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Overcoming whiteness in religious art

Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya observes that religious art in his parish and many African parishes depict religious figures as white, while black people are depicted as those in need of saving. He posits that religious art in the African Church still needs to be liberated from the tropes of colonialism and the ideals of white supremacy.

I am a parishioner in a church in Soweto. It is a 100% black church. The social divisions in the parish are the same as those that have appeared since the end of apartheid. There are huge gaps in wealth and education, and in the use and access to technology. Other than that, it is as black as Soweto.

As with many parishes started by European missionaries, its religious retains many elements of whiteness. It is normal to see a blond, blue eyed icon of the Holy Family or of St. Anne and St. Joachim. The Stations of the Cross reflect a scene more likely to have appeared in ancient Europe than Palestine. Everyone there is white.

It gets worse. The parish has an image of its patron saint, Peter Claver, standing and baptising and praying over kneeling black people. Peter Claver saw himself a “slave of the slaves” whose sainthood is inextricably connected to his mission of affirming the humanity of the African slaves sent to Columbia and dedicated his life’s ministry to ministering to people that the New World saw merely as a source of labour. But unless we know the story of Peter Claver, the image looks like yet another depiction of a white man lording it over hapless blacks.

Sacred art has a long history of controversy

On the one hand, religious art has been the source of theological debate for centuries. For another, blackness and whiteness are more than just colour, especially in the South African context where white (and maleness) equalled superiority, while black (and female) was shorthand for inferiority.

Religious art is not just a South African or a Catholic-specific issue. It is a historically hot theological debating point. Islam, for example, prohibits the depiction of the natural world and the divine.

In the first centuries of Christianity, the Church debated whether depicting the divine was permissible.

In Christianity, religious art is divided into at least two camps. The first, is similar to the Islamic view, where the divine is beyond all earthly forms and its depiction using earthly representations is profane.

In the first centuries of Christianity, the Church debated whether depicting the divine was permissible. Sacred art and its use in the Church and for private devotion was important enough to constitute one of the talking points at the Seventh Ecumenical Councils at Nicaea in 769 and 787, which concluded with very specific guidelines governing what was permissible in sacred art.

READ — The Artist and the Church – Nicea // Deacon Lawrence, The Way of Beauty

During the Reformation and beyond, the Calvinist and several other Protestant traditions also prohibited any forms of visual representations of God and the saints. They were highly suspicious and concerned that reverence for a holy image would draw worship away from God.

In contrast, one of the greatest Church thinkers, Thomas Aquinas, saw that religious art served a threefold purpose. According to Aquinas the purposes are to instruct the uneducated in place of books, to illustrate and remember the mystery of the incarnation, and to awaken the passion of devotion especially because viewing is more often effective than hearing.

According to Aquinas the purpose [of religious art] is to instruct the uneducated … to remember the mystery of the incarnation, and to awaken the passion of devotion.

Based on this, one can easily see why — in a world where ignorance and levels of literacy unfortunately tend to track race and class — religious art merits serious attention as it bears directly on the effectiveness of Catechesis.

With regards to blackness and whiteness, and maleness and femaleness, the image of God being an elderly gentleman has been part of the Western motif for so long that it is not difficult for some people to regard Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” as a photographic depiction of what God looks like.

The opposite view – again in broad strokes – holds that the fact that the second person of the Holy Trinity became incarnate in the form of Jesus meant that the proscription on depicting the divine in earthly forms had been lifted. If God could manifest Himself in the form of a Nazarene carpenter what would stop an artist from following suit and using art to reflect the divine in art?

A need for sacred art that represents local faith communities

Traditionalists who hide their racism towards Muslims, black Africans, and South American immigrants into Europe and the United States behind arguments saving these spaces for “Christian civilisation,” don’t care as much for the preservation of religious art forms as they do the preservation their view of what it means to be church.

Black adults who have grown up under white supremacy, including in matters of faith, have a responsibility to younger black Christians to not perpetuate the archetype of divinity equalling whiteness.

Does it really matter whether God is depicted as black or white?

It should be as normal to depict God as black or even female as it is for Michelangelo to paint God as he imagines God to be. Naturally, the question – especially among those always uncomfortable with discussing matters of race and always (and wrongly) feel personally attacked by such topics is: does it really matter whether God is depicted as black or white?

If it does not matter how God and the divine are depicted, then it should also not matter that they are depicted in a way that those who historically have found themselves to be the lepers in the Christian story, see themselves as part of the inner group.

Given Christianity’s collaboration in the colonisation and dehumanising of black Africans, consciously depicting the divine in archetypes that Africans and other former colonised and enslaved peoples can relate to, is critical.

It is also for Christianity’s own good. The faith needs to be liberated from the clutches of those who still hanker after its imperialistic past when “heathens” were colonised and conquered for their “own good” – so that they could be introduced to Christ and saved from eternal damnation.

Allowing religious art to represent the cultures and people among which the Church lives today is not a matter of ecclesiastical rules, artistic style, or personal preference. It is a necessary movement for the Christian message and the lives of the Church’s holy men and women to resonate with the People of God today, who for the most part, are no longer European.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.