There are few Indigenous painters working today that have developed a signature style and also maintained such creative consistency and continuity to the form and nature of their focus.
Timothy Cook’s paintings are powerful, arresting and fiercely contemporary whilst simultaneously evoking Tiwi culture and tradition. There are no adornments, no dissertations, no working drawings, no sketch-books, no diaries, no introductions or slow evolution. His work is direct and unadulterated.
Over the last decade we can observe subtle changes and extensions to Timothy Cook’s characteristic qualities as he moves or mutates the focus of his composition. Circles may become smaller or, equally, more dominant; or perhaps concentric circles are stretched to the edges of a canvas creating open ended spaces and a new abstraction to his practice.
Additionally, the asymmetrical ‘grids’ of his early works may be used more sparingly or yet again with an equal and renewed intensity. His seductive white ochre may be used with largess or be confined to a corner or almost not at all, and his large flat areas of ochre almost shift-shape with each new canvas. These travels in his practice are rich and rewarding and yet his signature style and authority is always front and centre.
Cook generates astonishing movement and striking contrasts between light and dark pigment, using only the primary three ochre colours, and his ability to create the effect of circular shapes floating within the canvas defies this simplicity, as does his thick application of ochres, dense surfaces and ‘bleeding’ of ochre paint.
His free-flowing paintings are simultaneously heightened and restrained by what appear as irregular lines and dots, all of which are pulled together by his superb ability to ‘organise’ the composition, which is so impressive in its impact and resonates with an “other worldly” quality or spirituality.
Timothy Cook completely embraces tradition – indeed his works are deeply embedded in the meaning of what it is to be Tiwi. Well known for his homage to the great Tiwi artists of old, Cook’s work is particularly reminiscent of several older Tiwi artists, including the remarkable Kitty Kantilla and Freda Warlapinni who created an astonishing contemporary legacy for a second generation of artists.
Yet Cook proceeds to extend and manipulate his response to the symbolic representations of Tiwi culture and spirituality to create innovative works which almost ‘bristle’ with an obvious contemporary resonance. All his works elicit an emotional response. It is simply great art.
The primary focus of Cook’s work depicts the kulama ceremony, a traditional initiation for young men which coincides with the harvest of a specific wild yam. The ceremony involves three days and three nights of ritual body painting, singing, dancing and eating yams and this annual celebration of life occurs at the end of the wet season. The full moon is pivotal for the ceremony which is directed and shaped by the phases of the moon.
As young men prepare for initiation, the body is ‘slapped’ with a leaf dipped in ochre paint and this loose gestural ‘mark’ is also embedded in Cook’s work, together with the concentric circles of the moon and its ritualistic symbolism so fundamental to his work.
Kulama is the circle – this universal symbol of inclusion, with no beginning or end. The circle is Cook’s ‘centre’ – his self, his family, his community, his ancestors, his place, his home. It represents the continuous cycle of life, death and resurrection; the self, the unconscious self, the subconscious self; The Father, The Son and The Holy Ghost. It allows renewal and it allows for a profound attachment to Cook’s spiritual past and to his newer Christian faith.
It has many and layered meanings and for all Tiwi, the circle – the kulama circle – is the fire circle when men gather for ritual and the community and family members dance, kicking the sand and stomping the ground on the full moon, surrounded by the infinite ‘dotted’ starry night sky.
Timothy Cook is acknowledged as the ‘master’ of kulama painting for his remarkable visual (re) interpretations of the kulama. They are independent and contemporary, but their essence remains Tiwi, firmly anchored by strong shared cultural beliefs and spirituality.
Without doubt Timothy Cook displays an ‘authority’ and confidence which is always evident in his large and massive canvases and his seductive textured materiality of paper and bark. There is a consistency of practice and execution and a ‘perfect’ cohesion to any exhibition of his works. I cannot imagine any other artist that so seamlessly unites a thoroughly modern man and painter with the very being of what it is to be Tiwi, from the beginning of their time and beyond.
Timothy Cook is the leading artist on the Tiwi Islands with a career already spanning over 20 years. He continues to this day to produce remarkable paintings which redefines contemporary Indigenous art and also places him at the forefront of Australian contemporary art.