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Tourists sampling the Australian indigenous art scene might expect to find Mimi Spirits, lizards, landscapes and wallabies. But they’ll find one thing they may not have expected: traditional Christian themes in many pieces of art.
Apparently Aboriginal beliefs down under have many parallels with Christianity – or at least there are artists and theologians who have been making that claim for a while now. Some native artists accept Christianity, while others sympathize and identify with Christ and Bible stories. This has led to a proliferation of fantastic art works (in every sense of the word.)
One of the most renown of Aboriginal painters is Greg Weatherby from New South Wales. His work uses a kind of hatching and dot painting that is very common there and was traditionally painted onto skin for ceremonial reasons. Apparently the very method itself is significant, as it reputedly withholds or encodes information in the dot patterns.
“Dreamtime Birth,” Greg Weatherby
Weatherby’s portrayal of Jesus’ birth in “Dreamtime Birth” is so different from European tradition that it is almost unrecognizable. Placed in the central Outback, huge God-like hands thrust from a sea of dotted stars. They seem to be gracing this world with the child. Kangaroos, emus and lizards rush to the scene, leaving a foreign and exotic touch on a sere landscape.
God in the write up is referred to as the “great Ancestor,” with omnipresent character and powers delivering his “divine Gift.” The story veers from the Gospels some as the child’s parents are described as “Aboriginal Spirit parents near legendary Uluru.” I don’t claim to be an expert in Aboriginal beliefs, so perhaps it still stays close to the Nativity. Regardless, the piece stands on its own as a delightful representation of Christ’s birth.
“Crucifixion,” Greg Weatherby
Aboriginal culture in Australia has always highly valued painting and other forms of art and imputes spiritual meaning to them all. Creating art may be considered part of work and worship.
Weatherby is the poster child for this inherited tendency, as he survived a rough, abused childhood but kept a constant drive to draw and paint. Since the 1980s he has become increasingly popular with numerous awards and commissions, both nationally and internationally.
Weatherby’s intent in these pieces is to “integrate Aboriginal and Christian inconography” into a unified piece that viewers can relate to. The Christian themes of birth, crucifixion and the Last Supper especially interest him.
His rendition of the Crucifixion is astonishing yet strangely familiar. It is like El Greco, although the style is vastly different. What remains is a sense of transcendent powers moving through earth, sky and air. The tension and drama are strong, with a mountain about to blow and figures and crosses surrounding Christ morphing into indistinguishable geometric shapes. The effect is very striking, and the oddness of it makes the viewer look again more closely.
Nathan Simpson is another painter from New South Wales who is has done some wonderful renditions of Bible subjects. It wasn’t clear if his background is Aboriginal or not, but his work is worth looking at. He draws inspirations from folk-tales, mythology, Bible stories and other themes and is influenced by native art.
“Last Supper,” Nathan Simpson (2004)
Simpson is a more formally trained artist, and the influence shows in his work. He is currently studying Latin, Greek and French, along with exhibiting.
Simpson has a background as a Catholic, which he claims to have abandoned yet “held on to Christianity” at least for awhile. Although not a traditional believer, Simpson perceives a relationship between Christian symbolism and “much older iconographic traditions.”
He muses on his artistic future, “I have no idea where it will all lead.”
You can see a little cubism and abstract impressionism in his painting, beside the traditional Australian elements. Simpson is inspired by icons of civilizations and religions which “resonate on a primal level” and uses an “unreal yet mystical flatness” as in Byzantine painting.
“Jesus Entering Jerusalem,” Nathan Simpson (1999)
His work has been recognized by being included in the 2004 Blake Prize exhibition. This highly valued prize is unique to Australia and named after the British poet and artist William Blake. They sponsor and promote programs for contemporary art that examine themes of religion, spirituality, visionaries and justice.
The Catholic Church in Australia has increasingly catalogued, researched and sponsored Aboriginal art and culture. A 2007 Blake Prize went to indigenous artist Shirley Purdie for “Stations of the Cross.” In a recent meeting with Pope Benedict, the governor-general of Australia, Quentin Bryce, was first shown an exhibit of Aboriginal art that was installed at the Vatican.
In “Aboriginal Gift: Spirituality of a Nation,” Eugene Stockton covered much of the church’s recent enthusiasm over Aboriginal culture. He claims a common view between Christianity and native religion on some things such as a reverence and celebration of life.
Fr. Stockton notes the immense effect traditional culture is having on the Australian psyche and church. For example, a recent poll found that 90 percent of Australians think “indigenous arts are important to Australian culture” and almost half the population has a growing interest in them.
“It’s working by osmosis, creeping into our national feeling,” notes Stockton.
This does not seem to alarm him as might be the case in the past. Noting indigenous church paintings particularly, Stockon finds they embody a “natural and clear expression … a profound theology.”
For the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, it isn’t possible to study spiritual subjects as distinct from art. Apparently there is not even a word, therefore no concept, in any Aboriginal language for “art” alone. Art is both that common and necessary in their thinking, very unlike ours in the West. Many native artists are finding it possible to keep their tribal identity and expression in calm co-existence with traditional Christian belief.