Melbourne photographer Bindi Cole last month won the $25,000 Deadly Art Award, one of the Victorian Indigenous Art Awards, for her portrait of a sistagirl from the Tiwi Islands, 80km north of Darwin.

“I’d pegged somebody else to win, so I was very shocked,” Cole told Southern Star. “But I must say, it was a team effort between me and the sistagirls. They’re really the stars, more than me.”

The photo is one of a series of shots Cole captured after venturing to the Tiwi Islands to spend time with the sistagirl (an Indigenous term loosely meaning transgender) population there. In an island community of 2500, there are some 50 sistagirls living relatively harmoniously.

“I found out about them through a Tiwi Island drag queen called Foxy Empire, who’s the alter ego of Jason de Santis,” Cole said.

“Over the course of taking photos of him and getting to know him, he told me about the Tiwi Islands sistagirls, and I was just so blown away, until in August this year, I was able to spend five weeks up there.”

The winning photo is of a sistagirl named Ajay, and it’s part of a wider series Cole will exhibit next year.

“I’m hoping to have it coincide with the release of a documentary that was filmed about my time on the islands. It should screen next year on the ABC. I also took a writer with me, a young Koori girl, who has written a literary piece on the sistagirls. I felt there was too much to be learned and shared about the topic, and people will have a hankering to know more after they see these photos.”

Cole said her portraits of the sistagirls were part of her attempt to present a diverse array of Indigenous faces and voices to the wider community.

“What I’ve tried to do in my artwork to date is to break down stereotypes of what an Aboriginal person is, because I think there’s a belief out there that the
Indigenous experience is only one type of experience. It’s just not the case — there’s great diversity, and that needs to be presented to the public more.”

The win also meant Cole could give something back to the remote, under-resourced community.

“Hopefully I can bring them some financial help too. I’ll be donating a large chunk of my winnings back to their community, and any further money I make from the whole experience I’ll put back into helping them.”

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