When words fail me, being in the studio helps me make sense of the world.
This new body of work emerges from several years of attending more deeply to the life of the trees that surround and companion me every day. For many years, I have walked routinely along a path that follows a local creek, appreciating how the trees continue to hold space for me. Even as the weather changes and shapes them, we both endure. But in late 2021, I watched my neighbour excavating the land nearby and, by doing so, undermining the existence of a healthy gum tree. As the roots of this tree were laid bare, I went into the studio to paint the grief that I felt and understand the depth of my response to the inevitable loss of this tree.
It seems that in choosing to live among trees, we live within a nexus of risk and power. In being among the trees surrounding my studio as I make this work, I am becoming more deeply aware of the interdependence that shapes our life with trees. Trees welcome the CO2 that I cannot bear and, in turn, offer me life in the form of oxygen. As I learn to see how trees live interdependently with one another, I see a healthy exchange between risk and power, shaping how I can choose to live with others. I am learning to see trees in the way I see people, and I am wondering what it is like to be a being among trees.
Over the past year or so, I have been working towards developing a new exhibition set to be hung in April 2023.
Being Among Trees will hang in the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre between 3–27 April. Rather than an opening night, I have scheduled an afternoon for a conversation with the artwork and me. Further details are below:
LIBBY BYRNE LIVES WORKS AND PLAYS OF WURUNDJERI LAND. SHE WORKS AS AN ARTIST, ART THERAPIST, AND THEOLOGIAN FOLLOWING THE INVITATION AND DISCOVERY OF ART INTO NEW WAYS OF BEING WITH PEOPLE IN LIMINAL SPACES. WITHIN HER STUDIO PRACTICE LIBBY WORKS WITH IDEAS, IMAGES, AND EXPERIENCES TO EXTEND THE WAY WE THINK, PERCEIVE, AND RESPOND TO QUESTIONS OF MEANING AND EXISTENCE.
This is a book that one can dip in and out of many times, and the gift still keeps giving. Poets, writers, musicians, artists, journalists, and others have contributed to this volume, which makes it very rich, and this book review cannot cover all the richness. Some of the contributions are short, and others lengthy.
Trevor Hart’s contribution, ‘Why Imagination Matters’, declares that the presumption behind this book is that imagination certainly matters, particularly in times of crisis, including the COVID pandemic, war, and climate change. Imagination does not only matter to artists, although their work is bound to the imagination. In times of crisis, scientists, medical professionals, bureaucrats, and many others also bring imagination to problem-solving so that the result can benefit society.
Lyn McCredden, in writing ‘Imagination and the Sacred’, explores ‘the sacred’ as a sense of reality that embraces the places and times where individuals and communities encounter meaning. Australian secularism decries the need for religion for moral or social benefits, but in examining literature post-1950, McCredden delineates the presence of ‘the sacred’ being firmly present. She uses the experience of Nick Cave, a contemporary musician who has suffered and shared his profound and personal grief, and how he links his pain in growing to know the impermanence of things with illumination. The pain helped him enter into the transcendent, and McCredden links that to the experience of Patrick White. These are powerful connections being made within Australian culture.
Libby Byrne looks at the reality of being a professional artist and what that means to herself and those who encounter her works. She briefly reviews the artist’s place in society over time and culture to show that the postmodern artist is part of a set of shifting identities. In the past, the artist did not often sign their work as it was done for ‘the glory of God’ at the behest of a religious institution. Now, the artist’s identity in the public space has a completely different social and economic relationship. Byrne dwells on the Brooklyn Art Library’s collection of 50,000 artist sketchbooks and what it means to be included in such a collection in the public sphere.
Trish Watts, in ‘Every Life Can Sing’, describes her experience in Cambodia, where she sought to help the people who had lost their songlines because of the oppression suffered under the regime of Pol Pot. Watts is a professional singer and Voice Movement Therapy practitioner and accepted the challenge to help rebuild the voice of the people. Only fragments of the culture were left because ninety per cent of the artists, musicians, teachers, doctors, and other professionals had been eradicated. To rebuild the voice and the imagination that could once again voice hope in a crushed country is indeed a healing experience.
Steve Bevis writes about Ida Nangala Granites, a senior Warlpiri woman caught between the two worlds of Alice Springs and her home country of Yuendumu in the Tanami Desert. Ida re-enacts her truth, her participation in her Dreaming, through her paintings. Everything in her paintings is symbolic. She paints within the same reality as her ancestors; everything is expressed through the symbolism of who she is in her country. Ida is economically marginalised and sometimes cannot afford art materials. However, in this crisis and through her imagination, she helps others see and grow in understanding of her country and people.
Rod Pattenden writes about the art of George Gittoes, setting his commentary on the return of the arts to a socially and ethically responsible realm. For much of the twentieth century, art focussed on what is fashionable and avant-garde in an economy dominated ruthlessly in some places by art critics. In a world where horror images and violence dominate and intend to unsettle our society, art is needed in the action of social renewal and ethical behaviour. War and climate change have certainly exposed the need for seers. Pattenden has long worked with George Gittoes and has valuable access to his methods, art, and capacity to use his imagination in conflict areas. He can show how Gittoes can be seen as a prophet and mystic in his ‘role that values actions towards provoking awareness, creating change, and offering hope in social contexts’.
This collection of writings ranges in depth and focus to bring a richness of cultural awareness and imaginative power that brings hope and value to our culture through the interactions and power of artists.
Dr Angela McCarthy is an adjunct Senior Lecturer at the University of Notre Dame Australia and lives in Wadjuck country of the Noongar nation. Her primary research interest is theology and art, and she is the Chairperson of the Mandorla Art Award.
In 2014, the ‘broken Christ’ crucifix that Michael Galovic had brought with him from Yugoslavia in 1990 was used as the core in his creation of an image of the desolation and humanity of Christ as evoked in his anguished cry from the cross and translated as, ‘My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?’ These are also the opening words of Psalm 22. The juxtapositioning of the broken Christ with the lances of Diego Velázquez’s The Surrender of Breda (1634–35) highlights the sense of defeat and desolation as well as the continuing threat of violence. As Galovic notes:
These lances, for me, feature as an ominous foreboding symbol of ‘empire’, or system, ready and capable of destroying any human.
The image is one of almost utter desolation; light from no discernible outside source illuminating Christ’s face.
Shortly after the work’s installation in Our Lady Help of Christians Church, Rosemeadow, in February 2023, the parish priest, Father Christopher Sarkis, suggested that it might form part of a triptych. Having seen a medieval manuscript’s illustration of the resurrection, he felt that this depiction would be suitable as the final image. Galovic suggested that the first item could portray Christ’s crucifixion and death through the imagery of the Arma Christi, and the head of Christ is based on the Shroud of Turin in the lower part of the image.
The completed work would thus contain a central contemporary work in muted tones, a first panel drawing on images of objects coming from a collection that has been a part of Christian iconography with its central image, the crucifix, having been used since the fourth century CE and a third panel based on a medieval manuscript. This seemingly disparate grouping also needed to be created in a way that would form a coherent whole. While having a linear structure in time that covered the period of Christ’s betrayal through to his resurrection and empty tomb, it also needed to have links established through the use of colour and form.
In the Arma Christi, the upper register highlights the betrayal of Christ and the mockery and savagery that attended his crucifixion. As with the central image, it references Psalm 22.16b–18:
[T]hey bound my hands and feet. I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me; they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.
Christ’s final words from the cross – ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’ (Lk 23.46) – with their tranquillity and faith, are embodied in the lower image, based on the Shroud of Turin, which, irrespective of its authenticity, forms a depiction of the final aspect of Christ’s human role in salvation.
In contrast to the violent instruments of betrayal, humiliation, and torture against their fiery background, it is a wonderfully expressive portrayal of calmness and completion. There is a great gentleness in the muted tones and careful delineation of the features, overlaid by the delicate treatment of the weaving of the cloth.
However, there is also a linking through colour, with the blue tones shown especially in the rooster, whip, and lance head in the top register being subsumed into the blue depiction of Christ’s face below. These two colour tones of blue and vermilion flow through to the central panel. In ‘Eloi, Eloi’, they appear in muted tones in the rocks foregrounding the spears, with the blue used on the image of the broken Christ.
They are then developed vibrantly in the final panel, which depicts two images associated with the resurrection. The vivid vermilion and oranges both frame the upper and lower panels depicting Christ’s resurrection and the myrrh-bearing women who came to anoint Christ’s body and form a significant part of each of the images.
The figure of the resurrected Christ in the top panel, surrounded by a golden-rayed mandorla, connects this image with the sacred, while the deeper tones used on the garments of the sleeping soldiers evoke Roman costumes.
In the lower image, the treatment of the angel at the tomb, with its flame-like wings and fiery countenance, creates a sense of otherness that is accentuated by the luminous white and gold of the robe. It also resonates with the garments of the two holy women closest to the tomb. Throughout both images, orange and vermilion tones highlight the fruitfulness of the trees while also forming contrasting highlights to the use of blue beneath them on the varying rock formations.
The interplay of colours creates a harmony that works beautifully throughout to unite the three images. But that is only one of its aspects. The top register of the first image, with its strong orange and vermilion tones highlighting instruments of torture and mockery, also evokes the fiery infernos of medieval hell-mouths and Renaissance depictions of hell. The contemporary image of the broken Christ, with its background imagery of war and defeat, highlights the bleakness of destruction. Yet, in the final image, all of these aspects are subsumed into the vibrancy and vividness of Christ’s resurrection, in which even the sleeping Roman soldiers had a place.
The Triptych is a tribute to both creativity and flexibility of form. In bringing together aspects of Christianity from different eras, cultures, and perspectives, it focuses on Christ’s sacrifice to redeem humanity. Each of the individual works evokes a different perspective, and through these images, the viewer is given a sense of the beauty and complexity of responses to the crucifixion and resurrection throughout the history of Christian art.
Kerrie Magee has an MA in Medieval Studies and lives in the area of the Wallumedegal People. Michale Galovic is a renowned iconographer living in the area of the Darkinjung People.
The exhibition Rituals of Embodied Knowing brings together ten established artists with diverse forms of practice that engage plants, video, sound, movement, painting, drawing, and installation. These artists have been working together with an academic group on the project ‘Spiritual Understanding in a Secular Age: Engaging Art as Religious Ritual’, funded by the Templeton Religion Trust.
The project conceptualises art-making as a form of knowledge or understanding that aims to make contact with various aspects of reality such as the natural world, human history, and our individual selves, thus considering how art-making practices in a secular context might, when seen in this way, share similarities with religious ritual.
Academics from a variety of fields such as history, anthropology, psychology, sociology and theology, have identified how key dimensions of each of these practices – movement, time, media, subtraction, invention, and attention – are also leveraged in religious rituals to make contact with reality.
The project calls on us to see art-making in a new way, and has also challenged academics to see aspects of reality in new ways through engaging art-making itself as a means of knowing and understanding. This exhibition invites viewers to consider whether and how the works included could be thought about as ritual-like in their unique ways of employing embodied experience.
This exhibition also launches the new CBONE Gallery, combining the previous Eastgate Gallery and Chapman and Bailey project space into one entity that will show a range of contemporary visual art.
Joining the project artists, Heather Hesterman, Adam Lee, Louise Weaver, Dominic Redfern, Harry Nankin, Chris Bond, Peter Ellis, Mark Newbound, Live Particle, and Sarah Tomasetti, are Yolngu artist Djirrirra Wunnumarra and emerging artist Uma Christensen.
An edited volume of essays emerging from the project will be published in 2024.
Last month, Jason Goroncy spoke at the opening of an exhibition of Wes Campbell’s artwork. Wes is a theologian, artist, and (retired) Minister of the Word in the Uniting Church in Australia. An edited version of his talk is now available on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics portal.
Anne Elvey has a new poetry collection, Leaf, forthcoming from Liquid Amber Press. It will be launched by Shari Kocher as part of Liquid Amber’s Eco-poetics Zoom event on Thursday 22 September 2022, along with readings from Peter Larkin and John C. Ryan. The evening begins at 7.30pm. Bookings are free but essential.
Emmanuel Garibay is a leading painter from the Philippines with an international reputation for work that reflects on issues of power and injustice. His works reflect the capacity for images to wake up the imagination to the experiences of marginalization, racism, and class difference, and to therefore affect change in social, political, and religious structures.
The work Selda, or prison cell in English, is a work that responds to current issues facing the Philippines, and, in turn, other regions around the world in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, increased military and political activity, and the resultant curtailment of individual freedoms. It is a large-format work made up of many smaller elements that are painted in an expressive and textured manner. The central figure of the composition is eating a golden apple, a symbol that should offer the promise to live forever, but instead has become infected with the coronavirus. To the left, a front-line health worker pales into death, sacrificed by a government that prefers to spend money on military budgets. Two authoritative figures carry a large book with the names of those who need to be sanctioned or disciplined, and then walk over a dead body. A figure in the sky is blinded by a face mask that has slipped over their eyes, a representation of delusion and false news. A woman flies a paper plane, representing the huge number of Filipino workers overseas who contribute more than ten percent of the nations’ income, while a sinister yellow cat lurks in the shadows.
Below the central figure is the kalabaw, the native water buffalo which is often used as a symbol of the hard-working prosperity of the nation; but here it has died. Underneath, a friar knocks over an indigenous woman representing the ongoing impact of political and religious colonialism. To the right, a figure with a telescope, the current president, is seen spying on the helpless, while a hand comes in with a red yo-yo, an action that names “red tagging” or accusing trouble makers of having anti-government sentiments. And then, finally, tucked in near a golden door, is the historic figure of José Rizal, the great hero of the independence movement who was executed in 1896. He was a writer, artist, and scientist, and Garibay gives him a position of understated prominence in this work, affirming the role of the artist, who might see more clearly what is going on in these fractured and overwhelming times. The entire work is imbued with a golden light, full of promise and prosperity, that turns, at times, into a sulphurous yellow, toxic and decaying. The artist does not offer a possible future, but rather a contemporary view of this historical moment, full of warnings of danger that call for urgent response.
RP. This work stands in the tradition of large mural paintings that will often convey the triumph of history or the virtues of the nation. But this work is far more complex and fragmented. The viewer has to weave these disparate elements together.
EG. The fragmented nature of these works manifests the inability of most people to find a synthesized grasp of the general situation. Some aspects of what is going on tend to be intentionally highlighted, while others tend to be obscured. We have a media that is easily co-opted by those in power. You have to make an effort to dig deeper and scrutinize, to analyze, to have a more complete and bigger picture.
RP. What role do you think artists have at a time like this? Do artists help people see more clearly?
EG. Artists have an opportunity to be much more fluid and flexible, to have the greatest degree of exposure to many aspects of life. Their life situation means they are not confined to routines and patterns like a nine-to-five job. The innate qualities of an artist—such as being sensitive, observant, and analytical—enable an artist to grasp or wrestle more with seeking clarity in one’s life situation and to understand the dynamics at play. This striving enables artists to have a more-complete understanding of life situations. When I paint, I listen to podcasts and lectures on theology, history, and philosophy. In other words, it enables me to have a wider basis for understanding things, not just through one perspective but through multiple perspectives.
RP. As an artist, you’re not only looking, but you’re also thinking about looking, and questioning your looking.
EG. In my case, I prefer to paint. It’s something that’s been done for thousands of years. It’s a direct action of you as a person. So, it is a constant affirmation of my self as a human being. Instead of exploring new technologies, it’s about resisting the need to innovate. At this point, I don’t see technical innovation as providing direction towards human development. I think it also helps people to slow down and to see. It also connects us to the past. What we have lost is a conscious connection to the past, and this accounts for why there is a massive loss of belief in this generation. This loss of belief makes us very vulnerable to all sorts of incursions by those in power to manipulate and control our worldview.
RP. You mean we lack an awareness of history, which means we are too buoyant, without a place of stability to make decisions about the present or the future.
EG. In the Philippines, it’s the fault of the Church for having misrepresented Christianity, because it was obsessed with power and authority. It forgets Christianity is the exact opposite. So as a result, it has misrepresented belief.
RP. What would you say that faith or Christianity has to offer this moment in history?
EG. I think it is more about being truly in tune with our humanity. It is one of the problems with the theology of the church fathers in the past. It emphasized too much the divinity of Christ and very little on his humanity. The deification of Christ is really about the idea of God becoming human, so that humans can understand the mind of God. So, it is a model to be followed rather just a figure to worship. There’s too much emphasis on worshipping Christ—in affect, worshipping the Church that contains this Christ. That is the main reason people have lost faith in belief.
RP. So the figure of Christ is a picturing of God. These christological images then also offer us options about what it is to be a human person.
EG. This is most emphasized in the way he lived his life, through washing the feet of his disciplines, uplifting the lowly, healing the sick, his passion for social justice. All of these are glossed over in favour of emphasizing the divinity. That is what stories are all about, and what art can do best. It can perpetuate the hope of what humanity is truly all about.
Emmanuel Garibay (b. 1962) is a leading artist from the Philippines who has a wide reputation having exhibited his work in Europe and the United States. His work explores the experience of those marginalised in his own country and is strongly informed by a theological critique of social power and politics. In 2011, the book Where God is: The Paintings of Emmanuel Garibay was published by OMSC (Overseas Ministries Study Center) in New Haven, USA, bringing his work to wider audiences.
Rev Dr Rod Pattenden is an art historian and theologian from Australia. He has written widely on the arts and creativity. HE LIVES AND WORKS ON AWABAKAL LAND.
This interview with Emmanuel Garibay is an excerpt from the new book, Imagination in an Age of Crisis: Soundings from the Arts and Theology (Pickwick, 2022), edited by Jason Goroncy and Rod Pattenden, with a foreword by Ben Quash. This book explores the vital role of the imagination in today’s complex climates – cultural, environmental, political, racial, religious, spiritual, intellectual, etc. It asks: What contribution do the arts make in a world facing the impacts of globalism, climate change, pandemics, and losses of culture? What wisdom and insight, and orientation for birthing hope and action in the world, do the arts offer to religious faith and to theological reflection? Marked by beauty and wonder, as well as incisive critique, it is a unique collection that brings unexpected voices into a global conversation about imagining human futures.
A video introduction and review of the book, plus details on how to obtain a 40% discount, is available here.
dig in deeper to the river running living water my roots dive for depth strives for after dusty shallows rocky fallows deserted so I’m thirsting from the working hard to stay alive and now it’s simple to truly thrive by the source realigned with this replanting though the uprooting from familiar mud dried up shook the muck from my feet and I am replete digging deeper down into the river
SARAH AGNEW IS A STORYTELLER, POET, AND UNITING CHURCH MINISTER. HER POETRY AND LITURGY APPEAR IN WILD GOOSE PUBLICATIONS AS STAND-ALONE E-LITURGIES, and IN EDITED ANTHOLOGIES. HER MOST RECENT PUBLISHED POETRY COLLECTION IS WHISPER ON MY PALM (RESOURCE PUBLICATIONS, 2022). SHE LIVES AND WORKS ON Kuarna COUNTRY.