New Arab face of Christ

While fulfilling an artist residency at Darat Al Funun in Amman, Jordan, Brazilian artist Jonathas De Andrade developed a project called Looking for Jesus, which involved him photographing local men and then taking those photos around with him as he interviewed other locals about Jesus’s appearance. His aim was to find a contemporary Arab face of Christ to supplant the white-skinned, fair-haired image of him that’s so familiar worldwide.

The installation opened on May 30 in the crypt of Museo Mariano Marini in Florence, Italy, and it closed just yesterday. It consisted of a wall painting, 20 photographs, 16 handwritten comments on white boards (in Arabic and English), a hanging tray of dates offered to viewers, and a wooden voting box into which viewers were invited to cast their date pit for their favorite face.

Looking for Jesus

Some of the featured responses from Jordanians include:

  • “I’m insulted by these possibilities. It’s ridiculous.”
  • “I suggest you look for him in a better neighborhood.”
  • “So you’re telling me that in Brazil they have a Jesus who is very good looking, green eyes and that kind of thing? But that’s how we need him to be.”

Some of the respondents mentioned personality traits that must be evident in the new face of Christ—determination, confidence, bravery, focus, kindness, forgiveness, handsomeness—without picking any one photo option.

I find it interesting that Jesus was not readily recognized in any of the faces. Could it be due to Islamic reluctance to see one of their prophets represented in visual form? Could it be that it was too difficult to visualize Christ in a modern context (for example, getting out of a taxicab, wearing glasses, or talking on a cell phone)? Perhaps we’ve been so conditioned to seeing Christ as a white Westerner, that seeing him as any other race or ethnicity just seems wrong. Or maybe it’s just that none of the photos seemed to capture the essence or spirit of Christ.

One of my Korean friends once told me that he grew up with the Caucasian Christ: his Korean grandfather had a large picture of him in the living room, and the children’s storybooks he read likewise showed him as white. He said that as a boy, he never thought it weird, just normal, that he should look that way. As he grew older, of course, he realized that Jesus was Middle Eastern, but he said he sometimes can’t help still picturing him as the white Jesus he learned about and fell in love with when he was young. (When I asked him what about a Korean image of Christ, he said he wouldn’t be opposed to it, but that it just wouldn’t be familiar to him.)

In the history of art, the face of Christ has almost always been contextualized to the place and period it comes out of. During the colonial era, however, the European picture of Christ came to dominate; as Europeans spread out over the globe, they brought their pictures with them, and the cultures that adopted Christianity oftentimes borrowed this imagery in their own art.

The push in the last half-century has been to support the contextualization of Christ’s image—his skin color, his dress, and so on—to the myriad cultures in which the gospel has taken root. Some argue that this approach is necessary to affirm Christ’s humanity and to show people that Christ is for them.

Another more recent trend, though, has been the call for historically truthful images of Christ, ones that show him as a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew with dark hair. For example, in 2001, using forensic anthropology, a team of Brits and Israelis collaborated to create what they claim is the most accurate image of Jesus’s face. (They used first-century Semite skulls from Jerusalem as their basis.)

Driven by a similar desire to reimage Christ as a native Middle Easterner, De Andrade set out to Jordan to investigate possible looks. “It is my duty to take home a new image of Jesus for my people,” he wrote on the wall beside the photo display. His people, the Brazilians, and Latin America at large, who were taught long ago by their colonial oppressors that Christ is a white man.

How would you react if the Jesus you saw from now on in advertisements and film, on holiday cards and prayer cards, in church art and Sunday school materials were one of De Andrade’s photographed subjects? Will we ever reach the point where such a figure would be universally recognized as Jesus Christ?

These are thoughts worth considering!

What does Jesus look like in your mind’s eye? Do you think that picture is flawed? Is historical faithfulness of primary value when it comes to picturing Christ? Cannot we adapt his likeness to our own, so as to better grasp the meaning and relevance of the Incarnation?

I have my thoughts, but I want to hear yours!

Hop over to the artist’s website to see lots of additional detail photos of the installation from different angles.

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1 Response to New Arab face of Christ

  1. James Jones says:

    Suggestion for improved title: the middle eastern face of Jesus. Because Arab is associated with the children of Esau, not Jacob.

    Me personally, I picture Jesus of Nazereth as a man of olive brown colored skin and a beard. So without unique characteristics that it took a trusted friend to identify Him amongst the other Galileans to a mob intent on arrest. The only characteristic I will be looking for in Jesus’ skin will be the precious scars which He gladly took in my place, not the amount of melanin or lack thereof in His skin.

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