Saturday, June 13, 2009
Impressions from Tiwi Islands
As my time here in Darwin is drawing to a close, I realize there are still so many things to see and explore, so I have to make choices. Since being here I have heard of the unique arts and crafts coming from the isolated Tiwi people on the Tiwi Islands (which consists of Bathurst and Melville Islands) about 2 hours by boat from Darwin. I decided I must go there to see this art community, so I booked a day tour.
I arrived at the Cullen Bay Ferry Terminal at 7 AM, to board the "Arafura Pearl" fast ferry which would depart at 7:30 AM, so giving me ample time to wander around and admire the beautiful sunrise and the cool morning air coming off the ocean. We were about 10 passengers going on the "Tiwi Island Adventure Tour", so we were shown up to the upper deck, while the regular passengers stayed at the deck below. As the boat left the dock we were served coffee and the, and shown a brief safety film, then a movie was put on the big screen in the salon.
I wasn't interested in watching a movie, so I leafed through the pile of old magazines and booklets lying up front, and found a few about the history of the Tiwi Islands.
When we reached Bathurst Island we boarded the shuttle boat which took us the last 100 yards or so onto the Nguiu Beach, where we were met by our local tour guide John from the Tiwi Islands. We boarded a small bus, and John told us a bit about the Tiwi People's interesting history, as we slowly drove through the small village and disembarked at the little museum. We all got out, and the bus driver went over to open up the museum and turn on the lights, while John explained what we were going to see in the museum, before we went in.
The first room was displays about the creation story, and John did an excellent job of telling us these stories of how the world was created, and about the story of how death came to the Tiwi Islands.
The next room had displays of some of their famous burial poles, spears and throw sticks. We were allowed to photograph, except for the burial poles, which are considered very sacred in the Tiwi Culture. The third room was mainly old photos from the mission days of the Tiwi Islands. The Catholic Mission was established on the Tiwi Islands in 1911, so relatively late. There had been other attempts earlier by the Dutch and later the British to establish settlements on the islands, but the Tiwi People drove them away.
Nest stop was the old Mission church, which is now only used for special occasions such as weddings. I liked the way the church was decorated with indigenous artwork along with the small Madonna and Jesus statues. Outside was a plaque commemorating the bravery of some of the islanders during the 2nd World War.
Next we drove over to see the Ngaruwanajirri Art Community – aboriginal artist coop – were a few artists were working while we were there. I also wandered over to the building where the wood sculptures were made, but there was no one working, however I saw some wood carvings in various stages of completion.
Next stop was the Pwanga Women's Enterprise – where they did screen printing, sowing, etc. A few women were working, and there was a little shop, with no one attending it – there were some beautiful printed fabrics lying on some of the long tables, and there was a big oven, where they apparently baked the fabrics so the prints would hold up when washing the fabrics. It would have been so great if we had had someone to explain exactly what they were doing there, and I am sure the sales would be boosted that way also, especially if somebody would attend the shop, and maybe work a bit on the displays, which were uninspiring to say the least.
The last stop was the Tiwi Design Art Center, which was set up a bit more commercially appealing than the previous centers we had visited. There were a couple of artists working, among them an artist who was working on a beautiful traditional painting of a turtle. I went over to talk to him, and he told me how he made his colors from ochre that he found on the beach, how he would grind them up and mix them with water, etc. He used the traditional colors of yellow, reddish brown, black, white, grays and creams, all colors that he made himself, except for black, which he told me was so messy that nowadays he used black acrylic. They need more people like him to interact with the visitors, and who can make the art and the process come alive. Afterwards I walked over to the pottery barn where a lone ceramist was working.
As our little group got back in the bus again, we were taken down to the beach to board our vessel for lunch, and then we would go back to Darwin after the regular passengers were boarded at 2 PM.
Lunch was a nice buffet, and I enjoyed chatting with a couple of the other passengers during lunch. We came away with a certain sadness at what we had seen – it was not the vibrant art community I think we had all expected from the description in the brochures. It seemed like everything was in disrepair, and I couldn't help the feeling that I had just visited an old movie set, dusty, cobwebbed and with time standing still. It seems to me that this might have been a vibrant community when the art centers first started more than 20 years ago, but now there is no new blood, no young people to take over, and most of the few artists still there have lost the momentum, and are getting older, or something!
I so wish I could have given you a glowing report on how inspiring a trip it was, but sadly it wasn't. I have to go with the saying: "A tourist sees what she has come to see, a traveler sees what she sees". And I saw what I can only describe as "decline".
The one very positive thing I did learn is that there are several really good Australian Rule Football players from the Tiwi Islands, and the sport is extremely popular on the islands, so maybe the young generation is into sports instead of arts? I think it is possible to do both.
When I looked back upon the islands as we rode towards Darwin I though about how idyllic they look so beautiful and green, red sand beaches, swaying palm trees and mangroves, turquoise waters - but yet such a harsh environment. Most of the year the heat and humidity is unbearable, lots of mosquitos and flies. You cannot enter the waters due to crocodiles and box jellies, and in the rainy season I cannot imagine the mud and flooding!