I am passionate about Australian Aboriginal art and my apartment is alive with it. One of my major heartaches is that I have no wall space for any more paintings. I very humbly seek to learn from Aboriginal culture and spirituality and, to the extent that I am able, to incorporate the wisdom I find there into my Bioethics teaching and learning.

In furtherance of this goal, I had large canvases by Aboriginal artists in my office at the Sydney School of Medicine (SoMS) at the University of Notre Dame Australia (UNDA). The university has a rule that one may only hang Aboriginal and religious art in one’s office, a rule that I happily accepted.

Recently, because of major renovations to the SoMS building, I was evicted from my office and all of its contents had to be transferred to my apartment. They included a large, predominantly “dot” painting, which I love, by Aboriginal artist Carlene Thompson. It shows four birds on the edge of water. Three slightly smaller birds are on one side of a gap, looking to their left across this gap, to where a slightly larger bird is looking back at the three smaller birds.

Painting by Carlene Thompson (Ernabella Arts)

I bought this painting because it brought to mind a scenario of an Aboriginal Elder, who could be either an Auntie or an Uncle, listening to and mentoring three young Emerging Aboriginal Leaders. I imagined the Elder was passing on the Knowledge, especially, because of the water depicted in the painting, Knowledge about Country, and instructing her students about their obligations to hold Country in trust. She was communicating to those who would follow her sixty thousand years of accumulated wisdom. The painting reminds me that, as an academic, with the privilege of teaching the next generation of leaders in our society, I have heavy responsibilities both to them and to society.

As well, I have a favourite canvas hanging on my living room wall, painted jointly by Aboriginal Elder, Bugai Whyoulter, and her grandson, Cyril Whyoulter, who is also a recognised artist. Bugai and Cyril created the painting when Bugai, who was in her nineties and a Keeper of the Knowledge, handed over that Knowledge to Cyril for his safekeeping.

The sacred Knowledge Bugai entrusted to Cyril, relates to a waterhole, which, in contrast to the birds in Thompson’s painting, is portrayed entirely symbolically. The Art Gallery of Western Australia borrowed this painting for their 2022 major exhibition, Tracks We Share: Contemporary Art of the Pilbara. They hung it in the Old people, young people, working together section of the exhibition.

Painting by Bugai Whyoulter and her grandson, Cyril Whyoulter (Martimuli Artists)

By accident, or perhaps serendipity, when my paintings arrived from the office, I stood the Thompson canvas on the floor below the Whyoulter one. While both are clearly recognisable as Australian Aboriginal art, they are very different in style.

The Thompson painting looks much more modern and, as mentioned already, the birds are figurative, not symbolic. The Whyoulter one is entirely ancient symbolism. I was sitting on the other side of the room musing about them, when I realised that they also have much in common.

First, they both portray Elders interacting and communicating with young future leaders in order to hand on ancient wisdom to them. Consulting or interacting with the Elders carries a message that an important way to search for wisdom is through “collective human memory” — in European cultures, we call that History. This provides insights and reveals wisdom to which emerging leaders might otherwise not have access, but which they need to consider and take into account in decision-making. An attitude that the past is passé with nothing important to teach us is often a characteristic of post-modern so-called “progressive” cultures.

Each painting portrays a different means of passing on the wisdom: listening to the Elders in the Thompson painting, jointly creating a painting in the Whyoulter one. In short, we can pass on wisdom in different ways. In post-modern Western democracies, we need to use both approaches and others. At their best, our universities do just that.

This means we need to be very careful not, as we are currently in serious danger of doing, to destroy our universities as keepers and transmitters of ancient wisdom and as spaces for inter and trans- generational faculty and students to search for new wisdom. The danger of such destruction lies, as is happening in some instances, in converting universities to primarily profit-making businesses and running them as such – indeed, some universities believe that they have no choice but to do that, if they are to survive.

Another danger in adopting a corporate model, which focuses primarily on efficiency and uniformity, lies in stifling individual curiosity and creativity in anything beyond the “hard sciences”. Moreover, implementing rigid policies about curricula content can result in “cookie-cutter” teaching. This, in turn, results in students attending university to get a degree and a job, not to explore what it means to be human and the meaning and purpose of life. These latter goals are not luxuries or add-ons to a “useful” university education; they are essential to the flourishing of all human beings. Making studying the “arts and humanities” a luxury accessible to only a privileged few reflects this very misguided approach.

Here’s the Google definition of the “arts and humanities”:

The arts and humanities are academic disciplines that study human culture, context and achievement. They span a huge range of subject areas and enormous timeframes, examining the many different ways in which humans have sought to understand and express themselves throughout history.

Google is not an aficionado of esoteric knowledge. Surely if it understands this the rest of us, especially our politicians, can too.

Now back to the paintings.

The totem inspiring both paintings is water, the sine qua non of all life. Safeguarding the Earth’s water is a major focus of movements trying to ameliorate and, where possible, stop the disastrous damage being caused by climate change. I have long pondered two ecosystems, one physical, the other metaphysical, and our obligations to present and future generations to protect both of them, hold them in trust, even to treat them as “secular sacred”. Treating something as sacred means, we must not wantonly destroy it or lay waste to it.

Our Aboriginal fellow Australians have much to teach us regarding caring for Country, that is, our physical ecosystem. We are shocked to realise Nature can be irreversibly destroyed, for example, especially in Australia, loss of species which have evolved since time immemorial. Aboriginal culture recognises that we all have obligations to care for Country, not, as Western culture predicates, that we have almost unlimited rights, such as legal ownership endows, over Country. We could say, the two approaches show the difference between Country owning us and our owning Country, respectively.

The considerations taken into account in decision-making in Aboriginal culture also vary from those in post-modern cultures, which tend to focus almost exclusively on the present time and just the impact on individual persons. Through “collective human memory”, Aboriginal decision-makers access and consider wisdom from the past, and through “collective human imagination”, they look to future possible consequences to decide what they should or should not do in any given situation.

A Canadian First Nations chief once described it to an ethics committee of which I was a member, as “looking back seven generations and looking forward seven generations to decide how to act in the present.” We must all join in that much broader conversation. The “Indigenous Voice to Parliament” might make it easier to do that and more likely, that such conversations will occur.

As well as our physical ecosystem, we also have a metaphysical ecosystem – the collection of stories, values, attitudes, beliefs and so on that we buy into and share to form the glue that binds us as a “mob”. I use this word in the sense that we affectionately and inclusively used it in my very large, widely dispersed extended country family, that is, meaning a family or tribe to which everyone belonged.

The mob I am speaking of must include all Australians. In post-modern terms, we speak of a community or society, but I find these designations are less personal, less evocative of feelings of binding to others, and less likely to elicit feelings of responsibilities to care for them, than the word “mob”. I believe our current metaphysical ecosystem is fragile and, like our physical ecosystem, can be irreversibly destroyed.

The Whyoulter waterhole painting brings to mind our metaphysical ecosystem and the Thompson Bird one our physical ecosystem. For that reason, I will hang the Birds below the waterhole. After all, Heaven is above Earth.

In conclusion, we do not create knowledge. Rather, we declare it. It exists whether or not we find it. The issue is where we need to search, especially for intangible knowledge, that which cannot be measured, weighed or physically counted.

I believe Aboriginal culture, including its spirituality, is a unique and important source that we, as Australians, have a rare and amazing opportunity from which to learn. Without romanticising it or failing to recognise its complexity, we need to listen to it carefully, respectfully and with open minds. My hope is that “The Voice” will help us to do that.

Margaret Somerville is based in Sydney, Australia, where she is Professor of Bioethics at the University of Notre Dame Australia School of Medicine. At McGill University, in Montreal, Canada, she is Samuel...