Indigenous Art, Culture Displayed at the Vatican

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
10 Jan 2018

When people think of the Vatican Museums, minds turn to Michelangelo and Raphael, but a new exhibition celebrating the prominent place of Indigenous Australian art and culture is becoming one of the most visited at the Vatican.

Australia - The Vatican Museums Indigenous Collection, which features some of the earliest known documentations of Australian Indigenous cultures, is a joint project of Aboriginal Studies Press and the Vatican Museums.

Fr Nicola Mapelli, curator of the Ethnological Collections at the Vatican Museums, was in Australia for the launch of the book recently, following a visit to Indigenous communities including the Kimberley and Tiwi Islands.

He said the Australian exhibit at the Vatican Museums is the first one visitors come across after leaving the Sistine Chapel - a nod to the place of Indigenous Australians as the oldest continuous culture in the world.

"For the Vatican and the Vatican Museums it has been very important to enhance the Australian collection and to present it in a beautiful way," he said.

"This publication shows how important it is to connect with Aboriginal people and to show respect for and to preserve their culture inside the Vatican Museums and to show the culture of Aboriginal people is as important as a painting of Michelangelo or a painting of Raphael.

"It is the first permanent exhibition at the Vatican Museums and dedicated to Aboriginal Australia."

Many of the pieces in the catalogue were gifted to Pope Pius XI for an international exhibition in the 1920s that was held to expand European consciousness of other cultures. Other items came from the fledgling communities around New Norcia in Western Australia in the mid-1800s.

In addition to showcasing Indigenous art and culture, the book also contains 18 essays from Indigenous and non-Indigenous authors.

The book's editor, Australian National University historian and ethnologist Katherine Aigner, said the development of the publication brought many Indigenous communities together, sparking conversations between young and old about the history of various objects, their stories and their significance.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, as well as local dioceses and religious orders, provided financial and other assistance to support the project.

ACBC president Archbishop Denis Hart said the publication "tells a remarkable story, offering amazing insights into our Australian history and into the wider world of which our country and our Indigenous brothers and sisters are an important part".

As well as items dating back 150 years or more, the book also features on the back cover the artwork 'Pilgrimage', which was given to Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 to mark the canonisation of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop.

Fr Mapelli said the image, which depicts the convergence of Indigenous Australia and the Roman Catholic Church, is a fitting metaphor for the publication's ability to bring together and celebrate those two distinct heritages.

Australia - The Vatican Museums Indigenous Collection can be purchased from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.