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

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

Safina’s skilled artistic journey started in 2007, when a religious expertise impressed her to depart a instructing job in an effort to turn out to be 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 way of the symbols of her heritage.

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

As a result of 99designs is a world neighborhood that celebrates the various cultural views design can categorical, we commissioned Safina to create paintings for the Melbourne workplace to honor the town’s Indigenous roots. And in gentle 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 inventive 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 few of the oldest extant artistic 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 paintings is vibrant with colour, symbolism and storytelling. Within the absence of a written language, tales are communicated by way of expressive artwork, typically drawn within the sand earlier than the ft of the storyteller. Though the symbols and tales will fluctuate by tribe, the widespread topic considerations 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 through 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 comprise such important ancestral data, dots turned standard as a means of concealing their that means from White colonizers.

Safina Stewart’s artwork

As for Safina Stewart—who traces her Aboriginal heritage by way of Wuthathi Nation in Far North Queensland, her Torres Strait Islander heritage by way of Mabuiag Island, and her non-Indigenous heritage by way of Scotland—her paintings is a way of bridging cultural gaps. Additionally it is a means of reminding the trendy 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 in regards to the work she made for 99designs, she says, “After I thought in regards to 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 interest, however really as a transformative motion for change, justice, and future hope.

“Realizing that a lot of you might be creatives as nicely, and that … you may join with so many various folks globally, I knew that this message of taking care of nation—or in Aboriginal converse 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 which means the rocks, the mountains, the birds, animals, communities, the rivers, the sky, the environment and all ecosystems. It additionally means the issues we will’t see. We’re chargeable for the flourishing life or the demise of the remainder of creation. However we have now forgotten our position. Our position 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 aware thought that I used to be a artistic. I used to be doing this portray at college, 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

But it surely wasn’t simply that different folks observed that I had a present. I acknowledged that I skilled pleasure once I was making this paintings. 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 carry 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 might get my palms 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’d present love by making compared to exhibiting love by buying.

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

There was id 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 have a look at that I feel it fashioned me and made me perceive that what I had was valuable and worthwhile 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 instructing 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 bit that Yr 12 college students in my college took as inspiration for a drama piece, and so they turned it into this magnificent drama in regards to the stolen generations and confronting a few of the injustices Aboriginal folks confronted. They usually had used a bit of my artwork, which had nothing to do with stolen generations, but it surely had blood. It was known 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 take heed to… And that audible voice stated, “Okay, we’re completed. Time for the subsequent factor to observe.” And I’m like, “However the place?” and the audible voice stated, “I’m instructing you the place to stroll together 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 observe that invitation. And that was in 2007.

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

I didn’t depart instructing, 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 paintings now as a segue in bringing dialog, relationship and inquiries to very influential areas—to varsities which are educating our subsequent technology. 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 in a position to herald 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 understand how 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 gentle 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 trying on the previous, which could be very uncomfortable. However you may carry 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 have a look at this. How can we come collectively to look after 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 arduous for us to entry. Faculties are a kind of areas.

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

You need 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 faculties are literally arrange not for the White folks… The primary faculties ever arrange in Victoria have been with the Black college students. And so the goal of these faculties throughout 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 vital. 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 protected with me, for me to really feel protected 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 study Indigenous tradition by way of artwork?

We [Aboriginal people] have a house right here, and we’re joyful to have folks come right here after they are available the appropriate means as visitors to our nation who’re respectful to our priorities of taking care of the land, youngsters, 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 swiftly you’re speaking about refugees, asylum seekers, migration, integrating folks into neighborhood, welcoming folks, belonging, adoption and many others. And that’s our position as Aboriginal folks: it’s to take care of others. It’s to be sure that everybody’s sorted if the land is sorted. ‘Taking care of’ isn’t human-centric. It’s all of creation coming into 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 position to care by one thing larger than us. And so for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander folks, we converse of our ancestors who’ve handed from the bodily physique and into their spirit. And we converse 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 completely different names, however this nice spirit creates fellow creators (artists) after which offers roles to folks to look after what they’ve created.

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

So we are saying “fellow creation” as a result of we’re sort 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 unbelievable creations. It’s a privilege and it’s like, we’ve forgotten it. And so in our methods of dwelling, 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 thing. And it’s gotten us into an enormous, sophisticated, very dangerous scenario known as a local weather disaster as a result of we forgot what we have been imagined to look after.

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 chunk me in an effort 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 up to now past her preliminary, mild warning indicators, we are actually 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, pondering that we’re nonetheless the middle of the universe, and say mom nature has betrayed us. And once more, we solid blame onto what ought to really be the sufferer, identical to a perpetrator would blame the sufferer for making them do it—utterly out of steadiness.

The 99designs Indigenous artwork venture

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

“Via these work I needed to create one thing stunning that will encourage folks to contemplate, ‘How will I really like creation? How will I really like nation?’ I say ‘nation’ as within the land, the animals, the techniques like water, air, fireplace 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 look after nation. “These work are a reminder that we serve creation and it’s not the opposite means round,” Safina says. “And we have now to do it collectively; to go in opposition to this falsity of individualism and we have now to foster neighborhood. Meaning we’ve received to place our egos apart and we really should construct up households to construct up neighborhood. So I’m calling us again to the traditional methods by way of these work and each has a unique focus or factor.”

Safina went on to present us perception into the that 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 vital to Aboriginal folks. It’s not an object, it’s a part of us. These necessary moments of conception, beginning and demise are marked geographically. …Our place is honored by way of the land the place our our bodies are gifted again. And we then nourish different issues to then develop, which then feeds the subsequent technology. We return to the land. So when folks compromise that id 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 may pay attention and it reminds us of many stunning, good truths. …Even when it’s arduous, below stress, actually darkish and extremely painful—all of these pressures that compress—it offers 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 wash 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… Once you burn the eucalyptus leaf, the smoke prompts the cells within the physique to present speedy therapeutic.

“In a smoking ceremony, the place a welcome is given, persons are requested to move by way of the smoke which is a veil of a spirit. And you’ll’t see with the human eye, which is strictly what we do as artists. We give illustration to issues which are unseen, unnoticed, that we’re attempting to carry to folks’s consideration. And on the opposite aspect of the smoke is an settlement that you simply go out of your methods and move by way of, into cooperation with the standard house owners—that you’ll dwell by their legislation, respect and look after the nation that they’re chargeable for.

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

“Once you move by way of, you might be given the blessing to make use of the assets of their land to maintain your life…however there are situations that you’ll observe 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 will need to honor the individuals who have welcomed you and given you protected 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 reward could be obtained. And I’ve met so many individuals which have been transformed into loving Aboriginal individuals who have simply been by way of a smoking ceremony. Their mind doesn’t get it, however one thing simply occurred. And I’m going ‘Inform me what it appears like?’ They usually go, ‘It appears 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 dwell. 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 lady, it will be my soul house. The tides and the moon cooperate and our our bodies discuss to the moon on a regular basis. When the moon says ‘It’s time,’ my physique does what it’s meant to do, you understand—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 larger than Google. We learn the seasons by way of 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 are inside these stars which have been handed on from technology to technology to assist us maintain our life. Properly, right here on this globe and for Torres Strait Islander folks, we navigate the ocean by watching the celebrities. …If you understand the navigation system, you could be protected 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 received the data, but when we retain and reestablish that data, 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 are sick when they’re such an necessary life supply for all of us. We want 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 way of that bowl, doing what they do to dwell 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, after 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 dwell? We now have integrity, objective, hope, path, perception and knowledge—what then lets do?’ And my suggestion is that we come along with the pressure of what collaboration could be, what listening and studying could 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 neighborhood. And that we sit in these neighborhood 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 after 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 position is to assist folks to see nicely, to ask them in by way of 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?’”

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Discover her many creations on her web site.

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