Dreaming Up Indigenous Orthodox Art! 

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Artistic expression is very common in religion; perhaps because art and religion have been cardinal parts of human life since the earliest of times. Accordingly, in both Orthodoxy and Indigenous Australian hierophanics, one comes across a rich, long and powerful tradition of arts, both visual and performing. Every Orthodox Church, as well as any instance of Orthodox liturgical life, is a tour de force of artistic performance, whereas throughout Australia Indigenous ceremonies and rituals have always been about an artistic realisation of the human condition. In both cases, a phenomenologically unique experience of what is regarded as the Sacred comes forth through art – in a way, art becomes religion and vice versa! 

This experience, to be sure, is also different in each case; conspicuously different, I would say. In Orthodoxy what dominates is iconography and chanting, while in Indigenous settings the whole atmosphere is created through dancing, singing and body painting. Notwithstanding, there are similarities as well, mainly structural, that allow one to ponder the possibilities of blending the two experiences at the practical level. In other words, if in both hierophanic contexts, there is music and if in both there is painting, then this means that if anything a common code of communication can be forged. I would dare say that, basically and primarily, it is at the level of art that Orthodoxy and Indigeneity will come close to one another and not at the level of theory or discourse. 

In Indigenous hierophanic experience, there is nothing that even comes close to theology as a theoretical and argumentative mode of discourse – not even in the postcolonial situation. Indigenous discourse is all about narrative, either on its own or embedded in music as song. In this sense, even Indigenous discourse is a form of art. This is not altogether foreign to the Orthodox experience, as I will show below, but it is not the most evident connection point between the two lifeworlds. Thus, even if theology is to envision and formulate the guidelines of a potential dialogue and by extension integration between traditional Orthodoxy and Indigeneity, it is through the arts that the new recreated Orthodoxy will emerge and be embodied.                    


Song – Music – Dancing 

It is hard to imagine Indigeneity without song and dance, whereas an Orthodoxy with songs and dancing is perhaps unimaginable. To the extent that the Indigenous lifeworld is one of sameness, that is, one that is abiding in its changes – environmental, cultural, and others – it makes sense to think of it as a rhythmic recurrence. In this regard, it is not a homogenous entity, but a multiplicity that makes up a polyphonic unity. It is the latter that each and every song reflects and indicates as an integral part or, better, emanation of the Land’s Dreaming. Indigenous music brings to life the Land’s polyphonic rhythm through the didgeridoo, the bullroarer, the gumleaf and the clapsticks, something that is further realised as an extension of the Land – coming out of and returning to itself – thanks to the varieties of Indigenous dancing. 

On the other hand, the world of the Orthodox performing arts is much more minimalist, since it only involves music, chanting and reciting. There is no Land here and, if there is a focus, then the latter is none other than the human person itself. The anthropocentrism of Orthodox chanting – both as melody and poetic text – puts forward a different kind of recurrence, namely, the endless repetition of history. And to the extent that this history is identified with the life story of Jesus, this Jesus-History becomes both the foundation and the horizon of the experience of the faithful. In other words, the anthropocentric arts of traditional Orthodoxy render Church life a Christocentric piece of art!              

The unbreakable unity of Indigenous performing arts does not leave much space for being selective, that is, for excluding certain forms of art, let’s say dancing. The Indigenous should not and will not become Orthodox by being artistically mutilated. This, undoubtedly, creates a lot of challenges for traditional Orthodoxy, but ultimately Indigenous Orthodox congregations are not supposed to be – at least initially – mixed. By catering only or programmatically for Indigenous people, inclusive choices will be easier and will make more sense. Moreover, the biggest challenge and at the same time the greatest benefit for Orthodoxy is that its blending with Indigenous arts will allow for a much more balanced development of the coexistence between cosmology and anthropology, the environment and the human being. The end-result can only be envisaged as a much-needed eco-anthropic theology, whereby the liturgical poetics of theology and the narrative songlines of the Dreaming will resonate with one another.     

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Ellen Draper's painting, Jesus Feeding the Five Thousand. (Photo: ABC)

Visual Arts 

Painting is by far the most Indigenous of the Indigenous visual arts. Both precolonial modes of painting, such as body painting, rock painting or bark painting, and modern painting techniques – acclaimed in the local art world, as well as internationally – have played a major role in the perpetuation and promotion of Indigeneity. If the performing arts could be described as topophanies, that is, as manifestations of topos or place, then the visual arts would be called topographies, for that is exactly what they do: they rewrite and reinscribe topos upon itself in a process that repeats the rhythmic recurrence of Place at the visual level. Within this process, the visual reduplications of Place serve general and particular identifications through forms of abstraction that are highly symbolic in character 

Iconography, on the other hand, is extremely important in the Orthodox tradition; so much so that one recognises a Church as being Orthodox or not simply by the presence of iconography. There are lots of theological appreciations of iconography, but ultimately it’s all about the reduplication of the Jesus-History; a reduplication that allows one to position themselves and create an identity within a certain historicity. The latter is embodied through an abstraction of its own, which has not so much a symbolic as it has a representational character. Thus, the iconographic sacroscape of Orthodoxy becomes a landscape that both captures and awaits the utopia of the Eschaton.     

In order to bring together these two traditions, a substantial amount of mutual overcoming will be required. There are, as it seems, points of convergence, but there are also aspects of significant divergence. Can Indigeneity be enclosed within a Church building? Can Orthodox chanting take on the sounds of didgeridoos and clapsticks? Will the representation of historicity be undermined or underlined by taking on the heightened abstractness of Indigenous topographies? Can and how will dancing be part of liturgical life?

If anything, something has already started being done regarding these questions, especially in the domain of the visual arts. To be honest, though, it has been done mainly on the part of non-Orthodox Christians... but this can only serve as a reminder that our Orthodox witness has just started upon this Land...   


"Insights into Global Orthodoxy" is a weekly column that features opinion articles that on the one hand capture the pulse of global Orthodoxy from the perspective of local sensitivities, needs and/or limitations, and on the other hand delve into the local pragmatics and significance of Orthodoxy in light of global trends and prerogatives.

Dr Vassilis Adrahtas holds a PhD in Studies in Religion (USyd) and a PhD in the Sociology of Religion (Panteion). He has taught at several universities in Australia and overseas. Since 2015 he has been teaching ancient Greek Religion and Myth at the University of New South Wales and Islamic Studies at Western Sydney University. He has published ten books. He has extensive experience in the print media as editor-in-chief, and columnist, and for a while he worked as a radio producer. He lives in Sydney, Australia, his birthplace.