Eighteen men to a side.
Three thousand spectators.
Yiloga! Tiwi Footy!
Tiwi Footy: Yiloga is the new publication by F11 Productions in Darwin celebrating the history of Australian Rules football in the Tiwi Islands through the story of the 2007 Tiwi Islands Football Grand Final. It is a ravishing book. Photographers Monica Napper and Peter Eve have filled 256 pages with photographs that tell a narrative with drama, coherence, and beauty in a way that I can’t remember seeing before. Although the introductory essay by Andrew McMillan tells the backstory, filling in history and culture, and offering glimpses into the thoughts of players and supporters, it is the stunning photographs that are the heart and soul of the book. It is through them that the emotion, the thrill, the complexity of Tiwi Footy, or Yiloga, as it’s called in language, is really told. (And speaking of language, McMillan’s essay has been translated into modern Tiwi and presented on facing pages to the English version.)
If you just flip through the pages of the book, you can watch the big day unfold. Aerial shots document planes arriving from the mainland, carrying southern fans come to see what it’s all about. A barge brings more spectators over from Melville Island. A Catholic mass in Nguiu, kids racing in on the their bikes, a linesman preparing the field, all these are part of the build up.
Switch to players warming up for the game before Ted Egan hands out season medals in a pre-game ceremony. The teams explode onto the field. The first tap sets the game in motion, the rains start, spectators huddle under tarps while kids lark about. Finally the game concludes to celebration and commiseration and the pride of fathers on the winning side hoisting their children in the air. The victory cup is raised and the kids take the field again, dreams of their own championships alive in their eyes.
The barge crosses the Apsley Strait back to Melville Island as other crowds gather at the airport for the flight back to Darwin and dusk settles over the Islands.
Once you’ve taken the photographic tour, it’s time to go back and absorb McMillan’s history lesson. The essay is written with his characteristic combination of stylistic flair, deep knowledge, and informed historical research. McMillan’s narrative, like that of photographers Napper and Eve, is structured by the events of the Grand Final, but he can take some temporal liberties with his story line that enrich our understanding of what we see in the photographs.
Here is a selection, taken at random, from his essay. Early arrivals from Darwin and points south have some time to kill in the morning before the game begins:
Up around a dirt road reflective with puddles after rain, the local art centres are crowded with visitors shopping for paintings, carvings, ceramics, pottery, spears, printed bolts of cotton and woven feathered armbands, all in that unique Tiwi style.
Down streets shaded by frangipani, the Patakijiyali Museum is an obvious point of call. On a series of boards detailing ceremonial dances and tribal affiliations, mention is made of the Hangman’s dance, inspired, as it turns out, by the 1968 Clint Eastwood western Hang ‘Em High.
Oddly — perhaps because it belongs to everyone, not just one clan — there’s no reference in the museum to the Football dance, an act choreographed around the actions of a bounce, a handpass, a mark and a kick.
Nor is there reference to the Bombing of Darwin dance during which old men with arms outstretched are gunned down by young fellas with simulated binoculars and anti-aircraft guns.
With McMillan’s guide under your belt, it’s time to go back for a closer, slower look at the photographs. There are portraits, action scenes in which the players seem capable of suspending the law of gravity, candid, unscripted moments, children mugging for the camera, even a dog standing attentively for the camera, proudly wrapped in its team colors. But what I love most about many of these photographs are the details that steal your eye from the sidelines. Here’s one that I’ve snagged from the previews available on the F11Tiwi Footy website to illustrate my point.
In the index of images that appears at the end of the book, this picture is labeled “Seven jumpers for seven Tiwi teams.” My eye was first caught by the brilliance of the jersey’s colors, and my attention focused there by the sloping lines of the trees in the upper half of the photograph. The shadow cast by the verandah echoes that diagonal; the sunlight bouncing off the knees of the smiling kids lined up below the jerseys also held my attention front and center. So much so that it wasn’t until the third or fourth time I paused over this shot that I spotted the “eighth jumper”: the boy caught mid air, and mid-flip, at the left edge of the verandah.
The photographs are filled with delights like this that subtly enrich the experience of Grand Final Day. Early on in the sequence there’s a lovely photograph of “The Strong Women’s Group preparing for the big day,” seated on another verandah, some weaving baskets, others seated around the periphery; one woman rests on her elbow, head leaned against a post. Her pose reminded me of one of Picasso’s femmes de luxe; maybe it was that blue guitar tucked away on the periphery that suggested the connection to me.
In the two pages that follow, one sees the the women’s verandah in the background as the camera focuses on a group of very young children clustered around a sea turtle lying on its back; the photograph is called “The Strong Women’s Group before lunch.” On the opposite page, “After lunch,” shot in contrasting black and white, shows the empty turtle’s shell atop the fire, the last bits being scraped away by a young boy in soccer shorts.
Then, many pages on, that blue guitar reappears as the Strong Women’s Group lines up with their baskets to sing before the centre bounce.
I seem to have neglected to mention the photographs of the game itself, or the studies of the players as they stretch out their hamstrings before hand or exult and dance on the field afterwards. This is not because these photographs aren’t as stunning in their own way. The action is crisply frozen, with half a dozen straining men caught flying, their biceps shining, the ripples of their jerseys twisting like sculpted muscles themselves, all lines converging on the red Sherrin just inches away from a player’s hands.
But even in the most dramatic of these team portraits, the players often seem to be, not the heroes of the day (though they certainly are), but rather somewhat more dramatically posed and garbed members of the community. As the teams burst through banners to take the fields, they are accompanied by sawrming mobs of young boys; when they dance on the field in victory, they are there with mothers and wives; when they leap for a pass, their playing field is surrounded by family.
And this is perhaps the real magic of Tiwi Footy: how it captures the magnetism of the day and the bonds of the community, their pride and their connectedness. I know this is blasphemy, especially coming from an American, but if I were offered a swap of seats at the MCG for the bleachers at the Nguiu Oval, I wouldn’t think twice after reading this book.
The authors hope that profits from the sale of the book can eventually be directed towards the creation of a small museum dedicated to the Tiwi Football League, with a women’s center as a part of it. National and international exhibitions based on the book could also contribute to their plans. So check out the website and help support the TFL!