DETAIL : Jimmy BAKER 'Katatjita' 2006 synthetic polymer paint on canvas, Courtesy of Marshall Arts Aboriginal Fine Art Gallery, � Jimmy Baker
Jean Baptiste APUATIMI | Jikapayinga

APUATIMI, Jean Baptiste
Australia 1940
Jikapayinga 2007
natural earth pigments on canvas
160.0 (h) x 200.0 (w) cm
Purchased 2007
NGA 2007.181
© Jean Baptiste Apuatimi

Jean Baptiste Apuatimi was born at Pirlangimpi (Garden Point) on Melville Island. Her country is Imalu, from her father’s country, which is her husband’s country too. Her skin group is Tapatapunga (March Fly), from her mother. When she was a young girl the family moved to Nguiu on Bathurst Island, where she lived at the convent and was educated and cared for by the nuns from the Catholic mission. She was happy at the convent: ‘My mother and father used to come and visit me. I was a dormitory girl.’ When Jean reached the age of fourteen her parents chose Declan to be her husband:

My mother and father gave me to marry Declan Apuatimi. He was the same skin group as my father, Karntukini (Ironwood), from the same country. They chose him, they loved him.[1]

Jean and Declan were one of the first Tiwi couples to be married in a Catholic ceremony. Her eyes sparkle and she buries her face in her hands with laughter as she recalls her wedding day: ‘I said I’ll take you as my awful husband. He left out the back door and I left out the front door.’

When we got married and we had children I was happy. He gave me eleven children that old man. Declan was doing all the painting and all the carving then. He used to tell me to stay at home and look after the children. He would go out and get ironwood, tunga, pandanus, to make pamijini, spear, pole, all them things for ceremony. I sat with him. I watched him what he was doing. I used to help him. Josette and Carmelina used to help him too. He showed them how to carve. He told them stories.[2]

After Declan passed away in 1985 Jean moved to Milikapiti, back to Melville Island. At that time she painted alongside Kitty Kantilla.

Same painting like this parlini jilamara. This is olden days painting. Long time ago in the early days we put yalinga (red), arrikininga (yellow) and tutyangini (white) ochre on our face and body for pukumaniand kulama ceremonies. We call this minga. I used to do that at Snake Bay.

In 1991 Jean participated in her first exhibition Jilamara Milikapiti at Alcaston Gallery in Fitzroy, Melbourne. She moved back to Nguiu three years later and worked at the hospital – cleaning and making damper – for half the day and painted in the afternoon. Jean began painting full time in 1997, encouraged by Gillian Dallwitz, the then new art centre manager at Tiwi Design.

Jean is one of the most senior artists on the Tiwi Islands, with a career now spanning twenty-one years. Every day she walks around the corner from her home to Tiwi Design to paint. She shares a cup of tea, a piece of damper, a cigarette and a laugh with her Tiwi Design family before settling down to work. She paints alongside her daughter Marie Josette Orsto, as well as Margaret Renee Kerinauia, Ita Tipungwuti, Roslyn Orsto and Alan Kerinauia. They all call her aunty. This group of painters have worked together since the late 1990s, and together they have created the special atmosphere and community spirit that is Tiwi Design.

In 2006, soon after Jean’s eldest daughter Carmelina Puantulura passed away, she began working on a series of pukumani and kulama ceremony paintings. Although the current ceremonies no longer include many of the ceremonial objects and body decorations of the past, in her work the artist likes to recall the ritual practices that Declan participated in when he was alive, and her paintings play an important role in passing on Tiwi traditions to younger generations. She has moved beyond using only red, white and yellow for these works, adopting the practice of mixing ochres to create greens, blues, pinks and purples, initiated by Marie Evelyn Puautjimi in the 1990s.

Jean Baptiste Apuatimi paints with conviction, certain of her role as an artist who has carried on the tradition of jilamara and the responsibility of caring for her family, as well as establishing herself as a significant Australian artist in her own right.

Angela Hill


For Jean Baptiste Apuatimi, painting is a way of remembering her late husband and mentor Declan Karrilikiya Apuatimi who, in teaching her to carve and paint, passed on his personal jilamara(design), which survives but is dramatically re-interpreted in her work. The source of the artist’s vigorous carving style, figurative iconography, spontaneously painted designs of pwanga amintiya marlipinyini(dots and lines)[3] and bright ochre palette undoubtedly lies in Declan’s inspirational oeuvre, much of which was produced collaboratively with her, if largely unacknowledged. But once she focused on painting in her own name, Jean Baptiste immersed herself in making art and graduallyforged a radical individual style recognisable for its gestural verve, audacious jilamara and oscillation between figuration and conceptual abstraction. The potency of her innovative aesthetic derives from both its compositional expansiveness and
close connection with customary ritual.

After Declan’s passing and Jean’s move to Milikapiti on Melville Island,she dispensed with her chisel and established herself as a painter. Her work first came to my attention in 1992, when eight bark paintings of hers were exhibited and subsequently acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria.[4] The barks served to establish her signature style: compositions of dotted or hatched squares, circles and rectangles in which she structured schematic tutini (pukumani poles),japalingini(headbands), pamijini (armbands) and Tiwi ancestors conceived in the form of sculptural objects. Declan’s sombre red ochre and black palette, and heavier mark-making is set aside and reinterpreted in a delicacy of line and a penchant for white and yellow ochre detailing, which is visually accentuated by the negative space of sections left black.

Back in Nguiu on Bathurst Island, Jean painted very little from 1993 until 1997 when she began to work full time at Tiwi Design. She renewed her acquaintance with Declan’s work and made a tunga (bark basket) painted with a grid of parallel lines and squares. A large canvas ensued, which expanded small sections of this linear design to create her first large-scale composition of pukumani poles: a sequence of vertical dotted, crosshatched and solid bands of colour creating a riot of pattern that masks the background. The massed bold abstracted poles and other geometric crocodile compositions in her inaugural solo exhibition of 1999[5] revealed her daring conceptual vision and signalled a new direction in her practice. The artist’s dynamic gestural painting, raw and idiosyncratic, exploits the physicality of the painted surface, what she terms ‘crooked’ painting.

Jikapayinga 2007 and Yirrikapayi 2007 are both inspired by ochre designs on objects and transformed into modern conceptions. Jikapayinga, the cheeky female crocodile who lives in a waterlily place, is schematised by a plethora of freely painted, different sized squares floating on a black ground, whereas Yirrikapayi, a man who transformed into a crocodile after he had been speared, is represented by multiple conjoined crosshatched and dotted squares and triangles, a flattened version of the textured grid of squares used by Declan to indicate crocodile skin in his carvings.

These works – rich in the rhythmical patterning of Tiwi jilamara, which is used to disguise the bodies of Pukumani participants from mapurtiti (malevolent spirits of the dead) – are characterised by a reduction of the figure to the grid. Jean, however, expresses her cultural activism by depicting important ritual objects encoded with meaning on black, sepia or red ochre grounds.

Yirrikamini 2007 is a dramatic close-up view of the individual shapes and surface patterns of five tutini: ‘that one pukumani: that means really sad ceremony … Those poles remind me of Snake Bay … [of] my husband. He carves that way.’[6] By including tutini, japurraringa and pamijini in her paintings, the artist refers to the story of Purrukuparli, which explains how death came to the Tiwi. This symbiosis of iconography and narrative imbues these works with an indelible and immutable Tiwiness which is intrinsically associated with the poetics of mourning.

Jean’s paintings generally rely on strong Tiwi colours of red, yellow, black and white, a palette that references the work of Declan, with pigments pure and intense rather than subdued by intermixing. She has recently expanded her palette, mixing softer nuances of natural ochres, resulting in a quieter tonality, and has also ventured by painting her forthright jilamaraonto a white ground, so that it stands up stark rather than emerging subtly from a black ground.

Although plagued by ‘too much humbug’[7], Jean is a warrior for Tiwi culture: her zest for painting and for seeking out new compositions, colours and designs remains undiminished. Art is her authoritative form of activism. In her audacious canvases parlini jilamara (old designs) of Declan are celebrated and revitalised with a modernist awareness.

Judith Ryan


[1] All statements from Jean Baptiste Apuatimi quoted in this essay were recorded and transcribed by Angela Hill at Nguiu, 3 February 2007.

[2] Sadly Jean’s eldest daughter Carmelina Puantulura, a talented carver, painter and musician, as well as a highly respected teacher and culture woman, passed away in 2006. Jean’s other daughter Marie Josette Orsto has painted and carved at Tiwi Design since 1991, and her son Declan Apuatimi is a carver and potter at Munupi Arts and Crafts.

[3] The spelling of Tiwi words is based on the Tiwi-English dictionary compiled by Jennifer Lee, Ngawurranungurumagi Nginingawila Ngapangiraga: Tiwi – English Dictionary, Darwin:The Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1993, in consultation with artists at Tiwi Design.

[4] Ngingingawula jilamara kapi purunguparri: our designs on bark, 12 September – 2 November 1992, an exhibition of fifty-five bark paintings and printed textiles organised by theNational Gallery of Victoria in conjunction with Jilamara Arts & Craft Association, Milikapiti, Melville Island.

[5] Sutton Gallery, Fitzroy, Melbourne, the first of ten solo exhibitions.

[6] Jean Baptiste Apuatimi interview by Angela Hill, Tiwi Design, email to Judith Ryan, 5 March 2007.

[7] These words were on the door of Jean Baptiste Apuatimi’s house at Nguiu, photographed by Gillian Dallwitz in 1999.