Jean Baptiste Apuatimi, or Pulukatu as her father named her, was born at Pirlangimpi (Garden Point) on Melville Island in 1940. She was just 14 years of age, and living at the convent in Nguiu (Wurrumiyanga) on Bathurst Island, when she married her late husband, Declan Apuatimi. Declan was a renowned dancer, singer and thepre-eminent Tiwi artist of his time. During their life together they raised fourteen children and, as she watched him create poles for important ceremonies, he taught her how to mix ochres and paint.
Her first works of art were included in group shows from 1991 onward, though it was not until 1997 that she became a full time artist for the Tiwi Design Aboriginal Corporation. Over time she became anexpert in various media, including printmaking.
Jean’s beautiful and personal paintingsconformed with the twin conventions of Tiwi art - moving between the figurative depiction of ceremonial objects, and body painting designs (Jilamara). Her Jilamara designs were of particular importance in her work and were both innovative and striking. Jilamarais unique to Tiwi art and culture. It typically, consists of minga and pwanga, lines and dots, which sit within other geometric shapes such as squares and triangles. A number of these unique designs were passed on to Jean by her late husband, while others demonstrated her own individual genius and the power of Tiwi art as a regenerative creative force. Mingaand pwanga can signify and express individual identities and skin groups on bodies, poles baskets and in paintings representative of ceremony.
Many of these decorative body designs date back to the time of the spirit ancestors. According to legend, they were created for the very first Pukamani (mortuary) ceremony, which was performed to mark the death of the primary Tiwi creator, Purukupali. Although ostensibly a mortuary ritual, the Pukumani is as much about rebirth and renewal, as it is about death. Amongst those that Jean Baptiste inherited from Declan, are jirtaka (sawfish) and parlini jilamara (body painting from the creation period). However, her own personal interpretation and adaptation of these saw her move away from tight formal horizontal and vertical lines to a much freer, looser composition. Her finest works were characterized by the prominence of negative space, loose composition, and the magnification of design elements, as seen in her sawfish imagery. Jean was a meticulous painter who took great care to keep her ochres pure. This ensured that they emanated the true power of this timeless Tiwi tradition.
Until her death in March 2013, Jean Baptiste Apuatimi worked at Tiwi Design art centre, surrounded by younger artists who included her daughter Maria Josette Orsto and relatives Ita Tipungwuti, Margaret Renee Kerinauia and Roslyn Ortso. Sitting with Jean, these young women learnt the importance of originality, and the expression of personality within their designs.
On first impression Jean appeared frail, even reserved. Yet this stood in stark contradiction to the power of her art, and the force with which she performed her Jarrangini (Buffalo) dance during ceremony. During her lifetime shehadmore than a dozen solo shows, and was represented in major private and public collections around the world. They included the Kluge-Ruhe Collection and National Museum of Women in the Arts in the United States of America. In 2007 she was selected to participate in the inaugural National Indigenous Art Triennial: Culture Warriors at the National Gallery of Australia, and in 2009, she exhibited to great acclaim at Rebecca Hossack Gallery, in London.