By Robyn Douglass
In the clash between European culture and Australia’s first nations, the Christian churches have often been seen as villains, imposing Western beliefs on cultures which had been active for tens of thousands of years.
But there’s another side to this history. Christian missionaries wrote down and preserved languages and customs. One of the oldest charities in Australia, the Bible Society, celebrates its 200th anniversary this year. It is still widely involved in translating the Bible into indigenous languages.
The society is celebrating its anniversary in part by publishing Our Mob, God’s Story, which uses artwork by aboriginal people to illustrate their faith.
Old and New Testament stories look both familiar and very different: wise men as emus; time in the wilderness as walkabout; the Creation recast as the Dreaming.
One of the co-editors of the book is Christobel Mattingley, a celebrated author and Anglican who has lived with and written about aboriginal people for more than 40 years. She said overseeing the publication was a slow and careful project. It took more than five years, and aboriginal artists selected the 115 works by 65 artists.
The artists did not receive a fee for their work, but retain ownership of the images. Proceeds from the sale of the book will support translations of the Bible into more aboriginal languages.
Mattingley has worked with Kaurna people in South Australia, but said the editors wanted to connect with as many communities as possible to invite their contribution.
She speaks with passion about aboriginal people’s dispossession from their land, but also about the aboriginal understanding of Christianity.
“I describe them as ‘Old Testament’ people in that they have always understood the mysteries and glories of creation. That was the foundation of their lives and their culture,” she told TLC. “Jesus was a natural follow-on from their beliefs.”
Co-editor Louise Sherman echoed that perspective.
“Jesus goes beyond culture. It’s us who limit him. We cast him as a Western man, but he was a Middle Eastern Jew, living in a culture where his people were oppressed by the Romans,” she said.
And Australian Aborigines relate to that dispossession, that sense of being made aliens in their own land.
But the mood in Our Mob, God’s Story is more of celebration, of joy in expressing faith with such creativity.
The Rev. Robyn Davis is assistant priest in the Anglican parish of Swan Hill in northern Victoria, and she is a member of the Waddi Waddi people. Two of her artworks are included in Our Mob, God’s Story, and she spoke to TLC about her passion for art, and her faith.
Painting and drawing is just part of her life, she said. “If I don’t paint or draw every day, I don’t feel right.”
Davis described her art as a form of prayer, and said there is a prayer in each of her paintings, which she describes as “contemporary Aboriginal art.”
She sees every picture in her mind’s eye before she executes it. “God puts that there for a reason; it needs to go to somebody,” she said. “It’s a record of the prayer which is in the painting.”
Robyn said her paintings always go with a story, and every one of her works includes a small gold cross. “People can find the cross if they follow the story.”
Is there any difficulty walking between Christianity and her aboriginal heritage?
“It’s easy,” she said, after laughing. “Before the white men came, we had the Great Creator Spirit. It was the same God, just a different name. God is the whitefellas’ name, but we knew already.”
Robyn Douglass is a journalist based in Adelaide, South Australia, who studied art history at the University of Melbourne.