Artist Safina Stewart often hears from people who are confused about how Christianity and the spirituality of the Torres Strait Island people can co-exist with each other, but for artist Safina Stewart, there is no disjunction.

We know our land, our waters, our plants, our animals,” Stewart has said. “We have been taught by Creator how to care for all of these. These stories, this land… it’s like the Bible to us.”

Integrated Perspectives

With a mother of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people, and a Scottish missionary father, Stewart holds these identities together both in her life in general and in her art in particular.

The Seven Days of Creation, Safina Stewart

In her painting, The Seven Days of Creation, pictured above, these perspectives are unified beautifully. From left to right, the panels trace the appearance of each part of creation: light, the sky, earth, seas and vegetation, the sun and moon, animals of the air and sea, on day six, land animals and humans. The curved U's represent people who, in the final Sabbath panel have been formed into a community, clustering around the traditional Aboriginal symbol for campfire, modeling the practice of rest and community. Storytelling is central to Stewart's art; in this case, she retells this ancient story in a way that includes not just Aboriginal symbols and design, but also their perspectives of connection, creation, and community.

Nativity Star, 2013, acrylic on canvas, Safina Stewart

In her painting, Nativity Star, we see the familiar threesome of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in the center, surrounded by symbols of land and water in the shape of a star. The marvel of God's coming to earth is represented in a way that helps us to see it differently as we see it from an Aboriginal point of view. The human and nonhuman members of creation are all participants in this astounding act of incarnation.

Bunjil, 2007, Safina Stewart

In the painting Bunjil, we find a different story. Eagle—"Bunjil" in the Kulin Nations language—who is Creator Spirit, looks down on what he has made as he flies over three wavy lines, which represent the Yarra River. The individual campfire circles (signifying a gathering of community) are connected by paths of connection that join those communities into an interconnected web. The three larger circles which are marked with white circles, and the lightning streaks that come out from them, signify the power of prayer, worship, and relationship with the Creator. The stingray in the right-hand corner by Stewart's written signature represents her family totem and is a way of acknowledging the elders of Indigenous communities.

The painting as a whole shows a world of intimate relationships, in which communities of people are connected to each other, connected to the natural world, and connected to the Creator in deep and lasting ways.

More Aboriginal symbols can be seen in the chart above and these may be helpful in understanding Stewart's work.

McMillan, 2017, Safina Stewart

Past and Future

Stewart explores both the past and the future in her paintings. Sometimes her images reveal hard realities that people might rather avoid, in particular the history of Australia itself and how the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people have been abused, overlooked, and killed since Europeans first arrived. Her painting, McMillan, is one of the starkest example of this aspect of Stewart's work. It strips away the mystique of the historical figure of Angus McMillan (an early Scottish explorer of Australia) and replaces this garnished picture with a harder reality. The painting confronts his part in the massacre and abuse of Aboriginal people as we see him mounted on his horse surrounded by a sea of blood and Aboriginal skulls. This painting was part of a successful effort to change the name of a federal electorate formerly named after McMillan.

But Stewart's response to her country's painful past is not a desire to expel the oppressors. She believes the truth should be told. She also sees care of the earth, teaching that care, and extending welcome to those coming to the land as a role and responsibility of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people.

“Caring”. 2022, Acrylic on linen canvas, Safina Stewart

The painting above, Caring, gives us this picture through the use of traditional symbols—as well as a color palette that displays Stewart's own artistic touch. The artist describes the piece as a work showing protection, provision, care, and welcome—each of these being held within one of the four black elliptic shapes.

On the far left, a shield of protection guards the land from greed and injustices which might be leveled against the land. The second contains a canoe—a reminder of the abundance of creation and the need to live sustainably, taking only what we need. A baby is being carried in an Aboriginal "Coolamon" in the third shape—suggesting the responsibility we have to coming generations when making decisions that will affect their future.

The fourth shape contains gum leaves, which are used in traditional Aboriginal Welcome Ceremonies. As Stewart explains, "They reflect the important role we have as peoples in Australia to share, to welcome and make sure all people and all creation are cared for and looked after. This truth is handed down to us from our Elders and Ancestors who listened and obeyed Creator Spirit."

The four of these together are a picture of what active caring looks like and how, when decisions are made using these values, the land and people are successfully kept safe and healthy.

Reconciliation Well, 2017, acrylic on canvas, Safina Stewart

Listening and Learning

Stewart has been working in the community through education and community groups for many years. She recently advocated for the passage of the 2023 Australian Indigenous Voice referendum. This referendum would have changed the Australian constitution to create a body called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Voice which would have been a standing advisory group to provide counsel to the government on matters having to do with Aboriginal and Torres Strait people. In discussing the referendum (which later failed), she stated that she hoped for "makarrata" rather than "reconciliation," since reconciliation assumes a relationship was healthy before it was broken, which hasn't been the case for Aboriginal people. Makarrata, on the other hand, means coming together after a struggle, which more accurately describes what is possible in light of the history of the place.

Stewart's vision of healing encompasses all the parts of Creation, for in her mind, all of Creation is suffering from abuse at the hands of human.

When she looks at Creation, she hears signs of distress: "We also have forgotten that country speaks and creation speaks. If I have a puppy and I treat that puppy wrong, he will cry, howl and even bite me in order to protect himself when he feels out of balance. And I think about our climate, our climate is screaming. She, if I can give a gender, has been saying for a long time, 'I don’t feel good. This is not going so good. I’m out of whack.' Now we’re so far beyond her initial, gentle warning signs, we are now with a screaming climate."

Turquoise Turtle, 2010, acrylic on canvas, Safina Stewart

Yet, even so she is hopeful. As she says, "I look to creation and see such hope! Creation is defiant. It fights for life. It is wired and programmed for living and to grow, to restore and to heal." In the painting above, Turquoise Turtle, the turtle moves from egg, to hatchling, to adult, swimming amidst the waves and winds, giving a picture of determined hope and the driving force of this Creation toward life. May we be wise and humble enough to learn from God, the past, elders, Creation, and from our fellow creatures ways we can live in healthier relationship to all parts of this Creation.

Reflection Questions: What lessons of welcome and care can you learn from Creation, from tradition, and from those who have deep knowledge of the place where you live?

You can find Safina Stewart's online gallery here.

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Feel free to leave a comment below or contact me directly at louise.conner@circlewood.online.

Louise