Picture Above: Art in Faith class at Nungalinya
July 6, 2022
Innovation in faith and art at Nungalinya College
Written by Michael Zewdie
This week as we celebrate NAIDOC Week 2022, we wanted to highlight the innovation taking place at Nungalinya College and one First Nations artist who is empowering other First Peoples to share their faith and culture.
Meet Joe Cuttabut, a gifted artist, author and Noongar man.
Joe is also a teacher at Nungalinya College in Darwin, an ecumenical theological college equipping First Nations people for leadership roles in churches and communities.
We caught up with Joe for a conversation on faith, culture and art and his experience as a student, teacher and the weekday host at Nungalinya College.
Joe says he first felt called to pursue theological study in 2017. The invitation came through his home congregation, the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) Congregation in Zillmere, Brisbane. Joe was nominated by his Pastor to formalise his training at Nungalinya College. He undertook a Certification 3 course in Theology.
Joe says Nungalinya’s approach, which allows students to explore connections between culture and faith, and their identities, kindles a desire for further knowledge and training.
“This way of learning gave me space to be who I am as a person,” Joe explains.
Both as a teacher and as an artist, Joe says, “the support is there for us to be who we are as, Indigenous people and to express that as a faith declaration.” Joe has since completed a postgrad certificate, diploma and his masters and is planning to undertake his PHD studies soon.
His PHD will use a research methodology called auto ethnography. “It’s the study of yourself, but also culture and how that complements your faith walk, through the context of cultural expression and art.”
As an artist, Joe has found a way of exploring his Christian faith and the intersections with his culture using the medium of Aboriginal Art.
His book, Faith in Art, uses artwork to encourage people to enter more deeply into their relationship with God.
Joe currently teaches Art and Faith course at Nungalinya. He takes a unique approach to teaching and learning.
“Day one, you walk in and you can feel the tension in the room. You know, people are thinking, ‘what are the expectations?’, ‘am I good enough?”
“So it is a matter of discerning the classroom dynamics and disarming some of those fears.”
“When we have new students we talk about this being a safe space and its okay to express who you are in Christ as you see it and that being your walk with God. It’s giving permission to people to be who they are in their own right, rather than jumping through religious or cultural hoops.”
“Once that happens, it is like a flower opening and people start becoming more confident.”
Joe says in the classroom at Nungalinya, there is no hierarchy between the teacher and student.
Time is dedicated to reflect on the lived experiences and understanding that each person brings to the class.
Though some days it may take a little longer, this give and take of knowledge leads to new understandings and insights.
“It is a two-way process of learning occurs. I learn off students and the students learn from me. It's like a collaboration, I just sort of facilitate the process.”
Joe further describes teaching as “an unlocking of something that's already there.”
“The discipline of teaching is to keep encouraging, keep believing in the students that that they have something to offer and to draw that out.”
“In order to do that you've got to demonstrate a heartfelt respect and acceptance of a person you've never met before.”
“But, knowing that they're made in the image of God, you know you have something to work with.”
“One of the things we say is ‘there's no such things as mistakes, they're just opportunities waiting to reveal themselves’.”
This innovative approach to teaching at Nungalinya coupled with a pastoral focus and the incorporation of First Nations perspectives, has led to high completion rate for its students.
The College educates 250 – 300 students from 100 communities each year. Covering over 30 distinct First language groups, students come from all over Australia.
Nungalinya was first started in the 1974 and is supported by the Anglican, Uniting and Catholic churches of the Northern Territory.
The college name Nungalinya translates to “Old Man’s Rock” in the language of the Larrakia Elders and refers to the reef lying off Casuarina Beach, close to the College.
This rock was traditionally a place of learning for young First Nations men. “Larrakia Elders suggested this name reflecting the College’s identity as a place of learning, of passing down the sacred stories of Scriptures and as a connection to the “rock” of Christ as the foundation for our lives.”
Drawing upon millennia of learning and connection to the Creator God, the innovation of Nungalinya is to allow those insights to flourish and to find new expression in the faith journey of its students and its teachers, like Joe.
You can check out one of Joe’s artworks and his explanation below.
If you want to donate and or know more about the college, use the link below to get in touch with them.