The Bible and Art

Perspectives from Oceania

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Caroline Blyth, Nasili Vaka'uta
The Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies, Scriptural Traces
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , February
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This edited volume in T&T Clark’s series “Scriptural Traces: Critical Perspectives on the Reception and Influence of the Bible” brings together a collection of new writings on the intersection of the Bible and art, with a unique focus on Oceania as the location and cultural context for this intersectionality. For those interested in the reception of the Bible in the visual arts, this is a diverse and compelling collection of fourteen chapters by biblical scholars, art historians, and researchers working at the intersections of the Bible, spirituality, theology, and art, including ordained ministers in different Christian denominations. 

Emily Colgan’s masterful chapter opens the volume as she weaves together intertextual theory with the work of the renowned New Zealand artist Michael Shepherd. Colgan convincingly deploys the tools of intertextuality, drawn from the work of Ben-Porat, Kristeva, and Riffaterre, to explore how markers for Jeremiad allusions in Shepherd’s paintings prove to be a profound intertextual exchange with the biblical text. 

Art historian Robin Woodward, author of three chapters in this volume, introduces us to the work of abstract modernist painter Darryn George. A Christian of both Māori and non-Māori descent, George creates in a triadic space, bringing together the traditional wisdom of his Ngapuhi ancestors as well as those of modern Western art (Newman and Mondrian, among others) along with his interpretation of the Bible to create distinct abstract artworks. Woodward’s other chapters follow a similar biographical trajectory, exploring the conflicted religious and artistic vocation of sculptor Gael O’Leary, before finally introducing the reader to the work of another of New Zealand’s lauded sculptors, Terry Springer.

Roland Boerbrings Adorno’s theory of negative dialectics to a critical appraisal of Reg Mombassa’s many paintings that feature a highly stylized “Australian Jesus.” Questioning Mombassa’s motivations initially, whilst also recognizing a certain cultural “larrikin” attitude that desires the “buggering of sacred cows” (59), Boer moves on to suggest that a deeper agenda is at work in these latterly macabre images that critique certain conventional Australian notions of masculinityand national pride.

Murray Rae offers a tour of two Christian buildings that find their design inspiration in Māori architecture of communal and sacred spaces, and brings these into conversation with scriptural texts such as the Pauline epistles (notably 1 Cor. and Eph.). A recurring concern for many of the artists featured is that of the role of the Bible in colonization. Anne Elvey draws on philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s theory of touch as she explores, along with the trope of touch in the Lukan gospel, the artwork of Australian photographer Michael Riley and representations of the Bible as a material artifact of colonization.

Another repeated theme across many chapters, both visual and textual, is the unfolding ecological crisis and the relationship that humans have with the God-created earth. Yael Klangwisan draws upon Cixous and Derrida to consider specifically the human-animal dimension of Genesis 1–3. Elaine Wainwright extends ecological readings with considerations of the “material sacred” (242, 246) in the works of George Mung Mung and Arthur Boyd, brought into an intertextual dialogue with the themes of birth and death in Matthew’s gospel.

Caroline Blyth and Alex Farrell engage in a fascinating conversation with Māori artist Tony Brooking as they explore with him his act of visual exegesis in designing a visual representation of Genesis 1-2: Te Tīmatanga. This dialogue (transcribed as an interview), values the voice of the artist, and sets up a dynamic four-way conversation between artist, artwork, viewer and scriptural text and reveals how unexpected and original interpretations surface in this process.

Nāsili Vaka’uta’s chapter advances something profound in terms of biblical hermeneutics by inverting the usual direction of analysis and beginning from the artwork, in this instance the Tongan ngatu (a decorated barkcloth), the anthropology of which he describes in illuminating detail. He proposes a 5-point framework of interpretative markers from the collective production and design of these ngatuthat can then be brought to a biblical text—his example here being Gen. 1.1–2:4a. I believe there is significant methodological potential in what he is proposing here, especially for biblical reception studies in Oceania.

The Bible and Art: Perspectives from Oceania is timely in bringing a close focus to the reception of the Bible in the work of artists in Oceania. As has been noted by Vaka’uta, these local and indigenous artists have not been given adequate attention by biblical scholars who tend to focus on “classical and modern European arts, and those of other continental contexts” (98). This volume contains the welcome addition of over seventy images, including many in color; Boer’s chapter, however, which references almost thirty of Mombasa’s paintings, does not actually show any of them, placing the reader at the mercy of the Internet’s distractions. A glossary of indigenous language terms at the beginning of the book would have also been useful.

This volume is a gift to scholars, most especially those in the Oceanic geographical region, with its distinctive southern hemisphere perspective, opening up this vista of creativity: engagements with the Bible, an impressive breadth of interpretative perspectives and analytical methods, cultural contexts, conflicts, and concerns. It is a valuable academic volume essentially tailored to biblical scholars working at the intersection of the Bible and art. This timely collection of essays will provide ample material for a graduate seminar on this subject, and serve as a fabulous launching pad for a graduate student considering further studies in this area. Those interested in ecological readings of the Bible will also find much food for thought here.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Amanda Dillon is Adjunct Professor at the Loyola Institute at Trinity College, Dublin.

Date of Review: 
May 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Caroline Blyth is lecturer in theology at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. She specialises in work on the bible and gender.

Nasili Vaka'uta is the principal of Trinity Theological College, Auckland, and Ranston Lecturer in Biblical Studies, New Zealand.


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