An acclaimed painter, printmaker, and sculptor, Kitty Kantilla was born around 1928 in the Tiwi community of Yimpinari, part of her father’s country, on Melville Island, Australia. As a child she followed the normal residency pattern of living in her father’s country. There, she lived in the traditional manner, sleeping under paperback shelters and participating in hunting and gathering with the group. When she became an adult, she moved to Naigu, a community on Bathurst Island, and worked for the missionaries there.
In the 1970s, Kantilla moved to Paru, a Tiwi community in her mother’s country that had been established as a camp for older Tiwi who wanted to live apart from the main settlements. Paru also had a tradition of attracting artists. During the 1970s and 1980s, Kantilla and a group of local women, known as the “Paru Mob”, began carving representational wooden sculptures for sale at Nguiu using traditional tools and techniques. In 1976 the Tiwi Pima was created, an organization that marketed Aboriginal work. The creation of Tiwi Pima led to an explosion in Aboriginal art as it established a reliable market for Aboriginal artists.
The creative activity of the Paru Mob resulted in the important exhibition, Carved Wooden Scultpures by Tiwi Women from Paru
, Aboriginal Arts Australia, Sydney (1988). Their sculptures were distinctive from others within the Tiwi community due to the isolated nature of Paru and the older age of many of the artists. Due to the increased age of the women, many left Paru to rejoin their families during the 1990s. It was around this time that Kantilla also left Paru for the same reason and returned to Milikapiti on Melville Island. There she stopped using carving as a medium and began to paint at Jilamara Arts and Crafts.
Unlike other Aboriginal artists who depict dreamings, or ancestral narrative stories in their artwork, Kantilla’s art follows the traditional Tiwi decorative motif mulypinyini aminitiya pwanga
(lines and dots). This motif is said to have no specific meaning but is derived from ceremonial body painting and decoration associated with the Pukami funeral ceremonies. She earned an important place within the Tiwi artistic community for being one of the few artists who still painted using the traditional motifs. Kantilla described her own artwork as following in the tradition of her father and grandfather’s body decorations. Kantilla died on October 4, 2003 after a short illness, highly respected within the Tiwi community for her artistic talents.
Work on Paper Award, Nineteenth Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award Exhibition, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin, Australia (2002)