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Cathedral art exhibit aims to ‘de-colonize’ the Christ

The artwork, “Pantocrator in Black and Brown,” mixed media, by Brian Behm from Chapel Hill, N.C., was awarded Best in Show. Photos/courtesy of St. Stephen’s Cathedral

By Episcopal Journal

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Cathedral in Harrisburg, Pa. is hosting a juried art exhibit at its Riverfront Gallery focused on racial justice, entitled “De-Colonizing the Christ.”

Developed locally by a collaborative group of artists and community leaders, the exhibit presents 28 works of visual art that explore the identity of Jesus of Nazareth as a man who does not have the familiar Caucasian complexion. The exhibit runs until Dec. 19.

“Christ the Dreamer,” by Michael Reyes, gold leaf and oil on panel.

Recent events have opened conversations among churches, theologians, and biblical scholars, considering in the ways that the western portrayal of Jesus as a European has been used to marginalize people of color, according to the St. Stephen’s announcement.

Many suggest that the pursuit of racial justice demands the exploration of ways in which we can “de-colonize” the Christ — releasing the image of Jesus from a legacy of white supremacy and exploring images of Jesus as a man of color. The exhibit invites the Central Pennsylvania community into the conversation, said the announcement.

According to the call for artwork:

“Historically, images of the Christ are often enculturated, as different artists have portrayed Jesus as someone who bears their own cultural identity.

“As early as the third century CE, Syrian, Indian and Ethiopian artists produced images of the Christ that evoked the context of the artist. Since the Middle Ages,the image of a light-skinned European Christ has been influential in the world through the influences of trade and colonization.

“In an early modern colonial missionary context, the image of White Jesus reinforced a social system in which white Europeans occupied the upper tiers and indigenous people with darker skin ranked lower.”

“The Christ” by Jacqueline Doucot, mixed media work in collage, handmade paper and acrylic on canvas.

A review of the show by Joyce M. Davis in the Harrisburg Patriot-News, also posted on www.pennlive.com, noted that “seeing Christ as a Black man is startling, even for many Black Christians used to seeing Jesus on the back of church fans as a tall, white man, with long, flowing locks and an aquiline nose.

“But the “De-Colonizing Christ” exhibit challenges traditional American images of Christ just as Christians in our region are trying to grapple with racism and the church. Many Christians are now openly acknowledging the role their churches played in providing religious support for slavery and systemic racism, and for allowing the faithful to turn a blind eye to both.”

A review by Bob MacGinnes in The Burg: Greater Harrisburg’s Community Magazine, said that “this exhibit is long overdue in dismantling the legacy of colonialism dating from the 15th century in portraying Jesus with fair skin and blond hair.

“In this new gallery exhibit, that myth is usurped with fresh and relevant renderings that bear investigation toward establishing social justice. This groundbreaking exhibit demonstrates the need for Christ to be experienced differently.”

The review quoted cathedral dean Amy Doyle Welin as saying, “there is such a breadth of works from iconic images to the abstract, the pious to pastoral, from artisanal creations to cutting-edge technology. There is truly something for everyone’s taste.”

Two cash prizes were awarded by the jury. Brian Behm, of Chapel Hill, N.C., was awarded Best in Show for his work “Pantocrator in Black and Brown.”

“The Healer,” by Lori Sweet, acrylic on canvas, was awarded the Bishop’s Prize.

Lori Sweet, of Harrisburg, was awarded the Bishops’ Prize for her work “The Healer.” In December, one additional cash prize will be awarded by vote of those who attend the exhibit: the Peoples’ Favorite.

During the exhibit season, there will be three lectures on topics related to racial justice. All are free and open to the public.

On Sept. 12, scholar and artist Steve Prince, artist-in-residence at the College of William and Mary, discussed “The Arts, Justice and Faith: The Role of a Holy Imagination.”  

On Oct. 17, Dr. Drew G.I. Hart, Assistant Professor of Theology at Messiah University, will discuss “White Jesus: Mangling Christianity and the Birth of White Supremacy in the West.”

On Nov. 28, the Rev. Catherine Williams, Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lancaster Theological Seminary, will discuss the tension inherent in inclusive worship in predominantly white congregations.

The exhibit was conceived by Welin and congregant Carrie Wissler-Thomas, CEO of the Art Association of Harrisburg.

It is supported by a grant from the Arts for All Partnership, a partnership between the Cultural Enrichment Fund and the Greater Harrisburg Community Foundation, a regional foundation of the Foundation for Enhancing Communities.  

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