Deconstructing a Y2K Christ

A new image of a black, subtly feminine 'Jesus 2000' is earning both praise and damnation.

March 05, 2000|By Brendan A. Maher | Brendan A. Maher,contributing writer

Janet McKenzie's "Jesus of the People" has received quite a bit of attention since winning a worldwide art competition late last year -- some positive, some damning.

In choosing McKenzie's subtly feminine, African-American image of Christ as winner of its "Jesus 2000" competition, the National Catholic Reporter, a self-proclaimed "liberal" newspaper based in Kansas City, has touched on three essential -- and sensitive -- elements of Christ's traditional persona: race, religion and gender.

BBC art critic Sister Wendy Beckett, who chose the piece from among the contest's 10 finalists, calls it a "haunting image of a peasant Jesus -- looking out on us with ineffable dignity." Other critics have been less kind, but that was to be expected, says Reporter editor Michael Farrell.

"Jesus 2000" was meant to increase awareness about the traditional image of Christ and to question exactly what that image means to us in the new millennium, Farrell says. The question is not whether "Jesus of the People" might displace traditional images of Christ, Farrell says, but whether it might raise awareness that more than one kind of image exists.

"Were everyone to say, 'That's nice,' and move on, the project would have failed in its primary intention of generating something new, not a Jesus of yesterday but a risky squint into the future at the next step of our journey," he says.

The painting by McKenzie, a 51-year-old Vermont artist, was selected from among 1,678 representations of Christ entered from 19 countries, and earned her $2,000 in prize money. Its imagery represents diverse spiritual backgrounds. The somber, dreadlocked figure at its center is flanked by a yin yang, an Asian symbol of harmony, and a feather, which harks back to Native American spirituality.

Perhaps the painting's most startling feature, though, stems from the artist's use of an 18-year-old African-American woman as her model. Having painted many female saints throughout the years, McKenzie says, she longed to bring women into the mix of Christ imagery. While the figure is most definitely male, smooth features and a soft pink background issue a subtle femininity. Making her Jesus non-Caucasian stemmed from a desire to allow her nephew, a 15-year-old African-American, to connect with an image usually depicted as white, she says.

Some see a little bit of Tracy Chapman, Jimi Hendrix or Bob Marley in the painting's gentle but confident figure. Some see the wear and tear of everyday life, or even, McKenzie was happy to hear, a little bit of themselves.

Others, however, see something that makes them angry, and they have gone out of their way to let McKenzie and the National Catholic Reporter know. The paper has received some hate mail, as well as responses arguing that such artwork should adhere to a strict interpretation of Scriptures, which portray Jesus as Jewish and male. "It's nothing but a politically correct blasphemous statement reflecting the artist's and the so-called judge's spiritual depravity," said one e-mail signed "A Christian Patriot."

The Sun asked McKenzie, Farrell and others in the worlds of art and religion for their thoughts on the "Jesus of the People" controversy:

The artist

Janet McKenzie, who calls herself a "devout agnostic," paints her pictures (mostly of white female saints) from her quiet home in Island Pond, Vt. She received some press previously for a portrait of a black Madonna and Child, which was purchased by Cardinal Francis George for the Chicago Archdiocese, but nothing to this degree. "Reactions have been intense on both sides," she says. Negative reactions, and the recent controversy surrounding an image of the Madonna at the Brooklyn Museum's "Sensation" exhibit, prompted McKenzie to request that her painting be protected during its current showing in Albany, N.Y. To McKenzie, the strong criticism of the piece in Brooklyn "gave people the idea that they could destroy, that they could react violently. ... Fear is on the other side of anger, and these people are afraid that this painting will replace the familiar image they have of Jesus."

The organizer

When Michael Farrell began promoting the contest on the radio, he found a lot of flak from the fundamentalist view that adheres to the Commandment against idolatry. "I heard this 'graven images' bit quite a lot," says Farrell, who dismissed the concerns. As for those who are afraid to change what they feel is the "historical" image of Christ, Farrell thinks that "it just doesn't match up." "From the time Jesus stood atop a Galilean hill," he says, "the image of Christ is one with his arms spread embracing humanity, saying, 'I want us all to be one.' " Farrell doesn't overemphasize the importance of what he calls a journalistic project. "There is seriously no need to replace the current image of Christ. Ours was a modest objective; to see if anybody cares. The reaction has indicated that they do."

The exhibitor

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