Monday, June 20, 2011

Book Review: Aboriginal Church Paintings

I recently came across a couple of articles on the web (here and here) that mentioned a new book called Aboriginal Church Art: Reflecting on Our Faith by Eugene Stockton and Terence O'Donnell.  So, of course, I immediately emailed the publisher (no online ordering site) and ordered a copy by check.  The publisher's representative was very helpful and sent a copy from Australia straight away.

The book is a paperback of only 45 pages in length, but has scores of color reproductions of paintings in various Aboriginal Catholic churches around Australia (on the cover is a painting by Richard Campbell).  Most of the reproductions are clear, though no sizes are given.  The primary author/editor, Eugene Stockton, is a Catholic priest who holds a degree in sacred scriptures, as well as having extensively studied archaeology, anthropology and social issues.  He believes that the heart of Australian spirituality lies in Aboriginal spirituality, particularly in the form of Aboriginal meditation called "dadirri."  Dadirri is "a form of contemplation, conducted in a bush setting, around the campfire or at ceremony. It combines ‘inner deep listening, quiet, still awareness…and waiting'."  Stockton suggests that "the word ‘wonder’ is the single English word which most closely approximates to ‘dadirri’. Wonder recaptures the sense, long suppressed and long forgotten, of the wild-eyed child who once explored his/her new world."  I wonder (no pun intended) what this would look like if combined with the biblical concept of meditation on Scripture.

Aboriginal Church Art has nine chapters, plus an introduction by Stockton in which he describes the basic components of Aboriginal art, as well as a helpful categorization of religious art into four categories based on the intended purpose of the artist(s).  I thought it was interesting to learn that the artwork in the book

came about as local initiatives for the local community.  They were not the initiative of non-indigenous minsters (missionary priests or nuns), nor were they meant to impress non-indigenous visitors... They fit in to the category of proclamation, to educate or edify the congregation (p. 8).

In addition, the individuals and groups of artists who created these paintings

have shown in painting, rather than in words, how they have thought [their beliefs] out for themselves, linking ideas in new connections that could not have come from a non-indigenous minister nor from Western culture in general.  This was effected by the daring and novel juxtaposition of significant symbols (p. 9).

Whenever possible, the descriptions of the art's meaning and inconography are taken directly from the artists themselves.

The author indicates that a common theme in both traditional Aboriginal art and the Christian examples in the book is timelessness, as found in Orthodox icons, which have been "described as 'windows on eternity'" (p. 9).  Likewise, Stockton writes that "when an old [Aboriginal] man paints his dreaming... although there is a linear movement in the story, the action is out of time, in an 'everywhen' as Stanner phrased it" (p. 9).  Stockton goes on to write that "these tableaux biblical types... are juxtaposed by apparently linear, story-like development, but stand back with a static, timeless quality.  They are true, not just then, but always to the gaze of the contemplator" (p. 10).  He seems to be saying that this idea of timelessness does not deny, but transcends, the historicity of the biblical narrative, bringing the eternal truths found in the historical accounts into the present life of the viewer.

For non-aboriginals Christians like me, a comment quoted in the book that I found informative was by Sister Alice Dempsey, who said

'I, as a white viewer, see the painting as dead; but for them it is alive.'  She agreed that the difference is like viewing a map, which on the one hand for most people is in two dimensions, whereas for the bushwalker it is in three: he, consulting the contours of the map, is already feeling the topography of the terrain he is about to encounter.

Chapters one through seven each describe artwork at a different Aboriginal Catholic church.  Chapter eight discusses an example of historic Aboriginal rock art and the Christian-based religious movement that inspired it, which began in the 19th century and resulted in a syncretistic movement that lasted into the late 20th century, if not till the present.  Chapter nine describes the history of Rainbow Spirit theology, a more recent Aboriginal expression of biblical theology, which was first articulated in the book Rainbow Spirit Theology, and visualized in The Rainbow Spirit in Creation (see my blog post about both books here).  Opposite from the table of contents is a map of Australia showing the locations mentioned in each chapter.  There is also a list of references at the end of the book.

I think the church whose artwork most impressed me was that of Kutjungka, Balgo.  Much of the artwork here was painted on banners in the 1970's and 80's by a group of artists who were led by their Christian aboriginal elders (one of these elders produced a series of his own paintings in his personal style, which combined both traditional motifs with more modern aesthetics).

The Last Journey of Jesus
Unfortunately, I was unable to obtain permission to show the two paintings from this church that were my favorites, "Christmas" and "Exodus."  However, there is another that I found online entitled "The Last Journey of Jesus" (p. 21).  This painting has a lot of the same elements as the other two, though it also incorporates non-Aboriginal church symbols such as a chalice, thorns, nails and crosses.  So, it's a bit more of a hybrid style, though beautiful nonetheless.  The painting shows Jesus' journey from the Last Supper (lower left corner) to Golgotha and then resurrection from the tomb (lower middle edge).  The authors describe this image as "a remarkable internalisation of the Paschal Mystery in the traditional guise of the Rainbow Serpent" (p. 21).  In the book's introduction, Stockton writes that he suspects "that the Christian artists see in the Rainbow Serpent the traditional counterpart to the Christian Paschal Mystery, the journey through death to life, which Jesus the archetypal pathfinder set for all who would follow him" (p. 11).

The Creed by
Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann
Another church image which grabbed my attention is at Nauiyu, Daly River, N.T.  The church of St. Francis Xavier has been administered by the Indigenous Nauiyu Council since 1975.  All of the paintings in the church are by Aboriginal elder and church member Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann.  She created a series of paintings illustrating the stations of the cross in her own personal figurative style.  But the painting that really drew my  gaze is "The Creed," a painting which is displayed on the front of the pulpit in the church (p. 25).  It visually connects "the Creed with the ministry of the Word as in the Catholic liturgy."  The painting is a visually dynamic image with multiple layers of meaning, shapes, line and color.  For a complete explanation of all the visual elements, see p. 27 (or p. 35 of Dadirri: The Spring Within by Eileen Farrelly).  I'll briefly share a couple of them here.  The hand in the upper middle of the image is the hand of Christ, with a circle in the palm representing both the nail wound and the Eucharistic host.  The central finger extends downward toward an oval shape that represents "a unity of God here among men... a small and fragile unity in the human sphere."  I understand this to mean the unity of Christ's followers in the world (John 17:20-23), which additionally reflects the unity of the Trinity represented in the triangle shape at the bottom.  Also, the cross-shaped dove at the top from which the hand emerges represents the Holy Spirit, and his sending of the the four Gospels (represented by the remaining four fingers of the hand) to all peoples throughout the world.

Top to Bottom: Calvary,
Resurrection, Pentecost
Lastly, I was intrigued by the "primal" paintings of Ellen Draper in the St. Pius Chapel, Moree (pp. 35-37).  Apparently Draper is not a Christian, but created the paintings "with the knowledge of your [Christians'] version of God... with the love and understanding of our God Baiami... a lesson in mutual respect of our different beliefs" (p. 37).  Stockton comments that

far from being naturalistic portrayals of historic persons, 'the inhabitants of Ellen Draper's paintings are in fact spirit-people.  They belong to the Dreaming which is very real and which non-Aboriginal Christians might refer to as the Kingdom of God' (with which Ellen concurred) (p. 35).

Knowing this important background information, I have to say she did a great job in depicting various scenes from the Gospels.  What all of this brings to my mind is how cultural imagery can mean different things to different viewers, depending on their background and identity.  Having said this, I don't know if Draper is a member of the community of faith at St. Pius or elsewhere.  Either way, I wonder how the community members who use the chapel interpret her paintings, and if they see clear reflections of the God of the Bible in them.  I can only assume that they do, unless there is conflicting Aboriginal symbolism present in the paintings which I am not registering.  If there isn't any sycretistic conflict in them (in the minds of believers), then I think they are artistically and culturally wonderful aids to celebrating God's love for the people of St. Pius, through both the depiction of the story of the Gospel, and through the blessing of cultural art forms for the use of glorifying God's work among them.

Overall, I found Aboriginal Church Art to be a very exciting collection of Christian Aboriginal art.  I would love to know if there is anything comparable being done by Protestant Aboriginal artists, besides the examples in Ivan Jordan's book Their Way: Towards an Indigenous Walpiri Christianity (see one of the book's images in this post), which were created at the direction of white missionaries.  Because of my lack of knowledge about Aboriginal art and culture (both traditional and Christian), it is hard for me to judge the level of "success" in combining the Gospel with Aboriginal art and culture represented in Aboriginal Church Art.  However, many of them appear to me to be very biblically-based.

What also inspires me is that these images have been produced by Aboriginals themselves as expressions of their faith and understanding of God's Word.  And regardless of how their faith and understanding may differ from mine, it is good to see them "owning" their faith and being able to relate to Christ in ways which glorify Him through heartfelt expressions of cultural praise.

Aboriginal Church Paintings: Reflecting on Our Faith is $20 per copy (incl postage and handling) and is available by writing to:

Blue Mountain Education and Research Trust
254 Great Western Highway
Lawson NSW 2783
Ph 02 4759 1034
Fx 02 4759 3654

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