Tiwi artist still painting despite works lost in crash

Tiwi artist Kaye Brown had prepared a significant collection of new works for the Adelaide Biennial, only to lose the lot in a firey truck crash just weeks before the exhibition opening. 

Her seven large flat bark paintings (purrungupari) and two carved ironwood poles (tutini) were on the long journey from Melville Island to the Art Gallery of South Australia via Queensland, when they were destroyed in the crash in late January.

When she found out what happened, Brown was devastated and months later she is trying to move on.

"I felt heartbroken and really down but I got all that behind me now and continue on my path," the artist and senior Tiwi culture woman told AAP.

Jilamara studio co-ordinator Will Heathcote said the destroyed works are priceless and can't be replaced, yet months later the artist and arts centre are waiting on an insurance payout.

The Art Gallery of South Australia declined to comment on the insurer and the claim being made on behalf of the artist.

Brown, who began painting in 2012, spends hours each day creating work at Jilamara Arts in the community of Milikapiti on the Tiwi Islands north of Darwin.

Tiwi artist Kaye Brown
Tiwi artist Kaye Brown began painting in 2012 and spends hours each day creating artworks.

She quickly gained recognition as a leading Jilamara artist with her work being collected by major galleries, and has twice been a finalist in the prestigious Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards.

One of two dozen contemporary artists selected to show at the biennial, her collection was titled Yirrinkiripwoja.

The reality for many First Nations communities is that making art involves collective cultural knowledge and the work of many people, Heathcote explained.

The artist's brother Kenny Brown had collected and prepared the stringybark panels more than a year ahead of the exhibition, while fellow artist Patrick Freddy Puruntatameri carved the poles before Kaye Brown added her ochre designs.

In the 2023 dry season, they held an artist camp on country at Paluwiyanga (Goose Creek) in the remote eastern part of Melville Island before Brown travelled with her sister to Adelaide to view historical paintings by her forbears in the collection of the South Australian Museum.

Brown has wondered whether her ancestors did not want her paintings to travel south to Adelaide and follow those artworks from a century ago.

When the arts centre and gallery found out Brown's valuable artworks had been destroyed, they swung into action, acting quickly to borrow the museum paintings, and arrange last-minute loans of artwork from private collectors.

A film made on country was prepared for display, and Brown's aunt Doriana Bush also remembered a song of sorrow that could tell the story of the lost paintings.

Returning to Adelaide in February and seeing her recent works at the biennial, along with her ancestors' rarely-seen artworks, was a satisfying moment for Brown despite everything.

"I was feeling proud of myself and the family that was there, they are feeling proud of me too," she said.

While losing the paintings was a great shame, Heathcote said the project had always been about a collective approach to making art and there was still a coming together to share story and culture.

Brown is now making similar paintings in an attempt to restore the lost artworks.

"I'm dealing with all the bark to remind me of all the paintings that got lost in the fire, so I try to bring all that back," she said.

* The 18th Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Inner Sanctum is showing at the Art Gallery of South Australia until June 2.

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