At first glance, it might seem incongruous that the twin passions of the Tiwi Islands are AFL and art.
With fewer than 3000 residents, the neighbouring Bathurst and Melville Islands have a whopping Aussie rules participation rate of about 35 per cent, and their Grand Final day in mid-March every year is the biggest day in the Tiwi calendar.
But while outsiders flock to Wurrumiyanga on Bathurst Island by ferry or charter plane to watch the game, they also come for the Tiwi art sale, which shows off the Islands’ world-famous artworks for warehouse prices.
This is the only day of the year that the private community can be visited without a permit.
“Football is culture, and art is culture, too,” says Michael Stitfold, arts and business manager for Munupi Arts and Crafts from Melville Island.
He has come to Wurrumiyanga to sell its art at the Tiwi Designs art centre on its busiest retail day of the year.
“Here, there’s a sense of adventure in finding a piece of art you like. You choose what appeals to you, you have a story about the day,” he says.
“There are some absolute gems in any art centre cupboard and today we open the cupboard.”
There is a natural connection between a passion for AFL and art, says Anne McMaster, who lives and works at Tiwi College boarding school on Melville Island, and is writing a masters thesis on the influence of AFL football culture on art in the Tiwi Islands.
She says there’s a tribalism about the sport that fits in with a more traditional way of life.
“It’s so much of their pastime; you see the kids walking around the street kicking a footy and there’s a tribal link: who belongs to which community, island to island, team to team,” she says.
The change in the artwork can be seen in paintings of the Kulama ceremony, usually held around the end of the wet season as is the Grand Final.
“Traditionally in Tiwi art, it’s depicted as a circle, dancing around a campfire, but it’s derived into the shape of a football, or the aerial perspective of a football oval,” Ms McMaster says.
“They’ve also started to merge from the Pukumani poles, which are a sculptural rendition of a tree they’ve cut down for burial poles.
“But (they) had figures holding up a football, which is derived from the myth of the moon man; instead of holding the moon, they’re holding a football.”
Doctor Melanie Olding jumped at the opportunity to visit the Tiwi Islands again.
“It’s just a really fun, mixed multicultural day,” she said.
“Art is always a fun way to support a community, because its such a win-win. You get to buy something beautiful and someone who makes it gets some wonderful satisfaction and some money changes hands.”