Australian arts jobs, news, industry commentary, career advice, reviews & data

What's On

Exploring the ineffable

Richard Watts

Australian artists are increasingly using their practice to examine religious and spiritual themes.
Exploring the ineffable

Image: Abdul Abdullah's I want to hold your hand (detail), a finalist in the 62nd Blake Prize (2013). 

From Neolithic cave paintings and statuary, to the gothic architecture of the Middle Ages and the masterpieces of the Renaissance, art has long been associated with religious expression and representations of, or tributes to, the divine.

In the 20th century, as western culture became more secular, the connection between art and religion seemed to wane. Now, however, that trend is reversing, with more artists expressing renewed interest in exploring religious themes – and the intersection of religion and society – in their work.


‘The Blake Prize has been observing increased interest and numbers of artists submitting work over the last 10 years; it’s been quite a marked shift in our culture from people thinking about religion in terms of religious organisations such as churches and mosques, to more of a growing interest in a freewheeling search for spirituality – which could be about a search for meaning and identity, a connection with the environment, issues of justice,’ said the Rev Dr Rod Pattenden, Chair of The Blake Society, which presents an annual prize and exhibition program for contemporary art and poetry exploring themes of spirituality, religion and human justice.

‘My observation … is that we are actually a country that’s actively interested in spiritual, ethical and moral issues, and that’s certainly an aspect that’s alive in the contemporary arts.’

Theatremaker David Williams, whose new verbatim work Quiet Faith opens in Adelaide this week, agrees.

‘I think at the moment we’re in an upswing of people trying to find a new kind of faith. People are always dismissive of young people – that seems to be a perennial thing; when you get older you say the youth of today are terrible – but … I work sometimes in the university system and I’m seeing a lot of 18, 19, 20-year-old Christians who are very serious about their beliefs. They’re in performing arts programs at all the universities I’ve been in,’ Williams said.

‘So, yeah, I think there is a generation that sees the need to believe in something and religious faith is one absolute expression of that. They want to believe in something bigger than what they can see and touch, which is fascinating to me. There’s a new generation whose belief in the divine has been reinvigorated. I’m not sure why or by what, but it’s certainly there.’

Pattenden said that the increase in artists willing to explore spirituality and religion in their practice might be a response to trends in the broader community.

‘I think we are at a point of either crisis or opportunity about how, as a culture, we speak about the things that matter most to us – what makes us angry, what makes us passionate, what makes us love, what makes us commit ourselves to things – and certainly religion and spirituality and the artistic process speak to this search about what are our fundamental values,’ he said.

‘How do we make decisions about ethics and moral issues in a culture which is so multicultural, so variegated, so confusing and complex, so post-modern? And certainly artists are now interested in not just playing with beauty or other commodities; they’re actually interested in placing art within this central crux of an ethical, moral question about what it is to be human.

‘So art has recovered, or is beginning to recover, a more profound sense of belonging to the real centre of a culture, which is really where it comes from. Art comes from a spiritual and religious search … from that environment which helps you make sense of the world in which you live,’ said Pattenden.

The Muslim community too is witnessing an increase in art exploring spirituality and the divine, though perhaps for different reasons than in other faith-based communities, according to Nur Shkembi, Arts Director and Exhibitions Manager at the Islamic Museum of Australia.

‘The correlation between the increase in spiritual art in the Muslim community might actually be quite different to the reason why there’s been an increase in other religious communities. They might have an abundance of artists who are now becoming religious, whereas in our community, in the Muslim community, we’ve got kids that are quite aware of their faith and who they are as Muslims, and are now choosing to express that through the arts,’ Shkembi said.

‘It’s not so much an increase in an awareness of the divine; it’s more along the lines that the arts, as a form of expression, is coming alive in the Muslim community, and that’s been quite notable and profound in the last seven to eight years.

‘The production of art that has a religious-based theme or reflects upon spirituality is more prevalent in the Muslim community simply because the arts have become something that people are more comfortable with now, in relation to taking it on professionally.’

David Williams’ professional arts practice focuses on productions which open up space for public conversation. Quiet Faith, his latest play, has grown out the disconnect he saw between the core tenets of Christian faith and the actions of those in public life who professed to be Christians.

‘I saw a huge disconnect between the values of parliamentarians who would be very loud about their Christian faith – people like Scott Morrison for instance, Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott – who were very, very loud in public about their world-view being entirely driven by their Christian faith, but seeing an enormous disconnect between the values demonstrated by the policies that these people, largely men, enact and the political values of the Christians that I know, who are deeply caring, compassionate, and committed to the common good,’ he said.

Constructed out of interviews with 20 Australian Christians from across the country, ranging in age from late teens to early 70s, Quiet Faith gives voice to Christians who identify with the political Left.

‘It’s got to the point where in somewhere like Australia it’s kind of become assumed that if you’re talking about Christianity, if you’re talking about Christians, that all Christians will have right-wing politics: they’ll believe in a conservative interpretation of the family, they will struggle with the idea of homosexuality, and they will broadly vote Liberal. And as such, people on the Left have tended to shun Christians.

‘Now, I think there’s a big push back now with Christians who are sick of being identified as part of a neo-conservative project and are actually going “No, actually we have always believed in compassion; we have always believed in love; and we don’t see government policy reflecting the compassion and love which are very central to the teachings of Jesus Christ”.’

One of the greatest qualities of art lies in its ability to unite people and promote understanding, said Nur Shkembi.

‘I think art gives us, as a community and a society, the opportunity to realign ourselves with the notion that a society is made up of individual people. And this idea of stereotyping – of painting a group of people with the same brush and delivering that homogenous identity and perpetrating it – is actually quite damaging. It’s simply not a truth, not a human truth. People absolutely have individual experiences, and although there may be a common thread, for example I identify myself as a Muslim, and every other person in Australia who might identify as a Muslim, we each have our own unique experience – and ethnicity, for starters … And I think it’s a type of laziness to sit back and say “Well, all Christians are like this and they think like this,” or “All Muslims are like this and they think like that”,’ she said.

‘I think art reminds people that your life is actually quite a personal experience. Art wakes you up, back to that reality of diversity; and also reminds you to have that gentleness and understanding of your fellow human beings, because there’s something quite fragile and personal when you look at an artwork that’s been made by somebody; it’s really honest and raw and it’s somebody sharing something quite deeply personal.

‘I feel it’s a privilege, actually, to be a part of that and to view that and to be engaging in that. I feel art does have the ability to bring people back to that idea of communicating, that idea of gentleness in understanding your fellow human being … Art is a congruent – it allows a fluidity, a conversation to happen at a different level. It personalises people in quite a deep way.

In many ways, experiencing and interacting with art can be almost a spiritual experience in itself, explained Rod Pattenden.

‘Where does a society turn to look at itself in the larger sense; how do we frame who we are, where we’ve headed, where we’ve come from? We need to activate the resources of the imagination and this is where the arts come into play, where we can critique or assess or look at what the future might hold for us, make decisions about what kind of futures we want as a culture. In some sense art provides a speculative means for society to explore what it holds in terms of value,’ he said.

‘This is nothing much to do with belief – this is not about doctrines or ideals; this is about the practice of human concerns. So in some sense, art – and spirituality – is a lot about what it means to be human.’

David Williams’ Quiet Faith runs from 9-19 October at Waterside Workers Hall, Port Adelaide, presented by Vitalstatistix. Details at

The shortlist for the 6th Blake Poetry Prize will be revealed on Thursday 16 October, with the winner announced on Thursday 11 December; finalists for the 63rd Blake Prize for Contemporary Art will be announced on Thursday 4 December, with the winner being revealed on Thursday 11 December. Details at

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's national performing arts editor and Deputy Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R. The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves on the boards of La Mama Theatre and the journal Going Down Swinging; he is also a member of the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel, and a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival. Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts