Aboriginal women are at the heart of two booming Bathurst Island businesses.

Story By Kerry Sharp

Bathurst Island grandmothers Marianne Kantilla and Marcella Fernando chatter away in the shade waiting for the Tiwi Tours bus to arrive. Soon they’ll share billy tea, damper and stories of their unique island culture with a light planeload of world travellers who’ve just touched down from Darwin, 80 kilometres south across the Beagle Gulf.
Marianne and Marcella are two of six enchanting, mostly white-haired women who make up the famous ‘Tiwi Morning Tea Ladies’ of Bathurst Island’s Nguiu community. They’re all perfect hosts for this frontline job, with personalities as big, bright and embracing as the tropical sun that drenches their Northern Territory island home. Tomorrow they’ll be hosting an even bigger group when a cruise ship drops anchor and its passengers converge through Nguiu’s historic waterfront mission precinct.
The morning tea ladies wear vibrant traditional Tiwi print skirts and shirts, made down the road at the island’s equally illustrious Bima Wear workshop. Here, another 12 enterprising Nguiu women are settling in for a day of screen-printing, cutting and sewing, all laced with lashings of laughter and singing – and even the occasional impromptu dance when the muscles need loosening.
Specialising in fabric printmaking and clothing production, Bima Wear NT celebrated its 40th anniversary last year, making it one of Australia’s longest-established Aboriginal business ventures. Bima stands for Bathurst Island Mothers’ Association, the original name of the venture, which began in humble fashion with a handful of women sewing on old treadle machines in a makeshift workshop under the church. Catholic Missions’ Sister Eucharia guided it in the early days and most employees have worked there since leaving school.
Bima Wear produces unique fabric prints and fashion garments in bold and brilliant designs featuring traditional Tiwi cultural symbols, all created by local artists. At one stage, the women were printing exquisitely patterned fabric for big-name Australian fashion designers like Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson.

This story excerpt is from Issue #74

Outback Magazine: Dec/Jan 2011