Christ in the Desert

The Balgo Hills lie about midpoint between the exotic, red-rock outcropping known as Uluru and the coastal town of Broome in Western Australia. Balgo, or Wirramanu, is a settlement in the Outback with a population of about 450. The community consists of a group of buildings scattered over a red desert. Some public buildings, including Kutjungka Catholic Church, are constructed with the native red and ochre stone of the area, but most of the Aborigines' houses are in one of two "camps" of tin-roofed structures.

Two Australian Jesuit priests, Brian McCoy and Robin Koning, have been at the church for a number of years, traveling to Aboriginal communities for liturgies and catechetical work. They have an active parish council that supports them in their ever-shifting roles as family counselors, mediators, and, occasionally, chauffeurs.

They are among the numbers of Catholic missionaries who have been there since the 1930s, but because of the strong cultural and well-developed spiritual life of the Aborigines, the first baptisms did not occur until the 1980s. Nonetheless, most tribal people in the area have a connection with the parish, and many consider themselves Catholic.

The history of the Society of Jesus is marked with examples of Jesuits encouraging indigenous artists to take Christian imagery and make it their own. In India, the Philippines, Japan, Mexico, and Paraguay, this process found beautiful and powerful expression in religious art. A recent resurgence of appreciation for indigenous culture in Australia has presented an exciting challenge to the Jesuits working with Aborigines.

The traditional spirituality of Aborigines is grounded in a mysterious relationship between the land and its people. Since the introduction of Christianity to Balgo, there has gradually evolved an intriguing interplay of tribal customs, including gestures, dances, and oral traditions, and the classic signs and sacraments of the Church.

This process of integration is evident during Easter and Christmas, when the Christian community gathers in greater numbers. But it is also there in more-frequent rituals, including marriages, funerals, and also baptisms, in which the primal symbol of water washing away sins is enhanced by smoke, a traditional purifying element.

It is in the art of this community and other Aboriginal settlements in Australia that this marriage of two cultures finds its most visible expression. Kutjungka Catholic Church, a storehouse of this genre of art, contains inspired examples of the Balgo school of Western Desert art, which has emerged over the past two decades.

What has come to be known as Aboriginal art was originally characterized by distinctive graphic elements grounded in the religious rites and tribal ceremonies of a nomadic people. It was primarily represented by the sacred drawings and ritualistic designs left behind by hunters and gatherers in the caves. These mysterious images evoked stories and legends about the ancient "hero" characters of the "dreamtime" who walked the lands when the world was created.

These expressions of mysterious realities were characterized by carefully executed series of dots, arches, circles, and spirals applied to bodies and shields in initiation ceremonies led by elders and during corroborees, large celebrations of music and dance. However, these designs, intended to be seen only for a short time, were removed at the end of the gathering.

The first examples of Aboriginal painting occurred in Wirramanu about 25 years ago. With the introduction of canvas and paint by missionaries, the temporary designs of the rituals could be more easily recorded and preserved. One series of banners commissioned as a tribute to a departing priest is an example of a group project. Usually, one artist would suggest a central theme and sketch a rough design, a framework for other painters who would contribute their talents to parts of the whole.

Early attempts at working with these new artistic materials directly reflected the mysterious dot designs and evocative circular patterns of Aboriginal rituals. What is especially interesting about these first paintings from Balgo Hills, however, is that one can begin to see integrated among indigenous designs an occasional Christian cross. These raw, initial efforts that reflect original Aboriginal design elements are preserved in the church.

Later, some more-elaborate panels depicted a popular Christian subject, the Way of the Cross. These works incorporate traditional Western iconography connected with the Crucifixion, including spears, whips, and the crown of thorns. However, the paintings also include stylized footprints, occasionally used in other Aboriginal works, and crescent-shaped forms, which designate people sitting. These elements lead the eye through the story of Christ's Passion and death in a very natural and uncomplicated way.

In these and other works that depict scriptural events, such as Palm Sunday and Pentecost, artists tell stories in simple pictorial language that would be clear to Aborigines in that it is drawn from everyday experience. The bright, acrylic paintings of Balgo are much like stained-glass windows that tell bible stories through brightly colored pieces of glass. The charm of these creative expressions is that both child and adult can appreciate in their own way what is being presented by the artist. However, the placement of these articles and figures, the colors, and Aboriginal design elements give an extraordinary character to these works.

Some earlier works of Balgo artists can come across as an uneasy overlay of Christian iconography on traditional Aboriginal designs. The distinctive dots, spirals, crescent shapes, and footprints of classic Aboriginal painting are part of these works, but the crosses, spears, and holy flames reflecting the Gospel narratives can seem not fully assimilated into the indigenous artistic styles.

In the works of certain artists, such as Matthew Gill, this integration and interplay of Aboriginal and Christian imagery occurs more successfully and beautifully. Using the earthy reds, yellow ochres, and black and white of traditional cave drawings, Matthew Gill produces striking images of biblical narrative, such as the parable of the Prodigal Son and Pentecost. His paintings have been exhibited in Australia and abroad, but some of his most important initial works hang in the church in Balgo.

One of his paintings, draped over the altar, follows the journey of humankind from their creation through the quest of Abraham and his tribe to Moses and the Exodus, culminating in the Nativity. Archetypal crescent-shaped figures represent the people in these stories; subtle variations of color and detail distinguish the characters in this narrative of salvation.

Perhaps the most extraordinary of Matthew's works is entitled "Motherhood," a backdrop for an old rough-hewn stone statue of the Virgin brought to the Balgo Mission by German Pallottine fathers. Through a synthesis of both seminaturalistic and more-symbolic elements, the artist evokes the moment of Jesus' conception. A black serpentine figure winds around the central image, Mary's womb filled with eggs; resonances with the biblical imagery of Mary as the "new Eve," crushing the evil serpent's head, seem obvious. However, when I questioned the artist about this symbolism, he responded that he included this image in his work because this type of serpent was the traditional totem for his family and had powerful sacred connotations for him.

Matthew also produced an Aboriginal interpretation of the Stations of the Cross, with a wild Australian turkey representing Jesus. The artist's drawings follow the Passion narrative to the Resurrection, with Christ assuming an almost Phoenix-like persona in the final panel. Again, the adoption of familiar animal figures and other indigenous elements reflects Jesus' own use in the parables of the everyday realities of the people with whom he lived.

Gracie Mosquito, another artist who lives and works in Wirramanu, is an active member of the parish. Her earlier works, some created in collaboration with other artists, portray similar Christian themes. One of her banners depicts the Holy Spirit as a beautiful bird rendered in pastels, reminiscent of Native American design. There are streams of tear-like drops seemingly emitting from the body of the creature. When asked about the meaning of these stylized droplets, she said that they were blessings flowing from God that envelop the Spirit and are simultaneously "sent out" from the Holy Ghost to all Christians.

But there was more to the painting than that. When I asked her whether this depicted a special bird, she responded yes, it was a breed found in the Balgo Hills area, but she could not speak its name because it was kumunytjayi, taboo. The subject matter suggested Luurnpa, the kingfisher, the totem for Wirramanu. It is said that Luurnpa led the Kukatja people to their ancestral home by leaving trails in the desert.

Everyday items of Aboriginal life often find their way into the paintings. Take the coolomon, a shallow, hollowed-out wooden vessel, for instance. Small ones are used for drinking water while larger ones are used for digging or gathering seeds. Mothers use coolomons as baby carriers, so they find their way into paintings of the Nativity, the infant Jesus lying in this simple indigenous crib.

The men of Wirramanu created some of the first works of this type of religious art, but today many women are painting as well. Age is not a factor either; both young and old create works based on their experiences with the spiritual. Christian symbols, however, are not as frequently represented in recent Balgo Hills canvases as they were not too long ago. There has been a shift to paintings that reflect more purely Aboriginal motifs and themes due to demand from art galleries in Australia and abroad. With the high prices these works now command, painting has become an important source of income for many Aboriginal families. However, a few recognized artists, among them Linda Syddick, continue to include Christian elements in their works.

Linda lives in a community just outside Alice Springs, more than 500 miles east of Wirramanu. Her works masterfully incorporate a classic dot design in untraditional color combinations. A catalogue describes one of Linda's more explicitly Christian works as a depiction of "the spirits of Aborigines in heaven praying for Aboriginal people on earth." This same overtly religious aspect of Linda's work is also apparent in some of her other paintings, most notably a representation of the Ascension, in which Christ, poised for flight, is brilliantly clothed in yellow ochre robes punctuated with golden crosses, all pointing toward heaven.

This art interweaves two cultures and two expressions of spirituality. These people, with a timeless relationship with the land, have taken symbols of their desert existence and subtly and beautifully integrated them with Christian iconography. Those unfamiliar with this culture may only see and begin to understand the first level of its art. Its deeper meanings and powers may remain hidden, but its spirituality comes through quite clearly even in its mystery. That, of course, is the essence of any great art. In the paintings of these remarkable people is something of both the sacred and the profane. Its aesthetic language may not be familiar, but it still communicates a message that is universal.


About the Author

Fr. Joseph Schad, SJ, traveled to Australia for his tertianship year, the final stage of Jesuit formation. He worked with Christian Life Communities in the Lakes District in Victoria, giving Ignatian retreats in daily life.

Toward the end of the year he went to a remote Aboriginal community in the Balgo Hills to record and photograph Aboriginal art in the community's Jesuit church. He videotaped interviews with a number of artists, in which they talked about their paintings and their meanings.


Page maintained by R VandeVelde, [email protected] Updated: Wed., December 14, 2004