Is giving Christ African features heretical, or at the very least neglectful?

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.”

Oye Ekiti workshop

Detail from a carved wooden door by George Bandele (Nigerian, 1908-95), early 20th century. The Carr Collection, Los Angeles, California.

Woman at the Well (African)

Joseph Mulamba-Mandangi (Congolese, 1964-), The Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s Well, 1993. Peinture grattée. Photo: Missio Aachen.

African Stations of the Cross

Charles S. Ndege (Tanzanian, 1966-), Station VIII: Jesus Meets the Women of Jerusalem. Wall painting from St. Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe Church, Mwanza, Tanzania.

African Resurrection

Fr. Engelbert Mveng, SJ, (Cameroonian, 1930-95), Resurrection, 1962. Jesuit Chapel, Hekima College, Nairobi, Kenya.

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!

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7 Responses to Is giving Christ African features heretical, or at the very least neglectful?

  1. Thanks for beginning an analysis/review of this book! The point from the book that you highlighted in this post is critical for Christians of all backgrounds to embrace: that Christ is universal, but very local/personal at the same time. This means that He must be incarnated into each society, as one of their own, through their arts– while not forgetting His historical presence, death and resurrection in Israel 2000 years ago. These two concepts (symbolic/local vs. historic) aren’t mutually exclusive. Since He is present with us through the Holy Spirit, He can be portrayed as someone deeply familiar and recognizable to each people group. Christ incarnated historically only once (until His return), but repeatedly incarnates spiritually and symbolically whenever He enters into the hearts of another people group. I can’t wait to read more posts on the book!

    • Ssendiwala David Paul says:

      Unless the clergy and theologians come out to clarify on how far artists may Inculturate the sacred images, artists will continue to guess and sometimes blasphemously to the peril of the faith. I am personally an Inculturation Artis but at the moment, pictorial Inculturation of the Biblical story meets a lot of opposition both from the clergy and the laity in many dioceses here in Uganda. Inculturation is instead mainly being supported and funded by white missionaries in places where they are stationed.

  2. ana says:

    so what is the objection to representing Jesus as a (metaphorical) woman? I am fairly certain the bishop does not support that level of equality: Jesus is black, yes, but a woman?

    • Peg Weissbrod says:

      There are many representations of Jesus as a woman. Not as many as images of men of different races, but the same theology should hold true. Jesus is God Incarnate and God cannot be constrained to a single gender.

  3. freequencies says:

    I seriously appreciate you concern about the Issue but a deep and serious research will prove there is a HUGE contradiction in history. That makes this conversation tricky.

    First if you search in a temporal line ALL of the representation of Jesus and even the jewish where as black people. I will point a series of key words to allow you to see yourselves.

    Artistis representation of Jews and Christ over the time:

    “Siege of Lakish” Black Jews being captured by the Assyrians (7th Century BC)
    “Catacombs Domitila” 1st century cristians (jews), also black people
    “Dura Europos” Black Jews of the 2nd Century
    “Black Madonnas” The oldest representations of Mary and Jesus in Europe before the Dark Ages where all black, but then replaced during the Renaisance.

    I’m shocked to find hundreds of Old representations of Jesus as a Black person and NOBODY talks about. My conclusion is: The big deception the bible talks about is for real!

    If you still have a doubt contact me and I will send the images you cannot find on the internet but I have taken my self and they make a loud point.

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