Aboriginal artists share light of the cross

A unique exhibition reveals the gospel story through First Nation eyes

Just two days before Easter in Tennant Creek – the Northern Territory town some may rashly describe as godforsaken – the Barkly Regional Arts centre hosted two significant Christian events.

First, in the art gallery studio, was the official opening of Easter Show 2019: The Way of the Cross, featuring works by nine women who are part of “the Tennant Creek Mob”.

Their works consider the meaning of the cross in First Nation cultures in the Barkly region around Tennant Creek, which is known for million-acre cattle stations, gold-mining heritage and iconic rock formations, as well as Aboriginal culture.

In their works, each artist is inspired by their faith and imagination to give their own interpretation of the sacrifice of Jesus, followed by the miracle of the redemption and the importance of the light in the image of resurrection.

The exhibition of about 40 works comprises acrylic paintings and painted crosses made from recycled pallet timber.

In the adjacent music studio, in the Karguru Training Centre, the culmination of a year’s work by Jameson Casson and Barkly Arts musicians was presented as a live performance launch of Jameson’s CD, Gospel Hits, which includes his original song, “I am a Gospel Singer.

“… it is part of her own faith; it’s part of her way of expressing her belief and sharing stories …” – Georges Bureau

Jameson Casson and Barkly Arts musicians perform Jameson’s CD, Gospel Hits.

Jameson, a member of Tennant Creek’s Australian Indigenous Ministries (AIM) church, directed the audience’s attention to Christ’s saving work at Calvary.

Using a painting by prominent local artist Susannah Nelson, Jameson explained the true Easter message: “It’s all about the Lord Jesus; it’s not about the Easter bunny. The Lord Jesus died for us on the cross – for us sinners.

“The Lord Jesus is the boss,” he said. “People are lost without Jesus.”

Curator of the art exhibition, Georges Bureau, who’s been at Barkly Arts for the past four years, said this was the third Easter show. The first came after the centre had been approached about works by Susannah Nelson, who is also known by her skin name, Nakamarra.

Artist Susannah Nelson

“She had been doing a lot of Christian painting before – it is part of her own faith; it’s part of her way of expressing her belief and sharing stories at her church’s regular sharing time,” Georges said.

The paintings in this year’s exhibition seemed to answer a lot of things that happened in the communities, he said. Describing the interesting depiction of a good side and bad side in one of Susannah’s paintings, he said: “Half of the painting is black, and it’s what makes her upset. It’s what she knows is a sin, including people fighting, people arguing, people drinking, gambling, playing for money and lying. And you get this cross and the path from the cross where people leave their sin and then they join God’s way, God’s family.”

“It gives me great joy to see Indigenous Christians sharing the message of Jesus in their own appropriate ways.” – Peter Dixon

Georges said the idea of the resurrection was something that appeared a lot in Christian art in the Barkly collection. “There is a nice big painting of people rising up from the grave and joining Jesus … As Nakamarra says: ‘Jesus takes them up to home Heaven’ – home in Heaven. You have a feeling of a very nice, warm expression of the resurrection, the salvation.”

AIM missionary at the Tennant Creek indigenous church, Peter Dixon, said many of Susannah’s paintings were her depiction of the Good News. He said her paintings show “we’ve got to turn away from our old life and give ourselves to Jesus and he will change us and share his eternal life with us. She does that in various ways – not necessarily always using the black and the light. She’ll often have an Easter scene with the cross in the centre and maybe the empty tomb or various stages at the tomb, and she will explain them at sharing night.”

Peter explained the value of using art at the church’s sharing night: “Some of the older people are quite illiterate and some of the young people are functionally illiterate, so the Bible text isn’t always helpful, but pictures and talking will be more helpful.

“Susannah has different styles of artwork. Lots of her Bible stories seem to have come from the flannelgraph pictures that she – and maybe many others – would have seen in Sunday school a long time ago,” Peter said. “And with them, she will use symbolism – especially of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

“In the Aboriginal style of drawing around here, a person is drawn like a horseshoe (depicting someone sitting on the ground). And so for the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the three horseshoe shapes are joined together and, for me, that’s the most effective picture of Father, Son and Spirit I’ve ever seen. It’s not attempting to explain what we call the Trinity, but it is picturing it. I think that when we start to try to explain it, we get ourselves all tied up in knots; if we just picture it – the three are one and yet they’re three. Susannah will use that to picture the Godhead.”

“These paintings give hope and pride, and it shows the good side of Tennant Creek, the good community spirit.” – Georges Bureau

Peter said the paintings spoke to him as well. “I think they’re brilliant! We have them on our walls at home. It gives me great joy to see Indigenous Christians sharing the message of Jesus in their own appropriate ways.”

Georges said that in Tennant Creek the battle of salvation was an everyday struggle. “Because of violence, consumption of alcohol, loss of identity – all the bad things that nobody talked about, nobody wanted to talk about it. What hurts people a lot is the image of Tennant Creek. People feel shame of what’s all around them. And these paintings give hope and pride, and it shows the good side of Tennant Creek, the good community spirit.”

Last year Janice Johnston, from Springwood Presbyterian Church in NSW, asked if one of Nakamarra’s paintings could be used for a banner. Nakamarra agreed, and from that, Janice organised for the Easter exhibition, titled My God, My Culture, to travel to NSW. Georges said that some of the members of the Springwood church, Warren and Angela Laylin, had been working as missionaries at Epenarra, which is 200km southeast of Tennant Creek.

The exhibition was shown for a month at Springwood, where 12 paintings sold, and then for a month at St Barnabas Church at Broadway in Sydney.

When the Tennant Creek season of this exhibition ends on August 3, Georges would like to see it travel to other venues, such as in churches in one or more of the metropolitan cities.

To express an interest in hosting the exhibition, contact Georges Bureau at Barkly Regional Arts, 65 Staunton Street, Tennant Creek, NT 0861; or phone 08 8962 2799; or email [email protected].