I’m currently studying the book African Theology in Images by Martin Ott, a 600-page exploration of the African Christian art that has come out of the Kungoni Centre of Culture and Art in Mua, Malawi, since its founding in 1976. An excellent, excellent book—one to which I plan to devote future posts.
Here’s one excerpt (pp. 74-75) that has stood out to me thus far, mainly because it raises a concern that I’ve heard quite often: that Jesus was a Middle Eastern Jew, and so any artistic depictions of him should show him as such, so as not to demean his historicity. One Ugandan bishop used to agree with this line of reasoning, rejecting any images of Christ with African features . . . but then he changed his mind:
The establishment of authentic African art requires both personal adjustments and theological rethinking. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in two separate statements of Bishop Paul Kalanda of Moroto, Uganda. In an article written in 1960 Paul Kalanda had argued vehemently against the representation of Christ as “a black Christ with a short face, flat nose, thick lips and crisp hair. This form of presentation neglects the historical Jesus, and would rape him of his race and his personality; and, by the way, it is against the history and tradition of the church”. Exactly thirty years later, having been appointed Bishop, he issued another statement on the same subject.
The new insights and the knowledge acquired over the past years on the whole challenge of inculturation of the church today, have helped me to see better than I did thirty years ago. I have come to know that the image of the incarnate Christ, the God-man, the risen Jesus Christ is not to be limited to any one colour or set of racial features. The fact that He was born a Jew and shared the characteristics of the Jewish people were pointing him to the fact of His incarnation. In my article of 1960 I over-emphasised the contingent and insisted on the need for realistic portrayal of the historical and traditional Jesus in Christian art. If I had time to write another article on the same subject now I would not insist on historical realism in all Christian art, but more on the symbolic function of art in the promotion of Christianity. I think that is what is meant by inculturating Christianity, making it an effective expression of our church and its message, in particular in African and other cultures of the world.
Bishop Kalanda’s two statements provide an important insight for understanding the development and self-understanding of African Christian art. With the key phrase “from realism to symbolism”, we can identify the important turnabout that has made possible a visual approach of African culture to Christianity, and, at the same time, has liberated traditional African art from the limitations of its ethnic origins and functionality and led it towards universal significance.
In other words, portrayals of Jesus as African (or any other non-Jewish race) are meant to be symbolic, not literal: his black skin, his thick lips, his “crisp hair” symbolize his immanence among the peoples of Africa; he is their Emmanuel, their “God with us.”
See also this West African wooden mask of Christ crowned with thorns.
Note: The artworks featured in this post are not products of the Kungoni Centre but rather are images I’ve come across in my few years of research on visual inculturation. Malawian Christian art is almost entirely absent from the Web, but I plan to get in touch with Kungoni to see if they will allow me to digitize some of the images from Ott’s book and publish them on The Jesus Question. Stay tuned!