Inside A Remote Indigenous Island Community

Brimming with culture, history and art the Tiwi Islands are only a day trip from Darwin in Australia’s north.

Australia has many incredible islands – Fraser, Kangaroo, Rottnest, Magnetic, Phillip, Lord Howe, among others. Most feature on bucket lists around the country, but here’s one more for your list: the Tiwi Islands. Located just 80-kilometres to Darwin’s north across the Arafura Sea lies an ancient community rich in culture and passionate about football.

The Tiwis comprise two islands separated by the Apsley Strait. The larger Melville Island requires a visitor’s permit and is not really developed for tourism. The smaller Bathurst Island requires no permit and tourists can meet a tapestry of characters, learn the ancient and modern history of the communities, and go behind the ‘screens’ for a silkscreen printing workshop.

After a smooth 2.5 hour boat ride filled to capacity, we disembark. Our bags checked for contraband – alcohol and drugs are prohibited in this dry Aboriginal community – before we’re welcomed ashore by a local guide, Vivian. I’m here to participate in a Tiwi by Design walking tour and dodge mud puddles en route to the smoking ceremony and traditional welcome to country. Visitors are invited to walk through a smoky haze in a ritual to cleanse our bodies of evil spirits and infuse us with protective ones. “We don’t know what spirits you have brought with you”, says our ceremony leader, Kevin. Now spiritually prepared, clapping sticks pound and chanting sounds as we’re entertained with totem performances of crocodile, shark and wild brumby. Our storyteller concludes with a welcome in her native tongue and we’re invited to share damper and tea under the design studio’s rustic awning. The fresh damper, hot off the frypan and topped with butter and jam, warms my belly.

Art is central to Tiwi life. Sipping tea, I contemplate the artists going about their work pushing and dragging vibrant colours inside the silkscreen template on customised 13 metre tables. Traditionally Tiwis would carve tools and clapping sticks, artfully paint their bodies for ceremonies, and weave pandanus into baskets and other useful items. Today, thanks to an art studio established by three local men and an art teacher in the late 1960s, the traditional practices have evolved into a commercial enterprise showcasing Tiwi culture. Initially the team created wood block prints of animals and other creatures to transfer on silkscreens and then to fabric. It’s not as easy as it looks. A good amount of consistent downward pressure in continuous flowing strokes evenly transfers paint onto fabric.

Back to blog