Colonialism through religious art

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By Tony Monda

THE Westernised image of a blonde, blue-eyed Jesus Christ has permeated to the very core of African religious beliefs.
In 1840, Scottish Missionary David Livingstone (1813 – 1873), first set sail for Africa after meeting Robert Moffat (1795 – 1883), who was on leave (in Scotland) at the time, from his missionary outpost in South Africa.
Livingstone first arrived in Africa in July 1841, with the intention to expand Western missionary work northwards through Southern Africa from Moffat’s mission at Kuruman, in Botswana.
When Livingstone arrived at Moffat’s mission he was disappointed at the size of the village and the sum of converted Christians after Moffat’s 20 years of work.
The two missionaries, not unlike modern day Euro-evangelists, believed Africans to be incapable of contributing to human civilisation, for according to the missionaries, “they lacked true rational and moral character and require our salvation”.
Western religion could only visualise the Saviour as a ‘white man’.
The evil one of course was always ‘black’ or red if the artist was in a capricious mood, with horns, tail and trident while surrounded by hellfire.
This visualisation of biblical characters provided an authoritative mental image for our visual understanding of Christianity.
In many ways, the racial misrepresentation and visual manipulation of Biblical characters like Jesus who was born in Africa, but was always represented as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Caucasian, or the images of Moses as the ‘bearded white sage’ we identify with, not only distanced most Africans from identifying with the Bible, but inculcated a notion of ‘white’ racial superiority over the African mind and over our self-perception.
Even today, should you ask a local Theology student what nationality or colour Jesus was; the various responses would shock.
Nonetheless, as I pen this article I can hear (in my mind), some Christian readers saying, “Atanga mabasa ake Dr Tony.”
Historically visual art has been used as a powerful tool for teaching and converting African ‘heathen’ people to the Westernised white notion of Christianity.
As a young boy, the images of Jesus Christ were of a tall blonde Caucasian man with blue eyes and long flaxen hair painted by various Western artists such as the Early Florentine artists of the Renaissance; Italians, Michelangelo Buonaroti (1475-1564), Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), Tiziano Vecellio (Titian) – (died 1576); Raffaello Sanzio (Raphael) – (1483-1520), Donato di Niccolo (Donatello) – (1386-1466) and Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446).
The image of a ‘white’ Christ by Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and other Dutch artists was also taken for granted.
The numerous discounted Christian touristic images from diverse unknown European artists also saturated my mind.
To my recollection, only Spanish artist El Greco made his Christ swarthy, albeit with Caucasian features.
In my Form One at school, I challenged my Catholic religious education teacher by asking her what Jesus’ nationality was: I questioned her about his blonde hair and blue eyes.
For I knew, from a young age, that anyone originally born and descended in Africa must have had African roots, and thus African features.
I was promptly asked to leave the class for ‘rebelliousness’.
“Jesus was not black nor was he an African!” was her answer.
It must be understood that the various images of Christ were painted by artists who saw it fit to give him Aryan features, Nordic features and Coptic, Byzantine or Latin features depending on their own nationality and orientation.
While some Western missionaries introduced some positive developments in Africa; missionaries were the primary representatives of the imperial world that eventually violently subjugated the indigenous people’s religions and belief systems in Africa.
Their aim was to reconstruct the African world in the name of their white God and Europe; in the process this facilitated the colonisation of black Africa, including Zimbabwe (1890-1980).
During colonisation, many African converts to Christianity were unable to reconcile their traditional beliefs with the teachings of their Western church leaders.
Many therefore, split from their ‘white’ parent churches and started African Initiated Churches (AIC) in order to accommodate the broader African beliefs within Christian doctrine.
Estimates are that approximately 36 percent of the continent’s population belongs to an AIC.
There are currently over 6 000 contemporary religious movements in Africa.
Western Euro-American missionaries were and still are consistent and persistent in belittling and disparaging African cultural-religious beliefs and practices as being pagan, demonic and evil.
As a result, African cultural systems have been affected by dominant Western cultures.
Visualisation through art played an important part in conquering our minds and blotting our visions.
Western evangelists are bigoted against indigenous people, preventing them from ‘perceptive insight’ and the acknowledgement of the presence of transcendental and epistemological ideologies in our indigenous worldview.
African people have been shown as having a debased humanity for far too long.
During the early establishment of Christian missions in Zimbabwe, contemporary indigenous sculptors and painters gave Biblical characters indigenous features.
The religious iconography at Cyrene Mission, Serima Mission and the Anglican Cathedral are great examples of African-centred iconography, allowing us to embrace an African pictorial understanding of Jesus and the Bible.
Serima Mission, founded in 1948 by architect-priest Father Groeber, is decorated with indigenous religious iconography by Nicholas Mukomberanwa who sculpted formidable Christian figures in stylised African proportions and anatomy.
Other notable artists who sculpted and painted Afro-centric Christian iconography included Cornelius Manguma and Gabriel Hatugari.
Cyrene Mission has indigenous-inspired Christian paintings, drawings, wood and stone sculpture by Sam Sango, Kingsley Sambo and Lazarus Khumalo, who were instructed by Reverend Canon Patterson.
The Anglican Cathedral in Harare has paintings of African-inspired, ‘Stations of the Cross’ Christian friezes painted by Jackie Carstairs in a stylised indigenous idiom.
The Cathedral also incorporates indigenous-Christian art by Job Kekana, Joram Mariga and wood sculptors from Driefontein Mission under the direction of Cornelius Manguma who taught many including Tapfuma Gutsa and others.
Indigenous–centred religious philosophies such as Hunhu/ubuntu should also be recognised as contributing and enriching the understanding of humanity as a whole.
The visual image is the most powerful agent for human conceptualisation and belief in an idea, philosophy or religion.
Hence, Christian and religious images must be presented prudently and honestly and be sensitive to other races and religions.
Post-colonial African artists and philosophers need to shift their emphasis from the dominant Euro-centric monopolistic conception of human values to a pluralistic one in which the arts, religion and cultures of other peoples, particularly in Zimbabwe, are recognised.
Dr Tony Monda holds a PhD. in Art Theory and Philosophy and a DBA (Doctorate in Business Administration) and Post-Colonial Heritage Studies. He is a writer, musician, art critic, practising artist and Corporate Image Consultant. He is also a specialist Art Consultant, Post-Colonial Scholar, Zimbabwean Socio-Economic analyst and researcher.

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