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Aboriginal art book celebrates Indigenous faith

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There was once a little girl who loved books. One day, when she was eight years old, she moved to Sydney and went to visit the Aboriginal mission in La Perouse. The little girl looked around at all the people. She couldn’t understand why they looked so sad.

Painting of the Three Crosses, by Anangu artist Yvonne Edwards

Christobel Mattingley was that little girl. “My father was involved in building the first road bridge over the Hawkesbury River,” she recalls. “Along the cliffs there were caves with Aboriginal rock art. I used to sit in one of those caves and wonder what it was like to be one of the people who carved them.”

As a child, Mattingley’s fascination with Aboriginal art continued and united with her love of books.

“I used to save up my pocket money – thrippence a week. I was allowed to go to the museum to spend it. I would by on books about Aboriginal culture and art and I used to sit up and read them at night.”

Among Mattingley’s favourite books were Frank Dalby Davidson’s, Children of the Dark People and Mrs Aeneas Gunn’s, Bet-Bet the Little Black Princess. Other favourites were her grandmother’s prayer book, and her father’s boyhood Bible. She also recalls, “When I was in Year 5 I particularly asked my parents for one book. It was The Precious Gift by Theodora Wilson, a retelling of Bible stories, and it’s been with me all my life.”

As an author of both children’s and adult books, Mattingley’s early fascination and sympathy for the Aboriginal people and their culture matured as she researched and wrote Survival in Our Own Land, which aims to tell the story of South Australia from the point of view of the Aboriginal population.

When asked to write Survival in Our Own Land by an Aboriginal committee, Mattingley knew it would be the hardest thing she had ever done in her life. “It proved even more difficult and devastating than I could have imagined. I had been appointed to do the research, but I wasn’t known or trusted by a lot of Aboriginal people. It took a long time to win trust and confidence, and for the people to open up and share their stories.”

“Added to that, I was working outside my own culture and society. I was condemning my own society in what I wrote. I was totally alienated. People didn’t understand. No one did, except God. It was a very lonely long eight years. Yet I knew God had called me to do it.”

Later, Mattingley also wrote Maralinga the Anangu Story, which was illustrated by the Aboriginal informants.

Now Mattingley has embarked on a new project which unites her love of Aboriginal culture and art, books, and the Bible.

Together with Bible Society Australia’s Remote and Indigenous Ministry team, Mattingley is working on compiling a book of Aboriginal art with biblical subject matter. Artists are invited to submit works which depict a Bible story which has meaning for them. Altogether, the book will include about 100 images.

Bible Society’s Phil Zamagias, previously the Flying Bible Man, and Mattingley are looking for Aboriginal artists from all over Australia to contribute to the book.

While Zamagias’ contacts as the Flying Bible Man have already yielded contacts in the northern parts of Australia, Mattingley notes, “It’s not easy to make contact with a lot of communities. We’re hoping that news of the book will spread via word of mouth. We want to consult as widely as possible. We’re particularly concerned to get the news out in the southern part of Australia.”

Mattingley adds, “We’d love the book to include art from both traditional and urban people. People who have been dislocated from their home lands and who’ve had to adjust, and those still in their own country.”

Mattingley says there is much to be learned from the faith of Australia’s Indigenous community. “I think [the book] is an opportunity for the wider, non-Aboriginal Australian community to learn something about the depth of spirituality among Aboriginal Christians, and have the opportunity to appreciate their talent and skills. I hope the book will also travel overseas.”

“Pictures speak to everyone. I’m hoping that this book will speak to everyone, and contribute towards the long slow process of reconciliation. I believe that reconciliation can’t be imposed from above. It has to start in the hearts of each individual person. This book may light the spark that leads to a true spirit of reconciliation.”

If you would like more information about the project or to submit an artwork, email here.

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