Preserving culture through ethnoarts

Wycliffe Today | Spring 2021

By Deb Fox

Alan and Lucy Rogers are Wycliffe members and have been serving with AuSIL in Northern Australia since 1986. They initially helped with translation among the Garrwa people then moved into audio and media Scripture engagement across many language groups. For the last three years, Alan has been the interim Director of Australian Society for Indigenous Languages (AuSIL) but passed on his responsibilities to Phillip Townsend this year. 

Lucy has years of experience in ‘ethnoarts’: ethnic arts that are empowering local language communities to create visual art, music, dance and drama representations of Scripture in a culturally-relevant way.

Lucy says that there are positive signs of ethnoarts being recognised as a valuable way of engaging in local culture: 

There has been a growing interest in ethnoarts in both the secular and Christian worlds. We have found that when Indigenous Australians engage in local art forms within their communities, it speaks to others in their language group who might not otherwise have been interested in hearing about God. Among Indigenous Australians, there is a huge swing towards the use of arts. This has a huge effect on the maintenance of language and culture, allowing for freedom in expression but also for passing on information in a way that is culturally relevant.

Lucy explains how early government and missionary efforts among Aboriginal and Torres Strait communities often viewed non-Western cultural practices as ‘evil’:

This has had a detrimental effect on how many Indigenous Christians perceive their culture. Just because a person becomes a Christian, it doesn’t mean they have to give up eating with a knife and fork or setting the table a certain way. In the same way, not all Indigenous culture should be discarded.

Ethnoarts enable language groups to discover aspects of their culture they can bring to God and use for his glory. As Lucy explains:

We need to encourage Indigenous churches to engage in dialogue as they seek direction from God about what is permissible within their culture. Language groups such as the Warlpiri have adapted their iconographs to tell Bible stories. In Arnhem Land, there is a group of ladies exploring ways of using some of their dance forms for God—they feel this is from God but are waiting on their elders to approve this use. Yet other language groups have not done this and may frown upon it. 

Unfortunately, language usage has changed a great deal since Alan and Lucy first moved to the north of Australia. Many young people no longer speak the language of their parents and grandparents. However, Lucy says that the production of audio Scripture and music in Garrwa and other Indigenous languages is helping to revive language, particularly in church settings. Lucy says that the songwriters workshops she facilitates are always a highlight:

We have been involved in many songwriting workshops since 1987. Some are held in our AuSIL centre, others in the community. It is lovely to encourage folk to seek God by writing songs, to base their songs on God’s Word and to see people working together to worship God in their preferred musical style. It is a real joy and privilege to be involved in the whole process, from recording many of the completed songs, to later hearing these songs shared across communities. 

Now that she and Alan have more time to spend in community, Lucy plans to sit with people and learn more about their arts and the spiritual undertones:

I want to encourage and pray for believers as they seek God’s direction for their arts. I also want to document the development of Christian Indigenous dance and variations within language groups.

Looking back on the past 35 years, Lucy says she loves the space, freedom and remoteness of being in community:

The motto here is ‘go with the flow’. You cannot rush anything. Relationships are more important than time-oriented goals. It took time to develop but it is very special to be part of our Garrwa family and clan system and really feel like we belong. 

Thanks for your patience...

Waiting is hard, isn't it. But imagine waiting 2000 years for Scripture in your language! Thanks for your patience. And thanks for your generous support which will help bring the long wait to an end...