Listening through Art and Acknowledgement of Country

As we enter the acknowledgement of "Always Was, Always Will Be", Pearl Taylor reflects on Listening through Art and Acknowledgement of Country.

In 2019, Pearl Taylor was commissioned by St. Andrews Uniting church in Fairfield Victoria, to cement these collaborative words into a mosaic: "We acknowledge the Wurundjeri people on whose land this church was built. This is stolen land, taken without consent or negotiation. We celebrate the living presence of the Creator Spirit in this land before colonisation."

These words were created between the congregation, Wurundjeri Elder and fire warden, Uncle Dave Wandin, and Rev Alex Sangster

Artist's Statement by Pearl Taylor

Pearl Taylor is an artist, art therapist and endeavours to express her faith and justice by bringing communities together to create spaces of contemplation and reverence.

I was born on Darug country in Sydney South west. Last year Uncle Dave did an official Welcome to Country to the church of St Andrews Uniting, this resulted in a church full of smoke and hearts light and heavy in equal measure as reality and commitment to these words were laid upon us. We were welcome, but we were on stolen land.

In setting these words in stone, I knew a design would come that complimented the height and depth of what it means to walk this land in solidarity.

Yet, I also knew that I needed to intimately know my own roots and ancestral land before I tried in anyway to comprehend a felt sense of belonging to place, and the depth of listening required to face the pain and shame buried beneath my birth land Australia.

Before leaving for a month hiking in Ireland, I wrote this poem:

There are buildings older than my sapling roots
that sit shallow fledgling in the soil.
Stretching, yearning, for deep down moisture.
Yet all the while knowing there are buildings older, 
buildings dug deeper into the fabric, into the earth and into history. 
Than these formative, fledgling, fugitive roots.

Returning to Australia, the eventual design would build heavily on this roots imagery. Of a people, a grandfather tree that have been present in the land much longer than our formative, fledgling, fugitive roots.

I wrestled with designs, with colours, I wrestled with words (as we all must in decolonising our spaces) until I came to something that felt uniquely from us. My own faith was journey mixed with a larger narrative of oppression and justice. I aimed to create an offering of generosity, reciprocity and welcome. That said “Just like this tile, things have been broken, this isn’t perfect but here we are, beside the first peoples of this land”.

When working on designs, someone asked “Can’t we just make a mosaic with no words… you know, to not offend other churches or Christians?"

Yet it is not time for decorative or tokenistic art.

Art acts as a symbol, a mark in time that says “we were here” and this is what our church stands for in 2020. As each member came to lay a stone, tile or glass - a rhythmic meditation of “ we acknowledge, we acknowledge, we acknowledge '' was formed. A sacred piece of the isle of Iona was placed down by Peter Fenchem, bringing together ancient knowing from two deep reverent cultures. Others brought special tokens, rocks from their backyard and alex shared weathered beach glass - we all contributed our own “this is stolen land” mantra. I would like to thank the congregation, Rev Alex, John Ricard, Kate Purnell and this generous congregation for their curiosity, creativity and commitment. 

I humbly present this mosaic as the work of all our hands, and the hands of those that have worked tirelessly for peace and reconciliation, to make these sentiments possible now. For the voices that have spoken justice’s name and sometimes called it Jesus and the hands that remain nameless and lost to history.

Brooke Prentis, Aboriginal Christian Leader and CEO of Common Grace with Pearl Taylor was able to visit St Andrews Uniting in Fairfield Victoria in early March 2020 before heavy COVID-19 restrictions.

More about the mosaic

Starting this mosaic, Pearl made preliminary sketches and sought approval from the congregation and the wider Indigenous community. Here, Pearl was mindful that whilst these words came from the church, as always, she needed to put Indigenous voices first. It was here that Pearl reached out to collaborate with Brooke Prentis. Brooke was able to tweak the initial wording and offer feedback as an Aboriginal Christian Leader and from a richly diverse perspective of Common Grace. 

The final design, a grandfather tree with roots sinking deep into the earth was approved to be culturally responsive and respectful of wisdom traditions that were with the first peoples before colonisation and western Christianity. She aimed to create a humble offering of generosity, reciprocity and honesty.

Bringing the congregation together, with the bashing and crashing of broken tile and the beautiful haphazard way of community projects, we affirmed each individual's solidarity to these words, this sentiment and a commitment to the speaking out and up in solidarity with First Nations community.

Going Deeper

Want to know more about Acknowledgement of Country explore here.

Reflection

Have you ever done an Acknowledgement of Country, individually, in community, or in church? Why / why not?

Brooke Prentis says, "An Acknowledgement of Country is more than just words, it's about heart and mind coming together through a genuine want and act of building relationship with Aboriginal peoples." What does this mean to you? What action or next step will you take?

What message does a church saying or displaying (or not saying or displaying) an Acknowledgement of Country say about Christians and church to wider Australian society?

What does Acknowledgement of Country look and sound like in reference to “Always Was, Always Will Be”?

NAIDOC Week 2020