Out of the blue Colin Puruntatameri, a Munupi artist from the Tiwi Islands, got given a plane ticket to Melbourne. Here he talks about the move from Garden Point (Pularumpi) on Melville Island to Melbourne and his new role at the National Gallery of Victoria.
You’ve just moved down to Melbourne from the Tiwi Islands, what inspired you to make the big move?
It was meant to be just a visit to start with. I was coming down for holiday.
I got a call from my cousin saying she had an open ticket that she’d bought for my younger cousin and he didn’t want to go. I asked her to call me back in 10 minutes so I could think about it but I ended up calling her back straight away and took the ticket.
From there I went straight back home, chucked all my clothes in the washing then took them down to my cousin’s to throw them in the drier. The next day I woke up about 7am and packed my bag and jumped on the bus to go to the other community. It was my 21st birthday recently so I had some birthday money from my Dad. I made my way to the ferry and got in to Darwin about 6pm. I had dinner with my cousin and was on the flight by midnight.
Wow! So 24 hours later you were on your way to Melbourne, that’s wild! How are you finding being down here?
I find it really good, very friendly. You can go to anywhere in Melbourne and meet new people. There’s always something happening. Being on community there’s hardly anything on, maybe disco or hunting on the weekend. Here you can jump on the tram and head to the City or St Kilda and there’s always something exciting on.
Before moving down you were working as an artist at Munupi Art Centre, how did you come to making art there?
It was around the time I lost my Mum. I had a month off work and then an Aunty suggested I come and work at Munupi Art. I just started off when they gave me a canvas, and I was sitting there asking myself, “What should I do? Should I get someone to do a design for me or try to paint something from within?” I thought i’d just give it ago and try something new, I really loved it.
Most of my days there were spent outside with Cornelia. She would paint on the floor and I would paint up on the bench. Each morning I’d say good morning and she’d say hello and we would sit and paint together. It was really nice to have someone sit and comfort me as I was going through loss. Even though she doesn’t speak that much, just having her paint there and just being in her presence everyday helped me deal with the loss.
Can you tell us a little about the work you were making there?
My artwork is mainly desert style, dot painting. I’ve adapted my Granddad’s brother’s painting style in my work. I feature the emu as that’s our totem down in the desert.
I’ve heard about how stories travel from each tribe or language group. One time I heard a story where someone up at Lajamanu had the same emu story as we had from the Yuendumu area. Some people from an island in Arnhem Land had the same story too. So in one of my paintings I painted emu eggs, each one having a different style to represent the different language groups. Each egg or language group has their own part within story and it progresses in the art like the story did.
Colin's Emu Story, for sale online through Munupi Art.
I understand you write poetry and music as well.
I picked up music around Year 8, I was singing hallelujah in line and one of my teachers came up to me and told me she’d heard me singing. She said she was going to get me into a choir and get me some music tuition. That’s where it all began.
Sort of same thing with the writing. At one point when I was feeling really sad she gave me a note pad and a pen and encouraged me to write down anything I felt. It started off just writing anything and then from paragraphs of just nonsense I started trying to get in to poetry.
Are there any particular artists or writers who have inspired you?
I don’t really aspire to be anyone. I just started right from the heart and try and stay true to who I am.
In my earlier writing I was talking about peace and politics. I can see similarities to Bob Dylan songs that talk about the same sort of things. Subject matter varies now. Sometimes my poetry can just be about the way I feel or the place where I am.
I remember writing a peace on my Year 12 retreat. At that point I didn’t know many people in my cohort and I felt really alone. The whole group went off and I just stayed where we were dropped off and wrote. After a while people came over and so each stanza changed with my environment and what was happening around me.
We’ve heard you’ve just picked up an internship at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). Congratulations!! What do you hope to learn from them?
That came through AFL Arts Ready. When I first moved down I was seeing them to help me find a traineeship. I was considering some of their IT options but then when I’d told them about my work with Munupi I was referred on to the NGV.
The whole week after the interview with the NGV I was so nervous, but on the Thursday afterwards I got the call! This week is my first proper week in the role I’ll be working in over the next 12 months. I’ll be doing three or four different things with them. I’ll be working with their storage systems, processing online orders and working within the NGV store.
When you think of home what comes to mind?
Even though I’ve moved away from the Tiwi Islands before, no matter how many times you go away you still always miss the scenery and the seafood.
There was this place we used to go camping called Mudlow (it’s also called Shark Bay). There was this one spot I used to go and sit. It’s on one of the cliffs looking out at this island called Wulinju. It’s beautiful country. There’s one picture that sticks in my mind when I think of Wulinju. One day it was very cloudy except for this one ray of sunshine going straight down to the island, it was almost biblical in a way.
Interview and portrait by Amy Nicholas
All other images courtesy of Munupi Arts & Crafts association.
After our interview with Colin he decided to take an incredibly brave leap and share an important part of his identity with his friends and family. He wished to share this note with you and I,
Then a word.
For someone from a small community this word seems foreign, taboo.
A lot of you know the word I am talking about.
It is not my whole existence, simply a part of who I am.
I am gay.
I am the same person.
I was just trapped in a world I didn’t fit in.
Now that I have come out, I feel liberated and finally at peace.
Be it issues with your identity, or simply that you have reached a hard point in your life, there is always support. You are not alone.