The Bible has a rather ambivalent legacy in the arts of Australia and New Zealand. The reason lies in the negotiation of space and the belatedness of time. In terms of space, Europeans in particular were and continue to be disconcerted by space in Australia, since it simply makes no sense according to European codes. Thus, the small and contained countries of Europe, the human dominance of the natural landscape, the brevity and lateness of its history, the anomalous nature of its development (Diakonoff, 1999, p. 63)—all these have made it difficult for Europeans to negotiate Australia. By contrast, New Zealand has been a little more amenable, at least once one comes to terms with the sheer distance from Europe and the Northern Hemisphere. Once there, however, Europeans found themselves able to map cognitively the two main islands. Here the space is contained by water and towering mountains, while the land tends to be lush.

What marks out the question of time is its belatedness. In both Australia and New Zealand, this common feature has distinct permutations—a not-uncommon situation for two places that seem so familiar on many levels and yet reveal marked differences. With New Zealand, belatedness relates both to the Maori and to Europeans (Pakeha). As for the former, these Polynesian speakers came from the northeastern Pacific in the thirteenth century C.E., but Europeans came even later, the first stragglers arriving some 400 years later. With regard to Australia, the tardiness does not refer to Aboriginal history but to European arrival. Indeed, Aboriginal history (up to 68,000 years old) makes European history seem brief indeed.

These comparisons set the scene for artistic engagements with the Bible in Australia and New Zealand. Obviously, what distinguished the tardy Europeans from those who preceded them was that they brought the Bible with them. Already it trailed a troubled, ambivalent, and nomadic legacy. That was to be exacerbated in Australia and New Zealand. In the following analysis, six topics are discussed. The first two are of a general nature, dealing with Aboriginal engagements and then those of the first invaders and settlers. The remaining four take specific and notable instances of the relationship between the Bible and the arts in Australia and New Zealand.

Aboriginal Engagements.

“When whitefellas came, they had the Bible and we had the land. Now, they have the land and we have the Bible.” This gloss on a well-known Indigenous saying from different parts of the world expresses the paradox of the Bible among Indigenous peoples in Australia and New Zealand (although it is also predicated on a notion of property that is distinctly capitalist). In other words, this text without a home has found yet another home. How does this appear in the creativity of Indigenous art? The beginning of an answer is that such art was barely noticed by the aficionados of the art world until the 1970s.

A further stage of that answer is that, once noticed, Indigenous engagements with the Bible have evinced two broad trends. One seeks to give Indigenous content and sensibilities to imported forms of art; the other engages with biblical themes through perpetually changing Indigenous art forms. In the former, it is common to find motifs drawn from the Gospels, especially Jesus, crosses, crucifixes, scenes from Golgotha, as also depictions of Mary and a baby Jesus.

A good example is the use of the rather conventional medium of stained glass windows. Thus, in New Zealand there is the Maori Jesus, from St. Faith’s Church, Ohinemutu, Rotorua. Depending on the angle from which one views the window, a risen Jesus either appears to be walking on the water or is suspended in mid-air. Slightly see-through and all-white (in frosted glass), he wears the traditional robes of a Maori elder, although he has a bearded northwestern European–style face. And in Australia, there is the stained glass window in St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Cathedral in Darwin. Composed of eight panels, its central motif is the cross, yet it is surrounded by images of life and food, especially the local bush tucker (bush food) from the sea. The two windows exhibit differences, especially in terms of local artistic conventions, such as clothing, use of pattern, color, and depictions of human, animal, and natural forms. Yet the underlying medium—stained glass in a church—is the same.

When we turn to Indigenous art forms and their engagement with the Bible, far greater variation appears. In the precontact art of the Maori, it was preferable to make an object of art out of a single piece of material. The nature of that singular piece—whether precious stone, wood, bone, or flax—determined the form of the artwork. In that way it gave expression to cultural and religious beliefs, particularly when the community labored together on such a work.

In this light, it begins to become possible to understand body art or tattoos, which feature so prominently in Maori art. Indeed, tattooing is a vibrant and lively tradition that continues to engage and transform biblical texts and images. For example, Matthew Pihema combines muted biblical symbols within traditional Polynesian patterns. Here we find the cross, Holy Spirit, trinity, lion of Judah, water for baptism, creation, and even the fish (traditional Christian ichthus) woven into an intriguing pattern. Pihema also exhibits the melding with a wider Polynesian context, for his heritage includes Maori, Tahitian, Cook Island (Aitutaki), and Pakeha, or European, influences.

Australian Indigenous figurative art is quite different from that of the Maori. This art is traditionally worked on rock, tree bark, hollow-log burial poles, and in body painting, although more recently other media have been appropriated and used, such as canvas, sculpted stone, and cloth design. The wide ranges of regions, languages, and cultures have generated diverse styles of art across Australia. Yet, given the patterns of non-Indigenous invasion and settlement, the traditions of art have remained strongest in desert and northern tropical regions. Under the influence of international artistic recognition and commercial success from the 1970s, bark painting has come to dominate, since it is highly portable and permanent. The bark is usually taken from the stringybark tree (Eucalyptus tetrodonta). Large sheets are removed, cleaned by fire, flattened, cured, and treated for painting, which is done with the bark lying on the ground. These styles of bark painting, with the vivid reds, yellows, and oranges of the desert regions, have also most readily made the transfer to canvas.

In such painting, a wider range of biblical scenes and motifs are found, rather than being restricted to the Gospels. In order to depict these scenes, certain typical representations may appear, as shown in the figure below. These representations traditionally form part of artworks that depict the mythological stories (Tjukurrpa, or “Song Lines”) of the creative beings. These beings journeyed through the land, forming and shaping it until they ascended to the skies. Many are the marks of their presence still imbued in the land. It should be no surprise, then, that in appropriating the Bible the accounts of creation should feature prominently in that artwork. So also do Gospel scenes, but in ways that connect with creation narratives and spirit beings. One example is the work of Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann and Mary Leahy Pumbum, from the Daly River (Nauiyu Nambiyu) in the Northern Territory.

Apart from scenes of nativity and crucifixion, the descent of the Holy Spirit is a common theme, appearing in many scenes. Indeed, the focus on the spirit is a crucial element of the indigenization of the Bible, since it connects with the sense of a presence of spirit beings throughout the land. Most intriguing is an artwork depicting Jesus and the Rainbow Serpent from the Northern Territory, where serpent myths are common. Here Jesus becomes tied up with the mythological narratives (Tjukurrpa) in ways that have now taken place for well over two centuries.

The Land That God Either Blessed or Forgot.

As mentioned earlier, the richness and value of Indigenous art was largely not recognized as part of local traditions until the ferment of the 1960s and 1970s. Until then, art was understood as the concern of invaders and settlers. This section considers the work of these latecomers and how they engaged with the Bible. The records available are rather skewed, determined by the privileges of class. By and large the colonial ruling class had the leisure and opportunity to leave records in art and literature or, rather, to “foster the arts,” as one did in polite society.

In both New Zealand and Australia, the artistic record is conventionally and roughly divided into two periods. For the first century of permanent European settlement until the late nineteenth century, artists depended heavily on European codes for rendering Australian subjects. However, in the second period, new aesthetics developed that enabled greater sensitivity to the distinctive nature of light, land, space, and time. Curiously, the reasons are somewhat different. In Australia, it was the effect of the Heidelberg School (of the 1880s and named after a part of Melbourne), while in New Zealand, it was the result of new ideas brought independently by Petrus van der Velden (1837–1913), James Nairn (1859–1904), and Girolamo Nerli (1860–1926). In both cases, however, the changes had much to do with rising senses of nationalism as moves were afoot to establish independent bourgeois states.

The question is whether there was any change in biblical motifs between these two periods. In the colonial era we do find occasional efforts to deploy standard Edenic images of plenty, although these overlap with Arcadian and Romanticist traditions of the noble savage. Here, the land is fecund and abounds in plenty, while Indigenous and non-Indigenous people live happily and in harmony with the land (as Captain Cook had also suggested).

This approach was characteristic of the early depictions of New Zealand, produced by brief visitors and then longer residents in the nineteenth century. They drew entirely from European sensibilities concerning the topographic, sublime, picturesque, and ideal. And they were primarily for European consumption, domesticating these new places in lines familiar to them. In Australia, it appears in the work of a couple of artists. One was John Glover (1767–1849), who arrived as an already successful artist in Tasmania in 1830 at the age of 63. Another was John Skinner Prout (1805–1876), who spent almost four years (1840–1844) in Tasmania. This approach was perhaps easier in Tasmania, where the cooler climate, more lush vegetation, and smallness of the island both felt more like “home” and could sustain images of Eden and Arcadia.

However, the overwhelming theme in representing the continental mainland of Australia was as the land that God forgot to bless at creation. Here conventional images of Eden, or of the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey, or of the fecund gardens of the Song of Songs, failed to gain traction. This is particularly so in the journals of the so-called explorers, colonial men who set out for whatever reason—alcoholism (Stuart), a penchant for pubescent boys (Giles), or fame and glory (all of them)—to cross the vastness of arid Australia from shore to shore. These expeditions, funded by colonial governments and learned societies, usually included an artist in their number. Their favored verse seems to have come from Deuteronomy 32:10: “He found him in a desert land, in a howling wilderness waste.”

Despite the fact that they met healthy Indigenous people on almost every day, mentioning them frequently in the journals they kept, they maintained that the land was a barren wilderness, full of desolation and waste, without water or hope. Often their journals included artists’ sketches, for which the text then becomes a description. Perhaps Ernest Giles (1835–1897) sums up best the preferred biblical images: in this land “utterly forsaken by God,” even “the great desert in which we have so long been buried must suggest to the reflecting mind either God’s perfectly effected purpose, or His purposely effected neglect” (1889, Vol. 2, pp. 191, 227). That is, God willfully forgot to bless the land at creation. We also find the closely related image of the curse for disobedience, visited on the first human beings but most viciously present in Australia. Here, the Indigenous Australians found the curse proclaimed with a vengeance, “by the sweat of their brows must they obtain their bread” (Giles, 1889, Vol. 2, p. 228).

In the second period, from the 1880s to the 1890s, a dual shift appears: the art moves away from explicit biblical engagements while at the same time putting a more positive turn on images of Australia. Influenced in turn by various currents, such as Pre-Raphaelitism, Romanticism, the Barbizon School, and then most significantly by the Heidelberg School (Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Charles Conder, and David Davies), the landscape began to be seen in a more promising light, not least because the growing middle class preferred more appealing images in their living rooms. In their wake, we find the Jindyworobak movement of the 1930s and 1940s, which sought to link art and spirituality through a constructed Aboriginality. Obviously, the Bible slips from artistic sensibilities in such an approach—or rather, the link between a putatively ancient Bible as a source for understanding the equally ancient Indigenous Australians is now broken, for the Indigenous peoples have a far greater claim to authenticity.

In New Zealand, by contrast, efforts to depict the landscape favorably continued. But those efforts were now influenced by new currents, such as impressionism, fauvism, cubism, primitivism, and American regionalism. Paradoxically, it was precisely these currents that enabled a greater appreciation of the uniqueness of New Zealand. In a further twist of the paradox, some of the leading artists—such as Frances Hodgkins (1869–1947)—spent most of their lives overseas.

It is worth noting how much landscape dominates the art of these periods. This is symptomatic of the perpetual effort at negotiating and producing space, seeking ever-new ways to understand precisely that which disconcerted so many Europeans coming to these parts. In New Zealand it was the distance from Europe that seemed to require continued negotiation, while in Australia it was the sheer size of what appeared to be an arid and inhospitable land. However, I close this section by considering another form of artistic record, from those who stayed longer than they may have initially planned.

This record may be described as genetic. Often it leaves barely a trace, so that we are uncertain as to its presence. Yet these traces are important, because they allow a small insight into some of those who are at the edges of recorded history. These artworks are found across Australia and New Zealand: they may be the tight black curly hair and dark skins of the coastal people in northern Australia, traces of long interaction with Melanesians; they may be the blue eyes of some Aboriginal peoples on the western coast of Australia, possibly the result of shipwrecked Dutch sailors who were absorbed by local tribes; they may come from the whalers in New Zealand and Tasmania, who settled with native women, only to leave for months at a time chasing whales farther south (which probably suited the women rather well).

New Zealand Jesus.

Having covered general developments, my analysis now moves onto specific instances of the Bible and art. The first item concerns the impression that so often the theme of “Bible and art” devolves into “Jesus and art.” However, this was not always necessarily the case, and it is a New Zealand study that has revealed the increasing popularity of Jesus only in the twentieth century: Geoffrey Troughton’s New Zealand Jesus: Social and Religious Transformations of an Image, 1890–1940.

The book ranges wider than art, covering doctrine, devotion, anti-church criticism, social justice campaigns, children, masculinity, and gender. But it crucially includes a treatment of Jesus in literature and art. Jesus turns out to be not merely an icon but a crucial signifier of social and cultural change. In particular, the focus on Jesus increases noticeably in the first half of the twentieth century. Protestants sought to make Jesus the center of their religiosity and artistic representation. This was a Jesus who provided the avenue to a simple and pure religion, uncluttered by the trappings of institutions, clergy, and doctrines. In the face of what appeared then as a rising secularism, along with significant anti-church criticism, Jesus became a critic of the ecclesial establishment. Yet, in the effort to modernize Jesus as a private individual, one who has a close relationship with his father, his authority only increased.

A number of examples illustrate this point very well. Colin McCahon (1919–1987), who sought to develop new symbols in his New Zealand context, imbued his paintings with a sense of spirituality. So we find repeated invocations of kauri, cliffs, candle, and cross. In all this, the Bible and the Promised Land played a crucial role—not unexpected, given his upbringing in the Presbyterian South Island. Indeed, one of his earlier styles is called “Early Religious Paintings” and sought to locate the Bible in the New Zealand landscape. A telling example here is Crucifixion according to Saint Mark (1947). Later, his “Necessary Protection” series sought to bring a strong environmental message by repeatedly invoking the cross—the now iconic Tau Cross—in his depictions of the Muriwai cliffs on the North Island. But the crucifixion painting also highlights another feature that was to dominate his later works: the dominant use of texts to convey a message. In the later part of his life, these became large-scale “word paintings,” such as Are there not twelve hours of daylight (1969). Scrawled with white on black, the words are taken from John 11:9–10: “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone can walk in daytime without stumbling because he sees the light of this world. But if he walks after nightfall he stumbles, because the light fails him.”

A comparable example is the more recent work of Megan Hansen-Knarhoi (b. 1974), who seeks to develop large-scale devotional artworks that would be at home as much in a chapel as in a gallery. A notable series is that of wall installations that focus on Jesus. The images come from the Internet and are constructed out of French knitted wool. In this collection is Jesus Spells (2012–2013), in which the face of a long-haired Jesus is constructed out of reams of wool that spread out from his head and onto the floor. To his left is what appears to be a speech bubble, made up of multicolored crosses at different angles to one another. It is at once pop culture and knitting, challenge and devotion, traditional and postmodern.

A final example is Jesus Met the Woman (2009) by Sandra Jane Suleski (b. 1969). Splashed with color, the work evokes a young girl’s cuttings and pastings. In between and over these cuttings are scrawlings of hearts, wheels, and lines of rough diamonds that form a subdued cross around the two images of the heavily made-up woman. Like McCahon, here too are biblical words, in the style of the King James Version and taken from John 4.

Blake Prize.

A further and unavoidable topic is the Blake Prize, which is based in Australia but includes New Zealand artists. In 1951, a Roman Catholic priest from Melbourne had a vision: it was to bring the best of modern art back into the service of the church, which would in turn recover its role as patron of the arts. How to do so? Institute an art prize. The prize was the Blake Prize, and the priest was Michael Scott, then rector of Newman College at the University of Melbourne and a public figure of some note. The prize was named after William Blake, partly because of his deeply biblical art work, but also because he appeared nonsectarian, outside the contested zones of Australian Christianity at the time. Initially, the prize was to be a singular affair, but the event proved so popular that it became an annual prize. It helped that Scott managed to enlist some of the significant figures of elite society and the art world into the committee.

Over more than 60 years the prize has become a premier art prize, awarded to an art work that addresses the question of religion or spirituality. But precisely what that religion or spirituality means has been contested and constantly redefined throughout the history of the Blake. The originators may have had one idea, but artists usually had other and very different ideas. Yet even throughout the many changes that the prize has witnessed, in terms of judges and contestants, it is remarkable how much biblical material has come up for reinterpretation. The competition for the annual prize—which typically attracts more than 1,000 entrants—reveals a feature of the biblical texts: they lend themselves readily to artistic engagement. This is due not merely to a long history of biblical art work but to a distinct concreteness of the stories themselves, a desire to leap to forms of representation other than letters on perishable parchment.

The Blake has been at its best when it is has stirred controversy and encouraged debate. The first, already in the 1950s, concerned abstract art and the challenge to figurative art with a clear narrative reference, while the more recent controversies involve religious violence. As for the abstract controversy, Stanislaw Rapotec’s Meditating on Good Friday (winner 1961) is a vast gestural painting that seeks fluency and spontaneity in its vigorous brush strokes. More an experience than a story, the work caused a storm of fury, split the Blake committee, and saw a number of youthful art critics cut their teeth (Robert Hughes being the most notable defender of the decision).

Two examples of controversy occurred in 2007. The first was a lenticular hologram in which an iconic image of Osama bin Laden morphs into a rather traditional Roman Catholic figure of Jesus pointing to his visible heart. The work, Bearded Orientals: Making the Empire Cross, was produced by Priscilla Joyce Bracks. The other work presented a rather kitschy statue of Mary and then placed a burqa over her head. It was called The Fourth Secret of Fatima and was made by Luke Sullivan. Needless to say, the conservative commentariat was not impressed, with the prime minister at the time, John Howard, describing them both as “gratuitously offensive to the religious beliefs of many Australians,” and Cardinal George Pell attempting to dismiss them as “tedious and trivial.” Neither work went on to win the prize, but then none of the critics viewed the works.

Such controversy has driven some conservatives to establish the Mandorla Art Award, an avowedly Christian prize that uses a Bible verse each year as its basis. It may be regarded as an effort to recover the initial 1950s reason for the Blake Prize, to return religion to art so the church may once again be seen as the prime patron of the arts (see Compared to this marginal effort, the Blake remains far more interesting and superior. The chairperson of the Blake committee as of 2015, Rod Pattenden, sees the prize’s task as encouraging an ongoing conversation about what matters most in contemporary culture, what we believe in and how we use spirituality to interpret the world around us. Under his leadership and a revitalized committee, the prize has been expanded to include emerging artist, social justice, and poetry awards.

With all these changes over one of the premier art prizes in Australia and New Zealand, it is important to reiterate that many of the submissions still riff on biblical themes. In 2012, I was one of three judges, playing the role of the religious “specialist.” We had more than 1,100 submissions, from which we drew up individual shortlists. We then met to collate, reduce, and produce a final shortlist. This shortlist was then exhibited, and from it we selected the winners. However, what struck me is how often artists engage with themes such as textuality (leaves and letters of a text), suffering, death, birth, mothers, fathers, renewed life—all by means of biblical reference. Here, too, we find boundaries challenged, in terms of sexualities, ethnicities, and bodies, and still the Bible provides much subject matter, arrestingly reconfigured.

Australian and New Zealand Art

Moses Breaking the Tablets by Arthur Boyd (1920–1999). Biblical themes recur often in Boyd’s paintings.

Art Resource, NY

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Arthur Boyd.

In the first Blake Prize of 1951, one contestant entered multiple works. He did not win and yet later came to be one of Australia’s greatest artists of the twentieth century. The artist was Arthur Boyd (1920–1999). He entered The Mockers (1945), Golden Calf (1946), and The Prodigal Son (1946–1947). All of them were finalists, but they were too confronting for the judges at the time, who sought works that expressed religion as a comforting experience.

The first was set on Port Philip Bay, the vast bay that dwarfs Melbourne. Here a writhing mass of people fight, dance, make love, struggle, and seek gain at the expense of others. They are watched over by the Ancient of Days, who seems distressed as he sits on the fork of a tree. In the distance are three crosses, with Christ in the foreground. He is still being crucified, and there is no resurrection in sight. The painting is usually seen as a protest against the atrocities of World War II.

Similar is The Golden Calf. In it, too, a mass of people writhe, holding one another, surging, fleeing, taking what they can find. On a makeshift platform, a diminutive cow (with noticeable udders) watches over the proceedings with a vague smile. In the background naked figures engage in sex, as do animals. In the far corner, a neglected wagon with two oxen stands, perhaps a neglected Ark of the Covenant.

Finally, The Prodigal Son is a tight painting, set in a clearing in the undergrowth. The various phases of the Prodigal’s story appear as separate figures, although a gray-haired father leans out of the bushes, one hand outstretched, the other beckoning. The wealthy son in the center of the painting looks away, to his bag of gold and not toward the father, while the penniless son in the left-hand corner is downcast and caresses a pig.

These three works are usually located in Boyd’s “Bible Cycle,” painted between 1944 and 1948. Other works were also painted then, such as Expulsion, Bride and Serpent, and Boat Builders, Eden (set in Eden, on the New South Wales coast, but drawing on the biblical story). However, to designate these as his “Bible Cycle” is to miss the fact that biblical themes recur over and again in Boyd’s paintings.

Another notable collection is the “Nebuchadnezzar” series, based on the Babylonian king who was banished to the wilderness for seven years of madness, for his acts of self-aggrandizement (Dan 4). Painted between 1968 and 1971, they depict a bewildered king dreaming, on fire, colored red, running, falling over a waterfall, encountering animals, and so on. Many read them as a profound protest against the Vietnam War but also as part of Boyd’s continued efforts to deal with his many psychological problems.

Another collection with subtle biblical allusions comprises his paintings of the Shoalhaven River and its surrounds. Boyd had finally managed to return home from England in 1971, albeit on board a ship since he was unable to board a plane due to his aerophobia. Boyd eventually settled in 1978 in the Shoalhaven area south of Sydney, far from Murrumbeena in Victoria, where he grew up. Initially, Boyd felt alienated by the Shoalhaven, with its strong Australian light and rugged landscape. So he painted his way into the area, engaging with the river, the light, the mountains, and bush (forest). Occasionally, a biblical allusion appears, whether an ethereal figure, a cruciform shape, a dove flying over Pulpit Rock, or a fallen bride beneath the same rock.

Reg Mombassa.

New Zealand and Australia may diverge on many points, but in the case of Reg Mombassa (Chris O’Doherty) they converge once again. The rock musician and pop artist Mombassa was born in New Zealand in 1951, moving to Australia with his parents in 1969. Primarily an artist, Mombassa formed the band Mental as Anything with some fellow art students. Unexpected success led to the band turning professional, but eventually Mombassa decided to stop touring with the band in light of the increasing demands of his art. He did form a smaller outfit, Dog Trumpet, with his brother, although they choose when and where to play and when to record new albums.

Mombassa’s breakthrough into the status of national icon came with his signing up in 1986 with Mambo, the surf-wear company. Since then, he has designed T-shirts, posters, postcards, tapestries, and so on, for Greenpeace, the Rock Eisteddfod, Circus Oz, the Opera House Trust, Redfern Legal Aid, the Wilderness Society, Westmead Children’s Hospital, and the Powerhouse Museum, and his work is held by major galleries and private collections in Australia, New Zealand, and worldwide—not bad for someone who finds the sources of his inspiration in the wind, semi-professional birthday clowns, heavy machinery, and the behavior of domestic animals. Or, as the Mambo website puts it, “Reg Mombassa is a musician, painter, writer, poet, humanist, sage, dispenser of arcane wisdom, buggerer of sacred cows and much loved national treasure.”

However, although the subjects of his art range over multiple topics—from dogs farting to quirky landscapes of the everyday in what may be called “absurd idealism”—one persistent item of Mombassa’s imagery is the “Australian Jesus.” This Jesus may have initially appeared in white suit and tie, enjoying himself in typical suburban landscapes—albeit with a twist. Thus, in Australian Jesus in the Suburbs he stands in a backyard beside a BBQ. Yet, a spider eats from the BBQ and an almost alien dog barks at the spider. Soon enough, Jesus seems to have traveled east and gained insight—marked by a third eye—and a social conscience. Now he sits astride a horse in a stained glass window–style painting, welcoming the “boat people.” Or he stands up to his knees in water, surrounded by the icons of Australia—the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House—as he works to turn back the effects of global warming.

In almost every appearance, Jesus holds a book in his hands, from which he seems to be reading. He may appear beside Noah’s Ark as it fills with possums, wombats, sheep, and kangaroos carrying footballs. He may take on the persona of Santa Claus, his utility or “ute” (a type of small pickup truck) pulled by a koala and a kangaroo. He may head to the South Pacific, naked and riding a horse while drinking and smoking. He may be surrounded by pop icons of Australia, such as a thong or jandal (flip-flop), a beer can, a meat pie, a dog, and an FJ-Holden Ute with a cross thrown in the back like a surfboard. Or he may be at a football game, multiplying five meat pies and two warm beers for the hungry and thirsty crowd. (“And the beer was cold. It was good.”) Or he may be at the Bethlehem Caravan Park, a baby in his mother’s arms. Three “wise animals” bear gifts: a kangaroo offers a case of Asylum Bitter, a chicken gives a meat pie and chips, and a koala proffers a football.

The majority of these earlier artworks represent Jesus as a somewhat calming figure, attempting to rectify wrong. Yet a few of the more recent works stand out, since they indicate a more troubled and distressed Jesus. The first is Station of the Cross No. 3: Australian Jesus with Telegraph Pole (after Gibson). Deeply gashed and with large globules of blood pouring from the wounds, this Jesus barely props himself up on one knee, crushed beneath the heavy pole and its snaking wires. On a rough crossbeam are written the words, “King of the Australians.” Here is violence and destruction, visited upon a Jesus who otherwise heals and calms.

Destruction, too, is found in Fire and Water, in which the face of Jesus has flood waters up to a gaping mouth, his eyes popped out in disbelief at what has happened to the world. Or he is a “Jesus-bottle,” solar-powered and reaching out to the sun with a cord, surrounded by a landscape on the verge of environmental collapse, or engaged in conflict resolution in New Zealand.

Perhaps the most arresting is a work called Australian Jesus Reading to a Maggot Infested Business Horse by the Light of a Potato (2013). This comes toward the end of the “Business Horse” series, in which an evil-looking, business-suited, and chain-smoking horse pursues profit at all costs. He cares little for environmental, social, and personal costs, so that eventually he becomes maggot-infested and bleeding in the later paintings. At last, Jesus appears and attempts to read to him, although the reason is not clear. Is it too late? Can the horse’s ways still be turned around?

We may situate these starker images in light of The Temptation (Hunter Valley) from 1998. It is an image of the fall set in a landscape now industrialized, polluted, and bulldozed. A big-eared serpent, which is twisted around a pole, gives a beer-swilling Adam a gun, while he holds a toaster out of reach of Eve.

Mombassa has pointed out that what continues to shock him is human violence, one against another, but especially by males. At times, such violence appears in horrific bursts (see the brief interview at Indeed, many of his artworks do manifest an almost demonological violence, with troubling characters as aliens, snarling, halfway between machine and animal. In light of these two themes in representing Jesus—the calm figure out to help and the one suffering and aghast at pain and destruction—we may identify the ambivalence of Mombassa’s search for what unites and what destroys.

This observation is one of the few that Mombassa has made about his work. Refreshingly, he is not seduced by the artist’s desire to explain his or her own work, for he is typically understated in interviews. After all, as he points out, most artists are idiots, so it is unwise to listen to what they say. So he lets his art do the talking. In one self-portrait, a reworking of Australian Jesus in the Suburbs, Jesus has lost his beard and his hair has grown darker and longer. Now it is called Landscape with Book Learning (1997), but the figure is clearly Mombassa himself. Even the dog in the foreground is shaped out of a lead guitar—Mombassa’s favored instrument. Two other paintings come even closer. Both are self-portraits, one Self-Portrait with a Beard and Plastic Ring (2008) and the other Self-Portrait with Spots and Veins (2005). The former echoes very closely the bearded Jesus of the other paintings, with a golden ring floating above him. The second plays up what are normally regarded as “ugly” features—large ears, spotty face, lines, dark circles under his eyes. Yet behind the head is the faint but clear outline of a pink halo. Obviously, a sense of the artist’s vocation emerges here, but if so, it is a decidedly quirky appropriation.

Perhaps the best image is Australian Jesus: Not Afraid to Do a Woman’s Work. Here a naked and hairy-bellied Jesus stands in a large clamshell by the beach. Reminiscent of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (1486), this Jesus has long, reddish hair with which he covers his crotch using one hand. The other hand tries to cover his man-boobs. On either side is the cottage by the beach and the ubiquitous Utility with its cross in the back. Self-portrait indeed.

[See also MCCAHON, COLIN.]


  • Brown, Deidre, Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, and Ngarino Ellis. Toi Te Mana: A New History of Maori Art. Auckland, New Zealand: University of Auckland Press, forthcoming. This is the definitive study of Maori art in New Zealand, from the time of the Maori’s arrival in the thirteenth century.
  • Brown, Gordon H. Towards a Promised Land: On the Life and Art of Colin McCahon. Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland University Press, 2010. A study that explores, among other themes, the influence of the Bible in McCahon’s work.
  • Diakonoff, Igor M. The Paths of History. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999. An excellent, albeit too often neglected, work by the master of Soviet-era Russian study of ancient history.
  • Dunn, Michael. New Zealand Painting: A Concise History. Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland University Press, 2003. A useful survey of art in New Zealand.
  • Giles, Ernest. Australia Twice Traversed: The Romance of Exploration, Being a Narrative Compiled from the Journals of Five Exploring Expeditions into and through Central South Australia and Western Australia from 1872 to 1876. 2 vols. London: Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1889. The entertaining and at times distressing journal of Giles’s crossing of the desert from Adelaide to the west coast.
  • Isaacs, Jennifer. Australian Aboriginal Paintings. Sydney, Australia: New Holland, 2002a.
  • Isaacs, Jennifer. Australia’s Living Heritage: Arts of the Dreaming. Sydney, Australia: New Holland, 2002b. Two key works by a master of the history of Australian Aboriginal art and culture.
  • Summo-O’Connell, Renata. Imagined Australia: Reflections around the Reciprocal Construction of Identity between Australia and Europe. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 2009. An important study of culture, art, and imagination in the way Australia has been represented.
  • Troughton, Geoffrey. New Zealand Jesus: Social and Religious Transformations of an Image, 1890–1940. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 2011. The book that argues for the increasing role of an individualized Jesus in New Zealand Christianity, culture, and art.
  • Waldron, Murray. The Mind and Times of Reg Mombassa. Sydney, Australia: HarperCollins, 2009. The definitive work on the art icon Reg Mombassa.

Roland Boer