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25 February 2017

Stations of the Cross: An Exhibition with a Difference

Sue Hanna reflects on the Stations of the Cross Lenten art walk and the experience of communal and prayerful contemplation of the exhibition.


25 February 2017

Sue Hanna has a longstanding interest in theology, spirituality and the arts and is based in Canberra.

Fixated on Fabricating   Jesus comes to Warmun today.
   Tapestry, 119.5cmx104cm
   by Catherine Kapikian

For the past decade, pastoral theologian and artist Rev Dr Doug Purnell OAM has taken a centuries-old Lenten discipline and has worked to bring it into the 21st century. The Stations of the Cross, a meditation on Christ’s last day on earth, with a lineage to St Francis of Assisi, is a story Doug has been faithfully recreating annually in a fresh and contemporary way.

Each year Doug invites a group of artists to reinterpret a station. Each artist is randomly assigned a station and given a brief that helps the artist link the Easter narrative with their personal experience.

The result is the familiar narrative of darkness and light – Jesus’ walk to the cross and resurrection that also speaks to the darkness of our times – genocide, environmental degradation, the refugee crises, human suffering and despair. Christ may have died 2000 years ago, but we can’t deny the forces behind the crucifixion are still alive and well in our world. The exhibition, however, also includes lighter aspects, through human relationships, compassion and, of course, resurrection. (The two resurrection stations are additional to the traditional stations.)

To view the exhibition as an individual is undoubtedly a rewarding experience. But to meditate on the works as a group and to share insights collectively broadens and deepens the experience. To that end a Quiet Morning, jointly sponsored by Eremos and The Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, was held on March 18 at the Centre. Thirteen participants enjoyed a guided tour of the stations led by Doug Purnell, who offered valuable insights into the artists’ backgrounds as well as the works themselves. Frances MacKay facilitated a reflection process that included music, poetry, prayer, quiet time to reflect on the works and group sharing.

Many of the works suggest the painful and confronting connection between Christ’s Passion and world history since. Commenting on Station 2, Jesus Carries His Cross, artist Saif Almurayati says: ‘It is a heavy cross to bear for all of us each time an atrocity is committed. Surely 2000 years after the first three nails were struck there isn’t space for a single nail more.’ And yet, on the stark black cross, centred on a scratched-back, monotone canvas, Almurayati has embedded innumerable nails. The work is framed by 16 hand-etched tiles, each tile naming an act of genocide spanning centuries, continents and cultures. With every innocent life lost, Christ dies yet again…

In Station 9, Jesus Falls the Third Time, ‘Warangguwa’, (artist Julie Dowling), laments the plight of two indigenous youths, reflecting the reality of youth who are left behind. Julie has drawn on her youth work experiences to depict two abandoned children at the centre of the canvass. Ancestor spirits in trinitarian formation shadow the pair, symbolising the children’s connection to their creator and creation itself. Each adult figure surrounding the pair looks away, preoccupied with their seemingly trivial concerns, ignoring the needs of their youngest and most vulnerable, fated to fall further and further behind.

Several of the participants were drawn to the intimacy of the mother-child relationship, expressed in Station 4, Jesus Meets His Mother (artist Ella Whateley). The abstracted haze of ink pigments and gold intricately reflects on the brief, ‘how differently we relate to the person who gave us birth when we realise that she and we are mortal’. The work moved some to share their reflections on parent-child relations.

The images within Stations 12 & 13 also attracted many in the group. Station 12, Jesus Dies on the Cross, (artist Di Ingram) is a black and white abstraction of the crown of thorns and a trickle of red across the canvass, which both complements and contrasts with the photorealism of station 13 (artist Catherine O’Donnell), Jesus is Taken Down from the cross. This charcoal image has a singular pale, limp disembodied arm hanging against a black backdrop. The thwarted potential of a life cut short, the grief of an innocent life shed, were a few of the responses to these works.

Phillipino artist Emmanuel Garibay’s work, Station 14 Jesus is Laid in the Tomb, attracted spirited discussion. A stone Bishop lies sleeping on an opulent yellow couch, while a young refugee family, comforting their young children, stand waiting behind the couch, watching him sleep. The refugees are painted without mouths, representing their voicelessness. The piece is seemingly a metaphor for Church leadership, no longer flesh and blood, but a crumbling, cracking statue napping in its opulent tomb. It is a powerful piece.

Perhaps the most popular work in the exhibition was Station 16, ‘Jesus comes to Warmun today’. Two years ago, indigenous artist Shirley Purdie devised the 16th station, which is based on the road to Emmaus story, where the resurrected Christ meets his grieving friends. Shirley agreed to participate in the exhibition on the condition that she could paint this station, although it is not traditionally a station of the cross. Since 2015, station 16 has remained an integral part of the exhibition.

This year, the brief for the 16th station was given to U.S. artist Catherine Kapikian, who reflected on her grief following the death of her husband. The work, where the central figure of the back of a desolate, inconsolable woman, overlaid with circular motion of angel’s wings, is a reminder that Christ is present to us, even when we are lost to our grief and despair. The light, colour and movement of the angel’s wings are a reminder of hope, even in our darkest moments.

Making time to contemplate these images communally and prayerfully was an extraordinary gift for the Lenten walk. The respectful group sharing helped us ‘get’ details we may not have seen or we found confusing.

As an exhibition, many of the works confront painful realities that characterise our complex and confusing world. But as several stations, including Station 16, remind us, we have not been left to our own devices, nor have we been asked to face these challenges alone.

Exhibition open

4 - 17 April
The Gallery Space,
Northmead Creative & Performing Arts High School
28 Campbell St, Northmead


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