Maria Josette Orsto Japajapunga


Born: 19 September 1962
Language Group: Tiwi
Skin: Jarpijapinga (March fly)
Dance: Trick dance
Country: Marlawu (Mother) & Imalu (Father)

Maria Josette Orsto was the first female Tiwi artist to become an official member of Tiwi Design, one of the oldest Aboriginal art centres in Australia. She is the daughter of renowned Tiwi artists Declan Apuatimi and Jean Baptiste Apuatimi. She works across a range of media including ochre and acrylic on canvas and paper, printmaking, batik and wood sculpture.

Maria Josette Orsto’s artistic practice is inspired by the cultural fabric that defines the Tiwi Islands and underpinned by her interest in exploring new ways of expressing her connections to this culture. Her parents were great influences on her work. Her father Declan Apuatimi was a respected ceremony man and artist, and her mother was the revered senior artist Jean Baptiste Apuatimi.

Nestled approximately 80 kilometres north of Darwin in the Northern Territory at the junction of the Arafura and Timor seas, the Tiwi Islands have, over a long period of time, maintained a fierce sense of independence. Although geographically close to Arnhem Land, Tiwi culture, language and art practices are unique.

These characteristics are also evident in Orsto’s work across printmaking, painting and sculpture. She holds the distinction of being one of the first female members of not one but two art centres on the Tiwi Islands: Tiwi Designs, the island’s oldest art centre, located in the township of Wurrumiyanga (formerly Nguiu) on Bathurst Island, and Munupi Arts & Crafts Association on Melville Island. Within a broader understanding of contemporary art practice from the Tiwi Islands, Orsto’s work can be seen as having its own style that is very different to that of her peers.

Much of Orsto’s painting practice, and that of many Tiwi artists, centres on the use of the pwoja comb. This traditional painting comb is made by carving ridged lines along the flake of a reworked piece of ironwood that has been cut during the creation of a tutini (funeral pole). It is approximately the size of the palm of the hand. The ridged area of the comb is dipped in ochre and then, in a rhythmic process, rolled onto the canvas a number of times – a process that is repeated to slowly build up a pattern. The making of the work becomes a reflective experience, the very process of gridding in Miyinga a way of imprinting the artist’s memories onto the canvas.


Orsto has exhibited widely since holding her first solo exhibition at AGOG Gallery, Canberra in 1990. She has been included in a number of significant group exhibitions including Maternal Lines: Jean Baptiste Apuatimi and Maria Josette Orsto, Charles Darwin University, Darwin (2012); UnDisclosed: National Indigenous Art Triennial, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (2012); Nyini Parlingari Purrupakuluwunyi, Amintiya Kiyi Nyingani Awarra Jilamara: Looking Back, Looking Forward in Our Art, Charles Darwin University, Darwin (2010); Mamirnikuwi Yirrinkiripwoja Miyinga, Alison Kelly Gallery, Melbourne (2007); Kiripuranji: Clever with our Hands – Contemporary Art from the Tiwi Islands, Artbank International Touring Exhibition (2002–05); Tiwi Prints – A Commemorative Exhibition 1969–1997, MCA, Sydney (1997); Tiwi Art: Tradition and Change, Tandanya, Adelaide (1994); Mamunukuwi Jilamara: Tiwi Women’s Art, Drill Hall Gallery, Canberra (1993); Flash Pictures, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (1991); and Aboriginal Women’s Art, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (1990).


Orsto’s work is held in private collections throughout Australia and internationally and in numerous public collections, including:
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney
Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane
Kluge Ruhe Collection, Charlottesville, USA
Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, USA
Levi Kaplan Collection, Seattle, USA
The Kelton Foundation, Santa Monica, USA
Australian Embassy, Paris, France


Maria was commissioned by Australia Post to design artwork for the September 1997 and 1999 prepaid envelopes.

2003 Finalist 20th Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin, NT.
2000 Finalist 5th National Indigenous Heritage Art Award, Australian Heritage Commission, Canberra, ACT.
1998 Finalist 15th Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin, Nt
1992 Finalist 9th National Aboriginal Art Award, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin, NT
1990 Finalist 7th National Aboriginal Art Award, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin, NT