not be cheap.  On our home page we mentioned Dorothy Bennett she used to have an office in our gallery for several years before her death in 2003.

Dorothy was prolific collector of Tiwi art during the 1950s and 60s, Many items from Dorothy Bennett’s collections are now housed in the National Museum of Australia.

In the image above the first on left is by a sculptor widely regarded as the most outstanding of the early Tiwi artists, Enraeld Munkara Djulabinyanna was born in 1882 and was nearly 30 when the first missionaries came to Bathurst Island.  Many of the early artworks (barks carvings & paintings) depicted exaggerated genitalia.  The missions discouraged this practice and discouraged the what they saw as idol worship and idolatrous practices of totem ceremonies. However traditionalist Tiwi culture people such as Enraeld Tiwi held their ceremonies across the straits at Paru, a small independent village of families. There in Paru, creativity and carving flourished after World War II.

One of Enraeld’s figures that Dorothy collected in 1955 a 75cm high ironwood with attached beeswax and feathers sold at Sotheby’s auction in 2006 for AUD $60,000

Enraeld carved in the 1950’s and 60’s and died early 1970’s and so output was somewhat limited .If the presence of one of Enraeld's carvings is discovered it rarely remains in private hands.

  So if you think you have one call us.  ((((((( smile))))

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 Henry Djerringal  Born: 1943  from Milingimbi brought this wonderful figurative artwork in to the gallery.


Henry is the son of famous artist:  Tom Djawa 1

Born:  1905.  Died:   1980

Bede Tungutalum Pukumani head carvings.j

 Bede Tungutalum in our gallery in Darwin. Has brought in two carvings depicting the head of Purukuparli, one of the first Ancestral Being of the Tiwi tribe.

Purukuparli, Ironwood carving by Mario Munkara . This one is for sale 

Ironwood Carvings

 Artistic talent and creativity is and has always been respected and applauded  in Tiwi culture, which has lead to a very creative community. The individual creativity of the funeral figurines is quite unique. 


It is said that the figurative carvings were placed at the burial sites to  watch over and pacify  the  parting spirits.  This may explain in part why Erythrophleum chlorostachys (common name Ironwood) is traditionally used for the carvings.


Its very dense wood, very heavy with inconsistent grain. The timber cracks but very rarely splits. But traditional its main characteristic is its toxicity which makes the heart wood resistant to termites. The same reason early pastoralist used it for fence post.


These factors make it the only timber that will stand up to the environmental elements and termite attack. Thats why it was used for the burial pukumani poles and also reason it was used for the  figurines. If any other native timber was used the poles and figures would not stand for long. Ironwood poles in the ground stand the test of time.


The heartwood lasting 30 -40 years or longer. Its not an easy wood to carve. There are a lot of much easier timber to carve. But the Ironwood is selected for its longevity.


Bird  Carvings

 Tokampini, the birds, often depicted as water birds such as  jabirus, cormorants and pelicans are the messengers, The teller of tales and deeds. The bringers of knowledge from the spiritual world. The owl, curlew and small honey eater have special significance within the Pukumani myth.

Bird feathers and ochers are used in to decorate the bodies of those taking part in ceremony so they won’t be recognised by the spirits of the dead. 

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