by Ivan Jordan and Frank Tucker
Visual art can be very useful in supporting oral communication. This is particularly the case when communicating with people who are predominantly oral-aural communicators.
VISUAL ART IN COMMUNICATING THE GOSPEL
Visual art can be very useful in supporting oral communication. This is particularly the case when communicating with people who are predominantly oral-aural communicators. Visual art can be very useful in supporting oral communication. This is particularly the case when communicating with people who are predominantly oral-aural communicators. According to Barbara Sayers, the Warlpiri, Aboriginal people of Central Australia, living in the Western Desert region are predominantly "left-brain" (the side of the brain believed to be used in the appreciation of art), concrete oral-aural people who express themselves through song, art and drama. Communicating the gospel to such people in culturally relevant ways has been a challenge to Western missionaries who have been largely influenced by a literate culture that has mostly abandoned the preliterate means of communication, and have been encouraged by formal education to be right-brain dominant. When Ivan began work among these people he used simple line drawings like the one in figure one.
Such drawings are Western in style, and it is not axiomatic that non-Western people, especially people who are nonliterate, will recognize the objects as referring to another reality. Foreign illustrations may need to be "translated" before the meanings intended can be understood. However, this issue is unimportant when indigenous art forms are used because adult viewers will have developed the necessary competencies to understand their cultural forms. In this case, it is the least complicated and most appropriate to use Warlpiri symbols for communicating with Warlpiri people.
The Warlpiri people share with other Western Desert people the most abstract of Aboriginal art-the patterns of tracks, concentric circles and lines. The drawings, whether they have something to do with ancestors or current events, have the same basic structures which are adapted to each particular situation.
This art was not used primarily for aesthetic purposes but rather for religious purposes-to release the creative powers of the primal spirit beings in the present and to communicate this with other people. The symbols may be drawn in the sand, on the body or, in the case of men, drawn on stones or wooden artifacts.
Warlpiri graphic symbols are iconic in nature. Iconographic symbols are images representing and bearing a likeness to the object to which they refer. Warlpiri symbols are mostly patterns or imprints left in the sand by people and animals indicating the close link the people have with the land. While the tracks are drawings of animal tracks they are used as representations of the animal that made the tracks (Munn 1973,127). The perspective is from above, not from the side (see figure two).
These symbolic illustrations represent movement, that is, the symbols are not arranged as snapshots in a sequence, but sequences may be diagrammatically represented spatially in one scene.
The use of iconographic symbols is ever present in Warlpiri story telling whether it is the recounting of daily events and dreams, or the stories of a clan’s dreaming totemic ancestors (Munn 1973, xix). They form part of the visual, non-verbal communication process that, with the verbal story telling, contribute to the meaning. The particular meaning of the pattern of symbols must be derived from the narrative context of their use (Berndt, Berndt and Stanton 1982, 40). Some symbols are secret and only the initiated men are privy to them, but most symbols are public domain.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF WARLPIRI ICONOGRAPHY TO COMMUNICATE THE CHRISTIAN STORY
A competent linguist and student of Aboriginal culture, Wilf Douglas, who worked with the United Aborigines Mission (now Australian Indigenous Ministries) in western Australia, explored the possibility of using indigenous art forms to communicate the gospel to Ngaanyatjarra people in the Western Desert region. In 1975 a copy of Wilf’s paper on this subject was handed to Ivan Jordan who grasped the potential of this use for the Warlpiri people, yet also saw some limitations. Some of the drawings used, such as the star of David, were foreign to the Aboriginal people. Also the particular medium used, the sacred stick, could only be seen by the initiated men. Nevertheless, Wilf’s paper was a catalyst for significant developments in the use of indigenous Warlpiri art in communicating the Christian message.
The very imaginative and original thinking behind these drawings suggested that if the Christian message could be presented in symbolic form on a small board, about the same shape as some of the tjuringas (sacred objects belonging to the important Aboriginal ceremonies) a very direct and understandable presentation of Christianity could be made to the tribal elders. (Jordan 2001)
Ivan consulted with Jerry Jangala and other Warlpiri elders concerning their use. They affirmed the possibilities but added that they would use their own symbols, rather than the symbols of the neighbors and counseled that certain sacred men’s symbols should not be used. This marked the development of an innovative, indigenous graphic art form to communicate the Christian story by the Warlpiri people in collaboration with Australian Baptist Missionary Society missionaries.
Over a period of time the symbols used were modified to suit the message. This development is documented in the manuscript "Their Way: Indigenous Expressions of Faith Amongst the Warlpiri Aborigines" by Ivan Jordan. Some of the commonly used symbols can be seen in figure three.
The use of these symbols was eagerly embraced and has been used regularly in worship and training programs since 1975.
Soon drawings were being done in meetings using the chalkboard. Today both OHP transparencies and the chalkboard are still used. This approach has become standard with the teaching in … each Sunday service… (Jordan 2001)
Warlpiri art, combined with song and dance, was used for traditional religious purposes. Now Christians are using indigenous art, song and dance to communicate the Christian message in ways that are familiar to, and resonate with, the Warlpiri people.
The graphic symbols proved to be very useful in illustrating Bible stories such as the life of Christ (see figure four on page 306).
But their use is not confined to stories, they are also used to depict abstract theological concepts such as the concept of two groups of people (see figure five on page 307). Such abstract concepts are difficult to conceptualize for people who are predominantly concrete thinkers such as the Warlpiri.
After some years of observing these developments it can be said that the genius of the Warlpiri symbols is that when the Warlpiri people see them, there is an immediate sense of identity as they relate to the message portrayed in graphic form. However, the use of such indigenous means of communication raises several questions. Does the use of indigenous art, which has been closely associated with traditional Aboriginal religion, inevitably lead to syncretism? How has the use of such graphic art influenced Aboriginal Christian spirituality? Has its use enabled the Warlpiri people to develop an indigenous Christianity?
THE IMPACT OF USING CHRISTIAN WARLPIRI ART ON ABORIGINAL SPIRUTALITY
It may be argued that the adaptation of traditional art for Christian purposes introduces an external change dynamic detrimental to the maintenance of Aboriginal culture. If this is so, the change is minimal compared to the popularization of traditional art by the use of acrylic and canvas for commercial purposes widespread throughout the central desert communities. It is encouraging to note the observation made by an independent observer, Tony Swain, an anthropologist, that the style of graphic symbols used by Warlpiri Christians was virtually indistinguishable from the symbols traditionally used for telling the dreaming stories (1988, 452).
It may also be argued that the use of indigenous religious symbolism may lead to syncretism. This could not be denied anymore than not using indigenous forms of expression to communicate the gospel will inevitably lead to Westernizing syncretism. The accusation of syncretism is often a pejorative applied by the critics who are blind to their own syncretism. It is important to note the traditional religious symbols are not used but the traditional medium and style is used, and the icons adapted for Christian use.
In the case of the Warlpiri, Tony Swain also noted that some men considered that Abraham, Moses and Jesus were contemporaries leading him to postulate that, for Warlpiri, time is understood spatially (1998, 454). The depicting of historical sequence spacially in drawings reinforces this understanding. These people traditionally do not have a developed concept of linear time. To them (to use our meanings) past is present. The past is ever present in ritual enactment and the telling of the dreaming stories. So people who have lived in a different era, from a Western perspective, live in a different location, from a Warlpiri perspective. While the people may need assistance to fully understand the revelation of God in history, this does not mean that they hold unorthodox views on the key doctrines of the Scriptures. Swain, while looking for examples of syncretism from the adaptation of indigenous religious symbols for the Christian story, found that the Warlpiri were thoroughly orthodox concerning the key tenets of Christianity (1988, 452-4). This observation is confirmed by the missionaries working with these people.
The Warlpiri experience of time makes some distinctive contributions to Christian spirituality. The anthropologist T.G.H. Strehlow observes:
"In my own view, the great and specifically Australian contribution to religious thought has been the unquestioning conviction that there is no division between Time and Eternity." (1970, 132)
When Aboriginal people draw, sing and dance the story of Jesus and celebrate the Lord’s Supper they do not think of him as being in the past. To them he is jukurrpa, he is present.
"Maybe we won’t do that purlapa anymore," said an old man after the conclusion of the crucifixion drama of the Easter corroboree (indigenous dance). Why? Because "killing God" made him sad (Swain 1988, 458). While this comment raises some questions, it shows that participants in the Christian message are not detached observers. With this approach to spirituality it may be a lot easier for Warlpiri people to understand some of Paul’s deep teaching about being "in Christ" and being crucified and risen with Christ than it is for us non-Aboriginals.
While it is impossible to isolate the spiritual impact of the use of iconography from other media used, such as the corroboree, singing and the development of indigenous leadership patterns, such developments have contributed significantly to the development of a sense of ownership of the gospel and a distinctive Aboriginal Christian spirituality based on oral methods of communication.
This development has been a significant step towards freeing the Warlpiri church to develop their own style of ministry and worship. Consequently, to quote John Harris, "… a vibrant distinctively Aboriginal Christian church is emerging" (1990, 863).
Bendt, Ronald M., Catherine H. Berndt and John E. Stanton. 1982. Australian Art: A Visual Perspective. Australia: Methuen.
Harris, John. 1990. One Blood. Sutherland. NSW: Albatross.
Jordan, Ivan. 2001. "Their Way. Indigenous Expressions of Faith Amongst the Walpiri Aborigines." Manuscript to be published.
Jensen, Richard. 1993. Thinking in Story: Preaching in a Post-Literate Age. Lima, Ohio: C.S.S. Publishers.
Munn, Nancy. 1973. Walpiri Iconography: Graphic Representation and Cultural Symbols in a Central Australian Society. London: Cornell University Press.
Sayers, Barbara. 1998. A Fair Go: Aboriginal Living and Learning in the Dominant Australian Culture. Australia: SIL.
Strehlow, T.G.H. 1970. "Geography and Totemic Landscape in Central Australia: A Functional Study." In Australian Aboriginal Anthropology: Modern Studies in the Social Anthropology of Australian Aborigines. Edited by R.M. Berndt, Perth, Australia: University of Western Australia Press.
Swain, Tony. 1988. "The Ghosts of Space." In Aboriginal Australians and Christian Missions, edited by Tony Swain and Deborah Bird Rose. Bedford Park, Australia: Assoc. for the Study of Religions.
Ivan Jordan has worked with the Australian Baptist Missinary Society amongst the Warlpiri in Central Australia for nearly 30 years. He is now the missions’ area leader for Aboriginal Ministries, and author of Their Way: Indigenous Christianity Amongst the Warlpiri People.
Frank Tucker was a missionary in Irian Jaya (now Papua), Indonesia, teaching at the Irian Jaya Theologial and Vocational School. He is now a Baptist pastor and senior lecturer in Intercultural Studies at Tabor College, South Australia.
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