Art, Culture, Country

Partnering with remote Indigenous Art Centres to deliver a landmark digital project that empowers Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists to create and share unique arts and cultural experiences with the world.


Art, Culture, Country

Partnering with remote Indigenous Art Centres to deliver a landmark digital project that empowers Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists to create and share unique arts and cultural experiences with the world.

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Michelle Pulatuwayu Woody Minnapinni – In Relation

by Coby Edgar

Michelle Pulatuwayu Woody Minnapinni with Marriwiyi, Wulirankuwu Country, Tiwi Islands. Image Courtesy of the artist and Jilamara Arts and Crafts Association. Photo: Will Heathcote.

I first met Michelle Pulatuwayu Woody Minnapinni while working with Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair as one of the curatorial delegates in 2017. I was tasked with assisting an art center to set up a stall, and Michelle and Jilamara were our neighbors. It was an exciting day with curators and art centers setting up for the annual fair, with all their stunning works out on display for the thousands of people who would walk through the doors over the coming days.

Dressed in high vis and feeling chatty, I introduced myself to the Jilamara team which included Michelle. I vividly remember Michelle’s beaming smile and kind eyes. I have an older brother who lives on the islands. He and I have different fathers. My older brother has lived on the islands for most of his adult life, his father, rest his soul, was a Tiwi man. It didn’t take long for Michelle and I to draw the lines of connection between my older brother and our mutual extended family within the Tiwi people. Michelle and I are family; extended family, but still, family. Michelle is level headed, considerate, kind, humble and always willing to teach people about her culture. As an arts worker she is approachable, knowledgeable and patient. Her career has seen her traverse the arts world from the ‘back of house’ and as an artist in the spotlight. Not an easy balance to get right for most. Michelle thrives on both sides of the arts stage.

Michelle is also a very elegant dancer. At the annual Tiwi exhibition opening during DAAF she can be found taking the hand of a curator or fellow artist and leading them onto the dance arena to participate in the final dances alongside her peers and Elders. It is in moments like this that her role as an advocate shines through, leading people into an understanding of Tiwi culture by extending a hand for them to participate in Tiwi culture. I have not seen a single artist or curator decline her hand over the many years I have seen her dancing. My most dear Tiwi yoyi (dance) is one that depicts the Japanese bombing of Darwin. It is a reminder that our stories and dances are constantly being added to. Our cultures are far from stagnant. It is also a dance that I share a connection to as a Gulumeridgin woman who lost relatives in the attack. We bond through this traumatic part of Australian history from different perspectives.

It was through moments such as this that I got to know Michele first, even though she was painting long before she also formally took on the roles of arts worker, dancer and cultural advocate. It was a few years later that I started to engage more deeply with her visual art practice in its own right, and as I watched her painting and sculpture practice grow she revealed a sense of Tiwi culture that is uniquely hers. I believe the main factors contributing  to her growth as an accomplished artist in recent years is the perspective brought about by her ‘back of house’ work and the unwavering support of her Elders and peers over her career, some of which she generously acknowledges throughout her essay.

It progressively became obvious that Michelle is in a place of immense strength. Watching the pieces of her life come together to form a picture of a leader Tiwi people are proud of. It was obvious to me as a curator and the Jilamara team that she is more than deserving of acknowledgement for her contributions to Tiwi art and culture. I pitched a solo exhibition but in true Tiwi style, from the very first conversation, Michelle insisted that those who have taught her and those who support her are acknowledged. She does not work in isolation, there are many individuals who have contributed to the success of her career and most of them are her family. Because of this, this solo exhibition is actually a collaborative exhibition.

The title of the exhibition, In Relation, refers both to those she is directly related to and the art she produces, which is itself a product of her relationship with her culture and deep ancestors. Everything artistic for Michelle is in relation to being Tiwi. If we pay attention to the Tiwi story, the body of work she has offered us tracks the principal stories of importance to Tiwi culture, from life to death. The beauty of Tiwi artists is that once they have learnt the principles of culture, they are encouraged to create their own distinct styles, to make Jilamara of their own.

My objective as a curator was to help Michelle produce an exhibition she would be proud of, and for this reason I began our conversations by asking her to write a list of what was important to her and her practice. It was important to me that Michelle and I work creatively in relation, and Michelle should be formally acknowledged as a co-curator of this exhibition. This is from her, assisted by me. Here is that first page of her working through my initial provocations; what and who is important for you to include? Who and what makes Michelle?

This is Michelle Pulatuwayu Woody Minnapinni, In Relation….

Michelle’s brainstorming notes. Image Courtesy of the artist and Jilamara Arts and Crafts Association.

On Michelle’s body of work…..

Michelle offers us a full life cycle in this body of work. She paints her Country in Ngiya Murrakupupuni (my Country), musing on the ancestral creation stories from the old lady Murtankala. She brings us elements of yoyi (dance) in the decorative adornment coupled with Jilamara, on her bark paintings and the tunga that is used to disguise dancers from spirits while they perform yoyi around the Tutini during Pukumani (mourning) ceremony.

Michelle Pulatuwayu Woody Minnapinni, Ngiya Murrakupupuni, 2024.Image Courtesy of the artist and Jilamara Arts and Crafts Association.

Michelle’s painting on canvas and bark directly speak to Murtankala, the original Tiwi lady. She brought light by making the sun with fire and while crawling across the surface of Country created the Tiwi Islands and its sites of significance. Tilted Ngiya Murrakupupuni, my Country, Michelle asserts her connection to Tiwi and Murtankala utilising the iconic Tiwi kayimwagakimi or powja (comb) and locally sourced ochre pigments. Michelle’s multi-panelled paintings stand out most to me. Her unique use of the powja is distinctly her own. She utilises the angles of the comb and consistency of the pigment to create movement and texture while layering her comb work to create layers of Country. In doing so she captures the essence and movement of her island homes. Her current works on canvas are a mark of her growing confidence, which is backed up by the excellence in her execution. Ngiya Murrakupupuni simply sings, and at 7.5 meters in length and 1.5 in height it demands attention. It’s the work of a woman who is comfortable, connected and confident.

Michelle Pulatuwayu Woody Minnapinni, Tunga (Bag), 2024.Image Courtesy of the artist and Jilamara Arts and Crafts Association.

Michelle’s sculpture practice includes dance adornment, Tutini and tunga which are all key items given to Tiwi people from deep ancestors. Tunga (bark basket) was used by Murtankala to carry Purukuparli, Japara and Wai’ai to the surface of the earth. Mortality came to Tiwi people when Wai’ai’s husband Purukuparli went out hunting and Wai’ai was seduced by her brother-in-law Japara. Wai’ai had left her son Jinani under the shade of a tree but the sun moved and the small boy passed away that day. Purukuparli performed yoyi (dance) at the first Pukumani ceremony for his deceased son. Towards the end of the ceremony a tunga was placed upside down on top of the Tutini to mark the end of consumption and life. Tunga is part of the beginning and end of the Tiwi life and death cycle and are unique to Tiwi people in form and function.

Michelle Pulatuwayu Woody Minnapinni, Pamijini amitiya Marriwiyi (arm bands, headband and grass skirt), 2024.Image Courtesy of the artist and Jilamara Arts and Crafts Association.

The decorative adornment in yoyi (dance) that are used to mark significant moments in Tiwi life and death cycles are rarely made publicly viewable. Formed with natural fibres and decorative feathers, these items are created to fit their owner and are worn during Pukumani. They are not made as often by Tiwi people because the processes are complex and labour-intensive, and due to their significance in private ceremonies they are not often recreated for public display either. Through her work in the museum and her desire to pay homage to her sister Rachel who taught her this practice, however, Michelle has begun to create these adornments again. It is an honour to have arm bands, headbands and a grass skirt generously included in this body of work. This is a deeply generous and precious offering to the public and I would argue that they are the highlight pieces because of their rarity.

Michelle Pulatuwayu Woody Minnapinni, Tutini (Pukumani Poles), 2023. Image Courtesy of the artist and Jilamara Arts and Crafts Association.

Tutini are burial poles used in the Pukumani ceremony. The family of the deceased commissions the in-laws to carve and decorate Tutini with the story of the one they have lost. They act as grave stones in this ceremony and can be extremely elaborate in detail and decoration. Since the 1950’s, when Tutini were first commissioned for acquisition by an institution, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Tiwi custodians have altered their materials and symbolism to create works of art appropriate for public display. By using ironwood instead of the traditionally used bloodwood, and generalising the symbolism depicted, Tutini can act as educational pieces as much as aesthetic objects for Tiwi to express their individuality.

Michelle offers us 4 tutini in this body of work. Minimalist horizontal lines and blocks of ochre pigment allow the pigment and the form of her sculptures to do the heavy lifting. Paired back in comparison to her paintings on bark surfaces and canvases, her Tutini don’t need to be as loud; it is in the movement of the forms, sandy thick texture of ochre pigment and collective presence, that these works shine.

In Relation is a culturally rich and generous offering direct from the heart of Tiwi Country as told by Michelle. Agency and Jilamara are proud to present Michelle Pulatuwayu Woody Minnapinni – In Relation, a solo exhibition highlighting the work and life of artist, cultural advocate, dancer and Tiwi woman Michelle Woody. The exhibition  features a new body of work, encompassing her practices as a sculptor, painter and cultural custodian of Tiwi people, Opening 17th of July 2024.

Coby Ann Edgar (she/her) is one of Australia’s most exciting young curators and is co-curator of Michelle Pulatuwayu Woody Minnapinni – In Relation. Coby is a proud Larrakia, Jingili and Anglo woman from the Northern Territory, who currently lives and works on Gadigal Country.

A Project by Agency

UPLANDS is an immersive digital project that has been designed to celebrate Indigenous Art Centres and share Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artistic and cultural practices with the world.

This large scale immersive digital mapping project features over twenty remote Indigenous Art Centres, and interviews with over 150 Indigenous artists and arts workers from across the country.

UPLANDS is a project by Agency and has been funded by the Australian Government through the Restart to Invest, Sustain and Expand (RISE) program and the Indigenous Visual Art Industry Support (IVAIS) program.




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Acknowledgement of Country

We acknowledge the Traditional Owners and Sovereign Custodians of the land on which we live and work. We extend our respects to their Ancestors and all First Nations peoples and Elders past, present, and future.