Caring for nation: how Indigenous artist Safina Stewart speaks by her artwork

Safina Stewart is a Melbourne-based multicultural artist, educator and storyteller. Reasonably than separate attributes, these are all a part of the identical factor for Safina—inconceivable to separate one from the opposite.

Safina’s skilled inventive journey started in 2007, when a religious expertise impressed her to depart a educating job as a way to change into a full-time artist. However as an Aboriginal lady and Torres Strait Islander, her work are a part of a practice that dates again a lot additional, tens of 1000’s of years by some estimates. She weaves tales of life, creation and unity by the symbols of her heritage.

five people each holding up a piece of artwork in the 99designs fofice
Indigenous artist Safina Stewart created a collection of work for the 99designs workplace in Melbourne. That is her story.

As a result of 99designs is a worldwide group that celebrates the numerous cultural views design can specific, we commissioned Safina to create art work for the Melbourne workplace to honor the town’s Indigenous roots. And in mild of the Nationwide Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) week this July, we invited her to share her story and cultural insights with our readers. We spoke with Safina about what each bit represents, her personal creative and Indigenous historical past, and a very powerful messages her artwork embodies.

A quick introduction to Aboriginal artwork

The earliest items of Aboriginal artwork in Australia have been estimated so far again 60,000 years, making them a number of the oldest extant inventive works on this planet. These Aboriginal artists painted on stone, wooden and their very own our bodies till the Seventies when canvas and conventional paints have been used, birthing the modern Aboriginal artwork motion.

Aboriginal art work is vibrant with shade, symbolism and storytelling. Within the absence of a written language, tales are communicated by expressive artwork, generally drawn within the sand earlier than the ft of the storyteller. Though the symbols and tales will differ by tribe, the widespread topic issues what known as The Dreaming, referring to the creation of the world and the ancestral heroes who lived within the early Dreamtime.

Aboriginal rock art on the Barnett River, Mount Elizabeth Station
Aboriginal artwork on rocks of the Wunnumurra Gorge overlooking Barnett River in Western Australia. Picture by way of Wikimedia Commons

As a result of every Dreaming is exclusive and belongs to one of many many tribes, an artist wants permission to color their interpretation of a Dreaming. And since these work include such very important ancestral information, dots grew to become common as a means of concealing their which means from White colonizers.

Safina Stewart’s artwork

As for Safina Stewart—who traces her Aboriginal heritage by Wuthathi Nation in Far North Queensland, her Torres Strait Islander heritage by Mabuiag Island, and her non-Indigenous heritage by Scotland—her art work is a way of bridging cultural gaps. It’s also a means of reminding the fashionable world of lengthy held ancestral truths that, whereas forgotten by some, are extra related now than ever.

“Propa Good News, Eh?!” Indigenous Aboriginal painting by Safina Stewart
“Propa Good Information, Eh?!” by Safina Stewart

Talking concerning the work she made for 99designs, she says, “Once I thought concerning the items, my coronary heart actually needed to place ‘caring for nation’ on the forefront of all people’s thoughts. Caring for creation must be upheld, not simply as a pleasant passion, however truly as a transformative motion for change, justice, and future hope.

“Understanding that a lot of you’re creatives as nicely, and that … you’ll be able to join with so many various folks globally, I knew that this message of taking care of nation—or in Aboriginal communicate we are saying ‘caring for nation’—is that this deep remembering that we, as folks, have been given the exceptional privilege and accountability to take care of the remainder of creation.

Caring for creation needs to be upheld, not just as a nice hobby, but actually as a transformative action for change, justice, and future hope.

“And meaning the rocks, the mountains, the birds, animals, communities, the rivers, the sky, the environment and all ecosystems. It additionally means the issues we are able to’t see. We’re chargeable for the flourishing life or the demise of the remainder of creation. However we’ve got forgotten our function. Our function was not made up by us.”

We talked to Safina about this concept and about what drives her as an Indigenous artist and a person.

Interview with Safina Stewart

How did you come to be an artist?

I used to be 6 years outdated once I first had the acutely aware thought that I used to be a inventive. I used to be doing this portray in school, and it received the principal sticker award… And it’s like, it twigged, ”Oh, I’m good at one thing right here!”

“Travelling the Ancient Land”, Indigenous Aboriginal painting by Safina Stewart
“Travelling the Historical Land” by Safina Stewart

Nevertheless it wasn’t simply that different folks seen that I had a present. I acknowledged that I skilled pleasure once I was making this art work. It was this expertise that got here from deep, inside my very being. This effervescent over of happiness and I couldn’t assist however to pay attention, to focus, and to deliver steadiness to the composition.

Had been there any challenges or pivotal moments that formed you as an artist?

I used to be all the time making issues as a child—out of something I may get my fingers on—and we weren’t nicely off. We couldn’t afford birthday presents and Christmas presents, so we’d make issues—our entire household. We might present love by making compared to displaying love by buying.

There have been good experiences of discovering my peace, solitude and my grounding as a baby within the making of issues. However that was additionally the world the place I used to be most attacked once I was going by faculty, the place I felt most damaged down by both artwork academics or by crucial phrases from different college students. And so it was turmoil at occasions. It was the deep water that I needed to be in, however a number of tossing currents.

There was identification in it. There was an expression of tradition. There have been tales all inside it. And but it was additionally a really dangerous place to be in. So once I take a look at that I feel it fashioned me and made me perceive that what I had was valuable and beneficial and wanted defending and safeguarding.

Have you ever all the time painted [created art] as a career?

My Bachelor’s Diploma is in training. I used to be educating for just a few years, full-time. I had already been portray in my very restricted spare time, which was once I felt my guts, my spirit and my soul merging collectively and knew that I wanted to color….

“The Intercessory Prayer”, Indigenous Aboriginal painting by Safina Stewart
“The Intercessory Prayer” by Safina Stewart

After which I had a chunk that 12 months 12 college students in my faculty took as inspiration for a drama piece, they usually turned it into this magnificent drama concerning the stolen generations and confronting a number of the injustices Aboriginal folks confronted. They usually had used a chunk of my artwork, which had nothing to do with stolen generations, but it surely had blood. It was referred to as “The Intercessory Prayer.”

And it was there sitting at that efficiency with elders subsequent to me that I invited, that—I didn’t hear an audible voice from God, but it surely was fairly near a really clear message. That was not from me, that I knew was from the upper energy who I belief and hearken to… And that audible voice stated, “Okay, we’re completed. Time for the following factor to comply with.” And I’m like, “However the place?” and the audible voice stated, “I’m educating you the place to stroll along with your artwork.”

So I resigned instantly and three weeks later I’d completed. And nobody leaves a full-time everlasting place that you simply’re picked for, being crafted and grafted into roles. Nobody does that. However I did as a result of I needed to comply with that invitation. And that was in 2007.

Have there been any cases the place you’ve seen your artwork and training intersect?

I didn’t go away educating, however I left my employment with one group and I expanded into my artwork. And thru my artwork enterprise, I’ve now labored with 1000’s of faculties and organizations.

“Do U C wot I C?”, Indigenous Aboriginal painting by Safina Stewart
“Do U C wot I C?” by Safina Stewart

…In order an artist, I see my art work now as a segue in bringing dialog, relationship and inquiries to very influential areas—to varsities which can be educating our subsequent era. So my work is definitely training, however I are available with the artwork as a result of it’s stunning and multilayered with messaging. And being Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, I’m ready to usher in tales from many various views. And naturally, at school environments, they’re meant to be doing Indigenous research all the way in which all through, however sadly, the federal government hasn’t educated the academics to know the way to do this. So many academics are feeling actually unconfident.

Being an artist is a soft way of introducing myself to educators in a non-threatening way. I just start by telling stories of our Aboriginal people and the current landscape of Australia, as well as looking at the past, which is very uncomfortable. But you can bring it up without hurting or offending people because you’re pointing to a painting.

And so being an artist is a delicate means of introducing myself to educators in a non-threatening means. I simply begin by telling tales of our Aboriginal folks and the present panorama of Australia, in addition to wanting on the previous, which could be very uncomfortable. However you’ll be able to deliver it up with out hurting or offending folks since you’re pointing to a portray. You’re not pointing at them. You’re saying, “Let’s take a look at this. How can we come collectively to take care of our nation? Or take care of the marginalized who don’t have any dwelling?”

So being an artist means rather a lot to me… It’s a pathway for me to come back in and for folks to obtain me into their areas the place I’d usually say Aboriginal persons are blocked out of, or it’s very laborious for us to entry. Faculties are a kind of areas.

“Duel Jewel”, Indigenous Aboriginal painting by Safina Stewart
“Duel Jewel” by Safina Stewart

It’s important to be an elite pristine, clear individual, clear to enter into a faculty atmosphere as a result of, a part of the historical past of Australia is that colleges are literally arrange not for the White folks… The primary colleges ever arrange in Victoria have been with the Black college students. And so the goal of these colleges in the course of the 1800s was to tear out our tradition.

I think discomfort helps us to grow. Throw in that little bit of discomfort, but not so much that it would offend

…So artwork could be very important. I do know it’s trivial to many, and I preserve my artwork as stunning, very intentionally as a result of I would like to have the ability to get in and have that dialog with folks and for them to really feel secure with me, for me to really feel secure with them. However the entire time I’m in I’m gauging and assessing the place they’re at in order that I can put in a single grenade—a goodness of fact—to not explode them, however I feel discomfort helps us to develop. Throw in that little little bit of discomfort, however not a lot that it will offend after which I wouldn’t be invited again in once more.

What can folks find out about Indigenous tradition by artwork?

We [Aboriginal people] have a house right here, and we’re completely satisfied to have folks come right here once they are available the correct means as visitors to our nation who’re respectful to our priorities of taking care of the land, kids, sharing and caring for each other….

“Wominjeka, ‘Welcome’”, Indigenous Aboriginal painting by Safina Stewart
“Wominjeka, ‘Welcome’” by Safina Stewart

That’s our role as Aboriginal people: It’s to look after others. It’s to make sure that everyone’s looked after if the land is looked after. ‘Looking after’ is not human-centric. It is all of creation coming into a good harmony and synergy together. It is balance. Just like a painting needs to be balanced.

So then abruptly you’re speaking about refugees, asylum seekers, migration, integrating folks into group, welcoming folks, belonging, adoption and so on. And that’s our function as Aboriginal folks: it’s to take care of others. It’s to ensure that everybody’s taken care of if the land is taken care of. ‘Taking care of’ just isn’t human-centric. It’s all of creation coming into a superb concord and synergy collectively. It’s steadiness. Identical to a portray must be balanced.

Are you able to inform us extra about what you imply by ‘caring for nation’?

We’ve been given the function to care by one thing larger than us. And so for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander folks, we communicate of our ancestors who’ve handed from the bodily physique and into their spirit. And we communicate of the creator.

We inform extremely inspiring tales of our creators that are echoed all through the world by Indigenous peoples globally. All of us have these identical echoes of this sacred spirit. There’s totally different names, however this nice spirit creates fellow creators (artists) after which provides roles to folks to take care of what they’ve created.

“Reconciliation Well”, Indigenous Aboriginal painting by Safina Stewart
“Reconciliation Effectively” by Safina Stewart

So we are saying “fellow creation” as a result of we’re form of household: we’re brothers and sisters to the wombat, the echidna, the river, and the mountain—as a result of we come from the identical creator. We didn’t make them. We didn’t make spirit. We got a task to take care of its unimaginable creations. It’s a privilege and it’s like, we’ve forgotten it. And so in our methods of residing, our methods of energy and our methods of consumption, we’ve believed a lie that the human is a very powerful and has rights to every little thing. And it’s gotten us into an enormous, difficult, very dangerous state of affairs referred to as a local weather disaster as a result of we forgot what we have been imagined to take care of.

We’re kind of family: we’re brothers and sisters to the wombat, the echidna, the river, and the mountain—because we come from the same creator. We didn’t make them. We didn’t make spirit. We were given a role to look after its incredible creations.

We even have forgotten that nation speaks and creation speaks. If I’ve a pet and I deal with that pet improper, he’ll cry, howl and even chew me as a way to shield himself when he feels out of steadiness. And I take into consideration our local weather, our local weather is screaming. She, if I can provide a gender, has been saying for a very long time, “I don’t really feel good. This isn’t going so good. I’m out of whack.” Now we’re thus far past her preliminary, mild warning indicators, we at the moment are with a screaming local weather.

“7 Days of Creation”, Indigenous Aboriginal painting by Safina Stewart
“7 Days of Creation” by Safina Stewart

And we as people, ignore her, considering that we’re nonetheless the middle of the universe, and say mom nature has betrayed us. And once more, we forged blame onto what ought to truly be the sufferer, similar to a perpetrator would blame the sufferer for making them do it—utterly out of steadiness.

The 99designs Indigenous artwork mission

For NAIDOC week, 99designs commissioned Safina Stewart to create 5 work. Each encapsulates a selected facet of what Safina describes as ‘caring for nation.’ As she places it:

“By these work I needed to create one thing stunning that will encourage folks to think about, ‘How will I really like creation? How will I really like nation?’ I say ‘nation’ as within the land, the animals, the programs like water, air, hearth and communities. As a result of we, as folks, are additionally nation.”

Indigenous Aboriginal painting by Safina Stewart
by Safina Stewart

As a complete, the work are about coming collectively to handle the local weather disaster and take care of nation. “These work are a reminder that we serve creation and it’s not the opposite means round,” Safina says. “And we’ve got to do it collectively; to go towards this falsity of individualism and we’ve got to foster group. Meaning we’ve acquired to place our egos apart and we truly must construct up households to construct up group. So I’m calling us again to the traditional methods by these work and each has a unique focus or aspect.”

Safina went on to provide us perception into the which means behind every particular person portray.

“The Rock and the Earth”

“It seems like sedimentary rock with topographic motion and forces occurring and the land is being sculpted from inside. …The land could be very, very important to Aboriginal folks. It’s not an object, it’s a part of us. These vital moments of conception, start and demise are marked geographically. …Our place is honored by the land the place our our bodies are gifted again. And we then nourish different issues to then develop, which then feeds the following era. We return to the land. So when folks compromise that identification and that sacredness of the land—in impact, they’re scandalizing the graves of our family members.

“The Rock and the Earth”, Indigenous Aboriginal painting by Safina Stewart
“The Rock and the Earth” by Safina Stewart

“…And but all of creation falls to the bottom and turns into a part of the land …The land is alive and has a voice for these creations. You’ll be able to pay attention and it reminds us of many stunning, good truths. …Even when it’s laborious, beneath stress, actually darkish and extremely painful—all of these pressures that compress—it provides me consolation. [The land] will remind me that even the remainder of creation itself is aware of what ache or struggling is, however chooses to show it into life.”

“The Leaves and Smoke”

“All through Australia, burning the eucalyptus leaf has been about needing to scrub off wrongdoings and evil. It’s about making issues proper, coming into alignment and receiving therapeutic. …We use the oils from the gum leaf medicinally, as handed down from our ancestors. We’re helped by this oil to breathe… If you burn the eucalyptus leaf, the smoke prompts the cells within the physique to provide speedy therapeutic.

“In a smoking ceremony, the place a welcome is given, persons are requested to move by the smoke which is a veil of a spirit. And you may’t see with the human eye, which is strictly what we do as artists. We give illustration to issues which can be unseen, unnoticed, that we’re making an attempt to deliver to folks’s consideration. And on the opposite facet of the smoke is an settlement that you simply go out of your methods and move by, into cooperation with the standard house owners—that you’ll reside by their regulation, respect and take care of the nation that they’re chargeable for.

“The Leaves and Smoke”, Indigenous Aboriginal painting by Safina Stewart
“The Leaves and Smoke” by Safina Stewart

“If you move by, you’re given the blessing to make use of the assets of their land to maintain your life…however there are circumstances that you’ll comply with the legal guidelines of the creator which have been handed down to those folks. You’ll know your home as a visitor and that you’re not the host. You have to honor the individuals who have welcomed you and given you secure passage…

“So the smoke is about welcome. It’s about cleaning. It’s about therapeutic. And it’s additionally about coming into proper alignment. All of us have to acknowledge that we’re visitors right here and that it’s a privilege to be right here. It connects with the elders. It opens up your eyes to your coronary heart, to one thing that’s new and presumably past your comprehension however open in order that the present may be acquired. And I’ve met so many individuals which have been transformed into loving Aboriginal individuals who have simply been by a smoking ceremony. Their mind doesn’t get it, however one thing simply occurred. And I’m going ‘Inform me what it looks like?’ They usually go, ‘It looks like love.’”

“The Ocean and the Stars”

“‘The Ocean and The Stars’ are reflective of each my Torres Strait Islander heritage and the coastal city the place I reside. There’s a complete world beneath that’s mysterious. It reminds us that the mysteries of our being are unseen and but are stunning, actual and true. And the tides remind us of simplicity and that chaos will move. For me as a girl, it will be my soul area. The tides and the moon cooperate and our our bodies speak to the moon on a regular basis. When the moon says ‘It’s time,’ my physique does what it’s meant to do, —by some means that connects to productiveness and fertility of my lady physique. And now I’ve infants. Just like the moon has helped me have.

“The Ocean and the Stars”, Indigenous Aboriginal painting by Safina Stewart
“The Ocean and the Stars” by Safina Stewart

“And the celebrities, that incredible sky with so many tales that Aboriginal folks maintain. It’s a exceptional encyclopedia. It’s greater than Google. We learn the seasons by the sky, what must bud and what’s about to burst for the remainder of creation…

We’ve lost some of our literacy, but the stories that are within those stars that have been passed on from generation to generation to help us sustain our life.

“We’ve misplaced a few of our literacy, however the tales which can be inside these stars which have been handed on from era to era to assist us maintain our life. Effectively, right here on this globe and for Torres Strait Islander folks, we navigate the ocean by watching the celebrities. …If the navigation system, you may be secure on the water, despite the fact that folks suppose that going to the water these days is harmful. No, it’s solely harmful trigger we haven’t acquired the information, but when we retain and reestablish that information, it’s a fantastic relationship and a security web.”

“The Rivers and Waterways”

“…The river is white as a result of it’s clear and wholesome. However I see so many rivers which can be sick when they’re such an vital life supply for all of us. We’d like recent water, and a lot abundance comes from the rivers and the waterways.

“The Rivers and Waterways”, Indigenous Aboriginal painting by Safina Stewart
“The Rivers and Waterways” by Safina Stewart

“[The painting is] from a topographic perspective as a result of it reveals that there’s the valley and mountain the place water comes down into the river. The river then cleans all of that water with fish, tadpoles and bugs all flowing by that bowl, doing what they do to reside in life… by some means intersecting with the rocks, moss, algae and reeds, but that water is supposed to be clear, wholesome, nourishing in order that when, once we get to drink it, it actually turns into a part of us and retains our blood fairly actually pumping. …The rivers, just like the veins of the physique of the earth, the waterways, it’s just like the clear blood that brings life and oxygen to this stunning panorama.”


“That is the climax, the place we as folks should ask ourselves, ‘So what lets do? How then lets reside? Now we have integrity, goal, hope, route, perception and knowledge—what then lets do?’ And my suggestion is that we come along with the pressure of what collaboration may be, what listening and studying may be, with our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, our elders, traditions, and our wisdoms that we stock… That our affect not be primarily based on individualism, however group. And that we sit in these group circles.

“Community”, Indigenous Aboriginal painting by Safina Stewart
“Neighborhood” by Safina Stewart

As artists, our role is to help people to see well, to invite them in through our art. And I’d sit with you in my campfire and yarn about these big deep things together and ask, ‘How can my actions be of integrity?’

“That circle is just like the campfire, the ‘U’ prints are once we sit down, cross-legged. It’s an aerial, topographic view of the imprints that our presence makes on the land. So let’s make our imprint good.

“And the colours are easy as a result of perhaps the story is definitely actually easy. …As artists, our function is to assist folks to see nicely, to ask them in by our artwork. And I’d sit with you in my campfire and yarn about these large deep issues collectively and ask, ‘How can my actions be of integrity?’”

Love Safinas work?
Discover her many creations on her web site.

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