Interpreting Cultural Sources – Stage 1 Tutini/Pukumani Poles

Research – Totems

The brief is initially to research a textile or textile design from a specific culture.  We can take inspiration from any visual material including textiles in all their forms, decorative tiles, basketwork, pottery, etc..

Following on from the tribal theme I used in A Creative Approach I’ve decided to extend this and explore Totems.  I’ve started by looking at the culture of the Australian Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders* This research will be followed by a look at Alaskan native Totems as a comparison.



  1. a natural object or an animate being, as an animal or bird, assumed as the emblem of a clan, family or group.
  2. an object or natural phenomenon with which a family or sib considers itself closely related.
  3. a representation of such an object serving as the distinctive marks of the clan or group.
  4. anything serving as a distinctive, often venerated, emblem or symbol.

World English Dictionary


– n

  1. (in some societies, esp among North American Indians) an object, species of animal or plant, or natural phenomenon symbolizing a clan, family, etc, often having ritual associations.
  2. a representation of such an object.

Tiwi of Bathurst Island & Melville Island, Northern Territory, Aus.

Pukumani Poles

Tutini Poles for Pukumani burial ceremonies

Tiwi is said to translate to people so saying Tiwi people becomes a redundancy.

Using a museum collection:
The Australian Museum granted me permission to photograph their collection of Tutini poles – known as grave posts – and also provided me with space (and a chair) to sit and sketch some impressions.  Full Tutini poleThese posts are commonly referred to as Pukumani Poles which is not strictly correct.  Tutini impressionThe word Pukumani relates to the actual funeral ceremonies held by the Tiwi to honour the dead and means taboo.  The posts are called tutini and are carved and elaborately painted before being placed around the gravesite where the ceremony is to take place.  The Pukumani ceremony traditionally runs over several days and takes place some time after the passing,  up to 6 months later.  Tutini sectionSeveral tutini poles are prepared for the graveside surround and dancers wind through their formation chanting and stamping.  These ceremonies are to ensure that the spirit of the dead will find its way to the spirit world where it will rest forever.  The poles are then left in situ to rot as they are considered gifts to please the spirit of the dead.

These particular poles have little, if any, specific imagery, unlike poles in other Aboriginal tribes and for other purposes than honouring the dead.  However,  line and dot work is extremely prevalent in Australian Aboriginal painting, body markings, shields and other artifacts.  Tutini bird

Within the poles I had access to there were only two true animal depictions.  This bird sits atop a fairly short pole and may represent an eagle but unfortunately I can’t say for sure as there is no note relating to it.  The Tiwi will likely have an affinity with a particular bird within their region or perhaps the bird has significance for the deceased.Tutini pole top

This other image shows what could be interpreted as bird feathers or perhaps a fish tail.  Again I’m unable to confirm this due to lack of notes available.  However, having read quite a bit on this now it does seem that as these poles are carved specifically to honour a particular life they may well depict something personal to that person.

I like the poles and the designs but have reservations about using much from this area as I’m already leaning more towards animal imagery and I’m also very aware how careful I need to be when taking inspiration from Australian Aboriginal sources and reinterpreting them.  It does make me a little nervous but I feel there may be scope to formulate my own ideas from their work.

A very interesting Pukumani ceremony can be seen on youtube here.  The write-up says:

Clan dances at a Tiwi “Pukumani” funeral ceremony in Pularumpi (Pirlingimpi), on Melville Island. Each clan has its particular dance associated with their totem. This was recorded with an early model video camera, so the technical quality is poor; the sound was added later from tape recordings!

Next I will be looking at other Australian Aboriginal tribes totems depicting more imagery than the pieces I have shown here.  This is already proving to be extremely interesting.

*Aboriginal – Usage:  The Australian government suggests that the most exact and inclusive way of referring to the indigenous peoples of Australia is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples . Other terms which are acceptable are: Aboriginal people(s) , Australian Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders. 

Photographs by permission of Australian Museum.  Works shown are by:
Bathurst Island carvers: Victor Adam, Declan Apuatimi, Wilfred Pilaukei
Melville Island carvers: Micky Geranium, Boniventure Timapatua, Long Lin Pururuntatameri, Paddy Henry Tiempi.  One carver is unknown but the painter is acknowledged as Deaf Tommy Mungatobi.


About Claire B

I'm a passionate printmaker, paper-maker and a poor sketcher (which I'm working to improve). I've stitched from early childhood and am a perpetual student, loving learning and participating in everything creative.
This entry was posted in Assignment 1: Cultural Fusion, Textiles 1: Exploring Ideas and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Interpreting Cultural Sources – Stage 1 Tutini/Pukumani Poles

  1. Pingback: Interpreting Cultural Sources – Art, Artists & totems | TactualTextiles

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  3. Pingback: OCA Sydney get-together and more Poles! | TactualTextiles

  4. Pingback: Exploring Ideas: Assignment 1 Cultural Fusion – Addendum | TactualTextiles

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