Protesters of Christ billboard likely missing the big picture

August 10, 2002|By GREGORY KANE

THE PICTURE was a billboard-size painting of Jesus Christ, depicted as many Western artists have painted him: white guy, shoulder-length hair and beard. He is holding a bottle in his right hand. On the right side of the painting is a title: "The King of Jews." On the left side is the kicker: "For the King of Beers."

Not everyone took the painting, done by New Jersey's Ron English for Artscape, in a humorous vein. Some folks detected a whiff of blasphemy in the air and protested to Artscape officials. At least one person felt verbal protests would not suffice. Sometime between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. last Saturday, someone skulked up to English's work and hurled a can of white paint on it.

"From my understanding, there was quite a controversy caused within the church communities, and they were calling for the removal of the billboard," said Logan Hicks, a Californian who was the curator for the sculpture show at Artscape. But this being America in the year 2002, did anyone think this controversy would be confined to religion only?

Other parties had a bone to pick with English as well, over the issue of why Jesus Christ was depicted as a white guy in the billboard, instead of what they contend his true color was: black. WOLB talk-show host Larry Young covered the topic extensively with his listeners Tuesday morning on the station that is black-owned and targeted to an African American audience.

The protesters -- the religious ones of all races and the black ones who argue that Jesus Christ hailed from black Hebrew ancestors -- miss the point, insist Hicks and English.

"I can see where maybe someone would take offense," Hicks said. "I saw the billboard as a jumping-off point for issues that really mattered: the absurdity of celebrity endorsers and the proliferation of alcohol advertising in the inner city."

"I was surprised I didn't see it coming," English said of the protest, adding that his paintings tend to generate controversy when they deal with religion. "My work is about advertising, and I want to make people think."

Hailing from northern New Jersey, English might not have known that Baltimore might not be the place to do that. A journalism teacher at Southern High School who also served as adviser for the student newspaper urged her reporters to think and got handed a pink slip for her cheekiness.

Neither English nor Hicks knew that the painting would cause some to think about color, not religion.

"Nowadays, people look for controversy," Hicks said. "Give it another two weeks, and an Asian station will be asking why [Jesus Christ] wasn't Asian [in the painting]." People attack English, Hicks suspects, because it's the easier fight.

"People should talk about why liquor companies target inner-city, African-American communities the most," Hicks said, "but what's gonna be the easier fight to take: one white guy from New Jersey or a billion-dollar corporation?"

Artists, English says he has noticed, tend to paint Jesus as a member of their own race.

"Asian paintings of Jesus show him as an Asian," English said. As for the real color of Jesus? According to English, "he wasn't black or white. He was an Arab."

That, of course, doesn't clarify the issue. It just confuses it more. Arabs come in a variety of shades. Many -- millions, perhaps -- are very dark. The "Arabs" of Sudan are the spitting image of African-Americans, ranging in color from high-yellow to jet-black. (Mahatma Gandhi, chastising Western nations for color prejudice, said often that Jesus was an "Asiatic" and whites would have subjected him to segregation and racial oppression on that basis.)

But let's return to the issue that has received the least discussion in the controversy. The ones who should be taking the heat, who should be getting the threatening phone calls English says he's been getting, are those liquor company executives who use poor, urban black neighborhoods to hawk their wares.

The practice got so bad here in Baltimore that the city had to ban the booze billboard ads from inner-city neighborhoods some years back. No one on Young's show discussed the matter of liquor billboard ads in poor, black neighborhoods. The issue of how a picture of a white Jesus promotes white supremacy held the day.

Tyrone Powers, a former FBI agent and a professor at Anne Arundel Community College, talked about billboard ads and the proliferation of liquor stores in Baltimore on Young's show yesterday. Maybe now the Jesus billboard controversy will die out and folks will get on to the much more important matter of why the liquor hucksters in this society are allowed to all but force their hooch down our throats.

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