This year’s Miss South Africa crown went to Zozibini Tunzi. Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya comments that Tunzi’s short-cropped natural hair defies Western perceptions of beauty. This leads him into reflecting on how Christianity’s Eurocentric roots shaped perceptions of divinity and worship. However, he also sees the beauty religious depictions and worship that reflect the peoples and cultures among which Christianity resides today.
A story is told of how nobody believed native Mexican peasant Juan Diego’s claims that the Virgin Mary had appeared to him because his description of her didn’t match their image of Mary.
Instead of the typical white Madonna, the apparition that become known as Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared with the dark complexion of the indigenous people. She was a Mestizo, bearing both Mexican and Spanish features.
The Virgin spoke to Juan Diego in his native Nahuatl language – further evidence – said the naysayers – that the Marian apparition wasn’t real. It was impossible that the mother of Jesus, who is often depicted with blue eyes and light brown hair, could possibly be Mestizo – much less speak Nahuatl.
Miss South Africa’s hair defies Westernised beauty
I am reminded of this story by a most unlikely example – Zozibini Tunzi from Tsolo in the Eastern Cape who won the Miss South Africa 2019 title despite keeping her hair natural and shunning the Western ideal of long hair as a standard of beauty.
As with Juan Diego’s apparition, Tunzi’s crown reminds us that the Western concept of what is true, ideal and beautiful, has dominated all aspects of life including Church life and liturgy.
Many black women know the experience of being told that their natural hair is unprofessional, so they cover it up with a weave or wig. Even in a majority black country like South Africa, anyone who wants to work in the beauty industry must comply with Western standards of beauty.
It is not just about hair. Too often, artists also find themselves defending their culturally-sensitive depictions of divinity.
Can God be black?
In 2017, American artist Harmonia Rosales caused an uproar when she recreated Michelangelo’s masterpiece, “The Creation of Adam”.
Instead of portraying God as an old white man, Rosales painted God as a black woman reaching out to touch a younger black woman. Her work was criticised on the grounds that it was a misrepresentation of God.
Our image of God and the divine is so ingrained in our collective psyche that even the beauty of religious art has to pass the whiteness test.
A non-Catholic friend often expresses his disappointment when he attends Mass at a township parish because instead of the traditional European organ and standing upright when singing hymns, black parishioners beat drums and dance in the church aisles. For my friend, this cultural expression of faith ruins the Catholic liturgy.
While it is important to recognise that the liturgy is a way of uniting a universal Church made up of many cultures and traditions, we often derive our standard from the culturally dominant Western Church.
Embracing the cultures of today’s Christians
We can’t forget that early Christianity was influenced by the Hellenic and Middle Eastern cultures it evolved under, and after it became the official religion of Rome, it reflected the sensibilities of the Roman palaces and the courts of Imperial Europe.
These Christian roots are important, but we also can’t forget that the majority of today’s Catholics are no longer European. It is therefore wrong to say that Mass in traditionally black areas takes “too long”, or that in white areas it “is too short”. These are just different ways of living the faith and interpreting the liturgy.
Back to Tunzi – her triumph and her hair remind us that no one culture has a greater claim over another, especially if we believe that we are all created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).
Despite this, the issue of hair also holds deep spiritual significance. We remember in the Old Testament that Samson was instructed not to cut his hair as a sign of the mission that God had given him. St Paul also attaches moral values to hair length: “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears his hair long it is a disgrace to him, whereas if a woman has long hair it is her glory, because long hair has been given for covering.” (1 Cor 11:13-15).
Hair also holds religious significance in other cultures. The Sikhs cover their hair, while Rastafarians are forbidden from cutting theirs. In many southern African cultures, shaving one’s head is a requisite for mourning.
Richard Leo Twiss’ book, 500 Years of Bad Haircuts, critiques how Europeans tampered with the spiritual significance of long hair for men in the First Nation American culture, making them cut it just so they could assimilate to Christianity.
Tunzi’s Miss South Africa win is perhaps a victory for all of us in that we have finally come to accept that beauty is not defined by a particular look, but truly reflects the inner person and their contexts.
Religious rituals and depictions can also be enriched by the inner spirituality and the cultural contexts of its believers, who are all made in the image of God.