Tiwi Islands Australia Indigenous tourism: Experiencing art and culture on a Tiwi tour

Who knew I was an artist? It took the people at the Tiwi Design Centre to find that talent, and I'd be no talent without theirs.

They might be remote, but there's a long history of contact with other cultures in the Tiwi Islands.

Outside the church at Wurrumiyanga is a statue of islander Matthias Ulungura, acknowledging his courage and initiative in capturing a World War II Japanese pilot who had crash landed. Pretending his small axe was a gun in a "stick-em-up" manouevre, Ulungura relieved the pilot of his pistol.

The church is there, of course, because Catholic missionaries had made their way to the islands earlier that century. And along came another culture, Australian football, a sport embraced with the passion of a religion. The islands' current priest comes from Homebush in Sydney and is a fan of the Giants, the Greater Western Sydney AFL team, so he is known as "Father Giants".

But way back, farther back than any of these contacts, the Tiwi Islanders were trading with the Makassan people from Sulawesi, in what is now Indonesia. Perhaps they looked more north than south, for there is no tradition of didgeridoos or boomerangs among the Tiwi. There is, however, a deep history of art and design.

We make our way there as part of a Tiwi by Design tour run by SeaLink NT and Tiwi Design. It starts with a 2.5 hour ferry ride from Darwin's Cullen Bay over the Arafura Sea to Bathurst Island. There isn't much to see along the way, just an oil-rig that could be mistaken for a ghost ship until it emerges from the distance. But the ride is relaxing in the air-conditioned cabin or up on deck with the tropical breeze wrapping around you like a linen shirt.

We land on the red banks of Bathurst Island with Melville Island just across the channel. Melville is Australia's second largest island, after Tasmania, covering an area of around 6000 square kilometres but with a population of about 1000. Bathurst Island has the largest settlement - Wurrumiyanga - and a population of around 1640.

The tour starts with a Welcome to Country, a smoking ceremony to purify us and ward off bad spirits with Tiwi dancers - first men and then women - dancing the totems of dingoes, crocodiles, sharks and horses.

Then comes tea and damper and our guide, Kevin Baxter-Pilakui, takes us to the museum for an interpretation of island culture and recent history, along with a complex diagram that explains the clan groups hereabouts that were established mainly to prevent interbreeding.

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Next stop is the church, which featured in the movie Top End Wedding and is still showing some of the wedding decorations. The area around its altar is surrounded by Indigenous art, some of it with Christian symbols, some of it without. Here, Baxter-Pilakui explains something of the missionary history of the islands, the good and the bad of it.

Then its back to the Design Centre for the highlight of the tour. Who knew I had a shred of artistic talent within me? The Tiwi artists find it. They help me choose a print and I settle on a barramundi in the quest for something to make me a better fisher (only they could make me a better artist). I pick a T-shirt from the pile and we silk-screen the print on to it. It works perfectly and the shirt is mine to take home.

I love the shirt, but, like my art, my fishing is a work in progress.

DETAILS

TOUR

The Tiwi by Design tours run from April to December on Thursdays and Fridays. Although suspended during the pandemic, they have now resumed. Cost is $349 for adults and $295 for children 5 to 14. See sealinknt.com.au

ART

The Tiwi Designs art centre features ochre paintings on canvas and bark, ironwood carvings, screen printed fabrics, ceramics, bronze and glass sculptures and limited edition prints available for sale. See tiwidesigns.coms

Jim Darby was a guest of Tourism NT and Virgin Australia.

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