Safina Stewart is a Melbourne-based multicultural artist, educator and storyteller. Rather than separate attributes, these are all part of the same thing for Safina—impossible to separate one from the other.
Safina’s professional creative journey began in 2007, when a spiritual experience inspired her to leave a teaching job in order to become a full-time artist. But as an Aboriginal woman and Torres Strait Islander, her paintings are part of a tradition that dates back much further, tens of thousands of years by some estimates. She weaves stories of life, creation and unity through the symbols of her heritage.
Because 99designs is a global community that celebrates the many cultural perspectives design can express, we commissioned Safina to create artwork for the Melbourne office to honor the city’s Indigenous roots. And in light of the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) week this July, we invited her to share her story and cultural insights with our readers. We spoke with Safina about what each piece represents, her own artistic and Indigenous history, and the most important messages her art embodies.
A brief introduction to Aboriginal art
The earliest pieces of Aboriginal art in Australia have been estimated to date back 60,000 years, making them some of the oldest extant creative works in the world. These Aboriginal artists painted on stone, wood and their own bodies until the 1970s when canvas and traditional paints were used, birthing the contemporary Aboriginal art movement.
Aboriginal artwork is vibrant with color, symbolism and storytelling. In the absence of a written language, stories are communicated through expressive art, sometimes drawn in the sand before the feet of the storyteller. Although the symbols and stories will vary by tribe, the common subject concerns what is called The Dreaming, referring to the creation of the world and the ancestral heroes who lived in the early Dreamtime.
Because each Dreaming is unique and belongs to one of the many tribes, an artist needs permission to paint their interpretation of a Dreaming. And because these paintings contain such vital ancestral knowledge, dots became popular as a way of concealing their meaning from White colonizers.
Safina Stewart’s art
As for Safina Stewart—who traces her Aboriginal heritage through Wuthathi Country in Far North Queensland, her Torres Strait Islander heritage through Mabuiag Island, and her non-Indigenous heritage through Scotland—her artwork is a means of bridging cultural gaps. It is also a way of reminding the modern world of long held ancestral truths that, while forgotten by some, are more relevant now than ever.
Speaking about the paintings she made for 99designs, she says, “When I thought about the pieces, my heart really wanted to put ‘caring for country’ at the forefront of everybody’s mind. Caring for creation needs to be upheld, not just as a nice hobby, but actually as a transformative action for change, justice, and future hope.
“Knowing that many of you are creatives as well, and that … you can connect with so many different people globally, I knew that this message of looking after country—or in Aboriginal speak we say ‘caring for country’—is this deep remembering that we, as people, have been given the remarkable privilege and responsibility to look after the rest of creation.
“And that means the rocks, the mountains, the birds, animals, communities, the rivers, the sky, the atmosphere and all ecosystems. It also means the things we can’t see. We are responsible for the flourishing life or the death of the rest of creation. But we have forgotten our role. Our role was not made up by us.”
We talked to Safina about this idea and about what drives her as an Indigenous artist and an individual.
Interview with Safina Stewart
How did you come to be an artist?
I was 6 years old when I first had the conscious thought that I was a creative. I was doing this painting at school, and it won the principal sticker award… And it’s like, it twigged, ”Oh, I’m good at something here!”
But it wasn’t just that other people noticed that I had a gift. I recognized that I experienced joy when I was making this artwork. It was this experience that came from deep, within my very being. This bubbling over of happiness and I couldn’t help but to concentrate, to focus, and to bring balance to the composition.
Were there any challenges or pivotal moments that shaped you as an artist?
I was always making things as a kid—out of anything I could get my hands on—and we were not well off. We couldn’t afford birthday presents and Christmas presents, so we would make things—our whole family. We would show love by making in comparison to showing love by purchasing.
There were good experiences of finding my peace, solitude and my grounding as a child in the making of things. But that was also the area where I was most attacked when I was going through school, where I felt most broken down by either art teachers or by critical words from other students. And so it was turmoil at times. It was the deep water that I wanted to be in, but lots of tossing currents.
There was identity in it. There was an expression of culture. There were stories all within it. And yet it was also a very risky place to be in. So when I look at that I think it formed me and made me understand that what I had was precious and valuable and needed protecting and safeguarding.
Have you always painted [created art] as a profession?
My Bachelor’s Degree is in education. I was teaching for a few years, full-time. I had already been painting in my very limited spare time, which was when I felt my guts, my spirit and my soul merging together and knew that I needed to paint….
And then I had a piece that Year 12 students in my school took as inspiration for a drama piece, and they turned it into this magnificent drama about the stolen generations and confronting some of the injustices Aboriginal people faced. And they had used a piece of my art, which had nothing to do with stolen generations, but it had blood. It was called “The Intercessory Prayer.”
And it was there sitting at that performance with elders next to me that I invited, that—I didn’t hear an audible voice from God, but it was pretty close to a very clear message. That was not from me, that I knew was from the higher power who I trust and listen to… And that audible voice said, “Okay, we’re finished. Time for the next thing to follow.” And I’m like, “But where?” and the audible voice said, “I’m teaching you where to walk with your art.”
So I resigned immediately and three weeks later I’d finished. And no one leaves a full-time permanent position that you’re picked for, being crafted and grafted into roles. No one does that. But I did because I had to follow that invitation. And that was in 2007.
Have there been any instances where you’ve seen your art and education intersect?
I didn’t leave teaching, but I left my employment with one organization and I expanded into my art. And through my art business, I’ve now worked with thousands of schools and organizations.
…So as an artist, I see my artwork now as a segue in bringing conversation, relationship and questions to very influential spaces—to schools that are educating our next generation. So my work is actually education, but I come in with the art because it is beautiful and multilayered with messaging. And being Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, I’m able to bring in stories from many different perspectives. And of course, in school environments, they’re meant to be doing Indigenous studies all the way throughout, but unfortunately, the government hasn’t trained the teachers to know how to do that. So many teachers are feeling really unconfident.
Being an artist is a soft way of introducing myself to educators in a non-threatening way. I just start by telling stories of our Aboriginal people and the current landscape of Australia, as well as looking at the past, which is very uncomfortable. But you can bring it up without hurting or offending people because you’re pointing to a painting.
And so being an artist is a soft way of introducing myself to educators in a non-threatening way. I just start by telling stories of our Aboriginal people and the current landscape of Australia, as well as looking at the past, which is very uncomfortable. But you can bring it up without hurting or offending people because you’re pointing to a painting. You’re not pointing at them. You’re saying, “Let’s look at this. How do we come together to care for our country? Or look after the marginalized who have no home?”
So being an artist means a lot to me… It’s a pathway for me to come in and for people to receive me into their spaces where I would normally say Aboriginal people are blocked out of, or it’s very hard for us to access. Schools are one of those spaces.
You have to be an elite pristine, clean person, clean to enter into a school environment because, part of the history of Australia is that schools are actually set up not for the White people… The first schools ever set up in Victoria were with the Black students. And so the aim of those schools during the 1800s was to tear out our culture.
…So art is very significant. I know it’s trivial to many, and I keep my art as beautiful, very deliberately because I want to be able to get in and have that conversation with people and for them to feel safe with me, for me to feel safe with them. But the whole time I’m in I’m gauging and assessing where they’re at so that I can put in one grenade—a goodness of truth—not to explode them, but I think discomfort helps us to grow. Throw in that little bit of discomfort, but not so much that it would offend and then I wouldn’t be invited back in again.
What can people learn about Indigenous culture through art?
We [Aboriginal people] have a home here, and we’re happy to have people come here when they come in the right way as guests to our country who are respectful to our priorities of looking after the land, children, sharing and caring for one another….
That’s our role as Aboriginal people: It’s to look after others. It’s to make sure that everyone’s looked after if the land is looked after. ‘Looking after’ is not human-centric. It is all of creation coming into a good harmony and synergy together. It is balance. Just like a painting needs to be balanced.
So then all of a sudden you’re talking about refugees, asylum seekers, migration, integrating people into community, welcoming people, belonging, adoption etc. And that’s our role as Aboriginal people: it’s to look after others. It’s to make sure that everyone’s looked after if the land is looked after. ‘Looking after’ is not human-centric. It is all of creation coming into a good harmony and synergy together. It is balance. Just like a painting needs to be balanced.
Can you tell us more about what you mean by ‘caring for country’?
We’ve been given the role to care by something higher than us. And so for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, we speak of our ancestors who have passed from the physical body and into their spirit. And we speak of the creator.
We tell incredibly inspiring stories of our creators which are echoed throughout the world by Indigenous peoples globally. We all have these same echoes of this sacred spirit. There’s different names, but this great spirit creates fellow creators (artists) and then gives roles to people to care for what they have created.
So we say “fellow creation” because we’re kind of family: we’re brothers and sisters to the wombat, the echidna, the river, and the mountain—because we come from the same creator. We didn’t make them. We didn’t make spirit. We were given a role to look after its incredible creations. It’s a privilege and it’s like, we’ve forgotten it. And so in our ways of living, our ways of power and our ways of consumption, we’ve believed a lie that the human is the most important and has rights to everything. And it’s gotten us into a huge, complicated, very risky situation called a climate crisis because we forgot what we were supposed to care for.
We’re kind of family: we’re brothers and sisters to the wombat, the echidna, the river, and the mountain—because we come from the same creator. We didn’t make them. We didn’t make spirit. We were given a role to look after its incredible creations.
We also have forgotten that country speaks and creation speaks. If I have a puppy and I treat that puppy wrong, he will cry, howl and even bite me in order to protect himself when he feels out of balance. And I think about our climate, our climate is screaming. She, if I can give a gender, has been saying for a long time, “I don’t feel good. This is not going so good. I’m out of whack.” Now we’re so far beyond her initial, gentle warning signs, we are now with a screaming climate.
And we as humans, ignore her, thinking that we’re still the center of the universe, and say mother nature has betrayed us. And again, we cast blame onto what should actually be the victim, just like a perpetrator would blame the victim for making them do it—completely out of balance.
The 99designs Indigenous art project
For NAIDOC week, 99designs commissioned Safina Stewart to create five paintings. Each one encapsulates a specific aspect of what Safina describes as ‘caring for country.’ As she puts it:
“Through these paintings I wanted to create something beautiful that would inspire people to consider, ‘How will I love creation? How will I love country?’ I say ‘country’ as in the land, the animals, the systems like water, air, fire and communities. Because we, as people, are also country.”
As a whole, the paintings are about coming together to address the climate crisis and care for country. “These paintings are a reminder that we serve creation and it’s not the other way around,” Safina says. “And we have to do it together; to go against this falsity of individualism and we have to foster community. That means we’ve got to put our egos aside and we actually have to build up families to build up community. So I’m calling us back to the ancient ways through these paintings and each one has a different focus or element.”
Safina went on to give us insight into the meaning behind each individual painting.
“The Rock and the Earth”
“It appears like sedimentary rock with topographic movement and forces happening and the land is being sculpted from within. …The land is very, very significant to Aboriginal people. It is not an object, it is part of us. Those important moments of conception, birth and death are marked geographically. …Our place is honored through the land where our bodies are gifted back. And we then nourish other things to then grow, which then feeds the next generation. We return to the land. So when people compromise that identity and that sacredness of the land—in effect, they are scandalizing the graves of our loved ones.
“…And yet all of creation falls to the ground and becomes part of the land …The land is alive and has a voice for those creations. You can listen and it reminds us of many beautiful, good truths. …Even when it is hard, under pressure, really dark and incredibly painful—all of those pressures that compress—it gives me comfort. [The land] will remind me that even the rest of creation itself knows what pain or suffering is, but chooses to turn it into life.”
“The Leaves and Smoke”
“Throughout Australia, burning the eucalyptus leaf has been about needing to clean off wrongdoings and evil. It is about making things right, coming into alignment and receiving healing. …We use the oils from the gum leaf medicinally, as passed down from our ancestors. We’re helped by this oil to breathe… When you burn the eucalyptus leaf, the smoke activates the cells in the body to give rapid healing.
“In a smoking ceremony, where a welcome is given, people are asked to pass through the smoke which is a veil of a spirit. And you can’t see with the human eye, which is exactly what we do as artists. We give representation to things that are unseen, unnoticed, that we’re trying to bring to people’s attention. And on the other side of the smoke is an agreement that you go from your ways and pass through, into cooperation with the traditional owners—that you will live by their law, respect and care for the country that they are responsible for.
“When you pass through, you are given the blessing to use the resources of their land to sustain your life…but there are conditions that you will follow the laws of the creator that have been passed down to these people. You will know your place as a guest and that you are not the host. You must honor the people who have welcomed you and given you safe passage…
“So the smoke is about welcome. It’s about cleansing. It’s about healing. And it’s also about coming into right alignment. We all have to recognize that we’re guests here and that it’s a privilege to be here. It connects with the elders. It opens up your eyes to your heart, to something that is new and possibly beyond your comprehension but open so that the gift can be received. And I’ve met so many people that have been converted into loving Aboriginal people who have just been through a smoking ceremony. Their brain doesn’t get it, but something just happened. And I go ‘Tell me what it feels like?’ And they go, ‘It feels like love.’”
“The Ocean and the Stars”
“‘The Ocean and The Stars’ are reflective of both my Torres Strait Islander heritage and the coastal town where I live. There’s a whole world underneath that is mysterious. It reminds us that the mysteries of our being are unseen and yet are beautiful, real and true. And the tides remind us of simplicity and that chaos will pass. For me as a woman, it would be my soul space. The tides and the moon cooperate and our bodies talk to the moon all the time. When the moon says ‘It’s time,’ my body does what it’s meant to do, you know—somehow that connects to productivity and fertility of my woman body. And now I have babies. Like the moon has helped me have.
“And the stars, that amazing sky with so many stories that Aboriginal people hold. It is a remarkable encyclopedia. It is bigger than Google. We read the seasons through the sky, what needs to bud and what’s about to burst for the rest of creation…
“We’ve lost some of our literacy, but the stories that are within those stars that have been passed on from generation to generation to help us sustain our life. Well, here on this globe and for Torres Strait Islander people, we navigate the ocean by watching the stars. …If you know the navigation system, you can be safe on the water, even though people think that going to the water nowadays is dangerous. No, it’s only dangerous cause we haven’t got the knowledge, but if we retain and reestablish that knowledge, it is a wonderful relationship and a safety net.”
“The Rivers and Waterways”
“…The river is white because it is clean and healthy. But I see so many rivers that are sick when they are such an important life source for all of us. We need fresh water, and so much abundance comes from the rivers and the waterways.
“[The painting is] from a topographic perspective because it shows that there’s the valley and mountain where water comes down into the river. The river then cleans all of that water with fish, tadpoles and insects all flowing through that bowl, doing what they do to live in life… somehow intersecting with the rocks, moss, algae and reeds, yet that water is meant to be clean, healthy, nourishing so that when, when we get to drink it, it literally becomes part of us and keeps our blood quite literally pumping. …The rivers, like the veins of the body of the earth, the waterways, it’s like the clean blood that brings life and oxygen to this beautiful landscape.”
“This is the climax, where we as people must ask ourselves, ‘So what shall we do? How then shall we live? We have integrity, purpose, hope, direction, insight and wisdom—what then shall we do?’ And my suggestion is that we come together with the force of what collaboration can be, what listening and learning can be, with our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, our elders, traditions, and our wisdoms that we carry… That our impact not be based on individualism, but community. And that we sit in those community circles.
As artists, our role is to help people to see well, to invite them in through our art. And I’d sit with you in my campfire and yarn about these big deep things together and ask, ‘How can my actions be of integrity?’
“That circle is like the campfire, the ‘U’ prints are when we sit down, cross-legged. It’s an aerial, topographic view of the imprints that our presence makes on the land. So let’s make our imprint good.
“And the colors are simple because maybe the story is actually really simple. …As artists, our role is to help people to see well, to invite them in through our art. And I’d sit with you in my campfire and yarn about these big deep things together and ask, ‘How can my actions be of integrity?’”