January 6 is Epiphany the day the Christian church remembers the visit the Magi made to see Jesus after he was born. That story has been illustrated in many different ways. On a visit to the Museum of Sydney in Australia, I photographed two visual representations of the Magi narrative I particularly appreciate.
In this tapestry Indigenous artist, Linda Syddick has depicted the Magi like the Tingari, ancient ancestral spirit beings who went on long journeys across the desert landscape of Australia teaching people about important laws and customs. The Tingari Magi are looking at Jesus and offering Mary and Joseph cups of billy tea. Billy tea is a traditional Australian way of making tea by boiling water in a tin can over a fire.
Linda Syddick helps us see how the Biblical Magi story, can intersect with stories from other faith and cultural traditions and enhance our appreciation and understanding of the astrologers’ visit as it is described in the book of Matthew.
This 1888 cartoon by Phil May was published in a Sydney newspaper. It shows an Indigenous woman and her child sitting on the street and being stared at. In the late 1800s, Indigenous people in Australia lived out of sight on reserves so people rarely saw them. The cartoonist was remarking on the irony of the fact that although the woman and child represent the original inhabitants of Australia they are being looked at as objects of curiosity by the colonizers who marginalized them.
In 2009 Australian artist Martin Sharp created a painting based on the 1888 cartoon. Sharp’s rendition was made to look like a nativity scene. The mother and child both have halos the way Mary and Jesus often do in Renaissance paintings. The stars adorning Sharp’s painting remind us of the starry sky in Bethlehem that led the Magi to Jesus. The colonizers looking at the mother and child represent the Magi.
Sharp has used the Magi story to make an important political statement about the relationship between Indigenous and colonizer citizens. It makes us think about why that relationship needs to change.
These two Australian artists give us a new perspective on the Epiphany story.