‘Optical gyrations’

Our Mob, God’s Story: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists share their faith, Louise Sherman and Christobel Mattingley (eds), Bible Society

In one of last year’s better books, Position Doubtful, Kim Mahood writes about how indigenous peoples don’t just passively receive good and bad elements of introduced European culture. This, she argues, ignores indigenous agency and plays into Eurocentric and anthropological stereotypes of a fixed culture encroached upon by, and unable to resist, modernity. Instead indigenous peoples adapt, innovate, resist and utilise. This ability is on show in the Bible Society’s Our Mob, God’s Story, a coffee table book that celebrates Australian indigenous art with a Christian orientation, as well as marking the Bible Society’s bicentenary. The artists here tell the biblical stories through the style and symbolism of traditional and modern indigenous art, and display a Christian faith as deep as their connection to the land, and as vital as rain. In many paintings orientation is to the fore, in that the aerial view of much desert painting, which highlights orientation to land and community, here also includes the orientation that comes through faith.

There are variations in style, and variations in quality too, I suppose, but that may be subjective. There are paintings here in the Western Desert style, often described as one of the great art movements of the twentieth century, with their dot-patterned ‘optical gyrations’ and bird’s eye view of landscape and history, X-ray paintings from the far north, and paintings that incorporate European art elements. These harmonise with the subject matter – the Bible seen through indigenous eyes alert to story, country, justice and community. This is art with simplicity and depth.

It seems unfair to single out artists, but as an illustration of the breadth of the collection, we move from the easy movement of the dot paintings of Pitjantjara leaders Rupert Jack and Hector Tjupuru Burton to Daphne Davis’s stringy, black calligraphic figuration in vibrant backgrounds that recall Pro Hart. Susan Nakamarra Nelson offers controlled, pared-back scenes that are reminiscent of both colour field painting and Rover Thomas’s use of spacious planes. Julie Dowling’s highly accomplished work combines realism, subtle dot painting background and Renaissance iconography. Margy Adams, like Ian Fairweather, places blurry white stylised faceless figures in tight groupings. Fern Martins reimagines the Stations of the Cross and the Easter story in a bushfire-blackened and eventually rejuvenated forest landscape.

The art and faith here contradict the idea of Christianity as merely a foreign imposition on indigenous culture. The artists here show that indigenous culture can embrace Christian faith, interpret it in appropriate ways, find resonances with traditional beliefs and use it as a resource. In particular, the artists here tell personal stories of the value of faith, away from wider issues of culture. The book also shows that the process is two-way, with indigenous culture able to reinterpret and rejuvenate Christianity for the Australian context. Proceeds from the book fund the work of translating the Bible into indigenous languages, which in turn helps to preserve that culture.