BINDI COLE: SISTAGIRLS
Originally posted to The Art Life, July 2010
Senior Melbourne Affairs editor Din Heagney explains that there are few places more remote than the Tiwi Islands for a transgender woman to cut loose in the 21st century...
A half hour flight north of Darwin, the two islands that make up Tiwi (Melville and Bathurst) are better known for producing AFL footballers. The islands are home to a strong Indigenous community of around 2000 people. It’s also very Catholic. This is why it comes as some surprise that the community includes about 50 Indigenous transgender women. They call themselves the Sistagirls and like many women, dream of romance and finding a good man.
Bindi Cole, a Wathaurung artist based in Melbourne, first brought the Sistagirls to our attention last year when she won the Deadly Art Award, part of the Victorian Indigenous Art Awards, with her photo of Ajay, one of the Sistagirls. Cole says that she felt a real affinity with the people and the place. Tiwi are stunning tropical islands where alcohol and pornography are banned but the traditional language and culture is alive and well. Cole was so inspired by the Sistagirls that she began an ambitious photographic series in an outdoor tableau-style that would celebrate the strength of these unique women.
Many of the Sistagirls welcomed the opportunity to dress up for the cameras, but Cole admits there were also some cultural problems to get past first. ‘It’s still not acceptable to be gay in Tiwi and while these women identify as being Sistagirls, there can still be a stigma attached,’ she explains. ‘I feel very sensitive about producing these works, they are celebratory but you need to be very careful with people’s sexuality and Indigenous culture, especially with remote communities where there can still be that fear of outside influences,’ Cole explains.
Like the transgender communities in the South Pacific, the Fa'afafine of Somoa, many indigenous communities are often more willing to accept transgender people than gay people. Cole explains that there are few openly gay men on the Tiwi Islands but the Sistagirls are a vibrant part of the community and over time have become accepted. Cole excitedly tells the story of Crystal, the loud and proud Aunty of the Sistagirls. Crystal has devoted herself to educating the community, while encouraging her friends to be strong. They need to be. Crystal has lost Sistagirls to suicide in the past, giving her even more determination to work in gaining broader acceptance.
In preparation for her latest exhibition, Cole invited Jirra Lulla Harvey, a young indigenous writer to go with her to meet the Sistagirls and write a piece for the catalogue. Harvey reveals her surprise at meeting these ‘inspirational women’ but points out that ‘sitting, yarning with the Sistagirls was like gossiping with any of my girlfriends, because there is one topic that cuts across all borders: a good man is hard to find.’
Cole was careful about her choreography for the photo sessions. Each of the Sistagirls was professionally made-up and styled by Jason de Santis and each photo shoot took place in a different part of the island, making the natural beauty of the islands a subject in its own right. A selection of local Tiwi paintings, sculptures and artifacts was also loaned from the local museum and used within each image in a way that would create stories around the women—visually connecting them to the place through the stories inherent in the works, and thereby creating a contemporary story that could reach outsiders.
‘I want to make sure that these works respect the local traditions but also allow the Sistagirls to celebrate themselves,’ Cole explains. ‘There are also those connotations around the tableau photograph — those artificial studio postcards from the Victorian era that were so popular at the time but were really degrading to Indigenous people. I feel responsible for all those things in my work and so I feel very protective of my Sistagirls.’
One look at the series though shows that these photographs are firmly placed in the now and any reference to the past is, well, passed. The vivid colours, the romantic lighting and the elegant poses of the Sistagirls combine to give us a very contemporary window into this group of women who are clearly enjoying themselves on their island paradise of the north.