A TIWI painter blends traditions in a uniquely modern style.

THE white ochre is collected from a beach outcrop close by the Milikapiti barge landing. The blazing oranges and deep yellows come from Three Ways, in Melville Island’s wooded hinterland. The jet-black is wood charcoal, burnt and ground down. These are the only pigments Tiwi artist Timothy Cook needs to compose his simple-seeming, vanishingly subtle works. But they are not just the hues and shades of his palette; they are the land itself, its substance, re-imagined, transformed.

Cook paints at the Jilamara Arts and Crafts centre in his small community perched on the north coastline of the Tiwi Islands, but his paintings seem to reach out and enfold the world. They are airy, spacious, unbounded; they record a vision so abstract it gives scarcely a clue to its foundations in traditional song, dance and ceremonial rite. Even though he is almost 52, Cook only began painting and exhibiting through Jilamara a little more than a decade ago; but he is very much part of a continuing lineage. His approach to art was fixed a long time ago when he used to watch his relatives at work carving massive Pukumani poles for the funerary rituals that ensure the successful passage of Tiwi spirits from our earth to the afterworld.

By chance, those old uncles and cousins of his are now the best known and most highly regarded of the early generation of Tiwi artists; their majestic funerary poles are among the prize possessions of the Art Gallery of NSW. And Cook’s own work increasingly is compared with canvases by the modern, Western master who commissioned those same poles for the gallery, Tony Tuckson, a painter whose use of line and colour field weaves a net of associations between contemporary and indigenous art-making.

Where, then, should we place Cook: in the camp of Aboriginal tradition, or in the realm of up-to-the-minute, subjective modern artistry? As one glimpses the vivid, emotionally charged canvases he pours out during his painting days at Jilamara, the only fit answer seems the paradoxical one: in both worlds at once.

Cook’s paintings could only be Tiwi, with their reliance on rhythmic dot-marks and their mix of bright ochres; yet they have the loose, free structure of colour fields, they convey the turbulent intensity of examined experience, they almost seem to shake and pulse, so strong is their cinematic interplay of dark and light.