Africa's Artistic Resurrection

  • Africa is a continent crucified by famine and war, pestilence and poverty. For Christianity, however, it is a continent of resurrection. Even as older churches in Europe and the U.S. are emptying, faith is thriving in the sprawling lands south of the Sahara. As is so often the case, spiritual strength is inspiring -- and being inspired by -- an outpouring of artistic creation. "We are on the verge of a golden age in African Christian art," proclaims Jesuit Father Engelbert Mveng of Cameroon. "The movement cannot be stopped, and it is bursting out in flower all over Africa."

    Not since Europe's Renaissance has such a large and varied body of living Christian art been produced. In inaccessible rural workshops, thatched-roof villages and teeming urban slums, a firmament of fine artists inspired by Christian themes is emerging from within a much larger community of folk artisans. The movement is thriving in spite of serious obstacles. Most artists lack patrons, lucrative markets and substantial schooling. With tools, paint and canvas in chronically short supply, Africans work with whatever materials are handy. Wood is thus the most popular medium. If stained glass is too costly, colored resin is applied to windowpanes. If sculptors lack marble, they mix cheap pebbles and concrete. If budgets keep church buildings modest, they are brightened with imaginative decorations and vibrant vestments.

    + Styles range from garishly colored representational paintings to serene abstracts. The themes are the same ones that inspired a thousand Renaissance masterpieces: the Nativity, Madonna and Child, and gripping Bible stories. The most frequent subject is Christ's agony on the Cross, a visual testament to the Africans' own suffering. But Zairian Catholic sculptor Ndombasi Wuma, like many Protestants, refuses to depict the Crucifixion. Says he: "I believe in the risen Christ. Why should Christ be anguished?"

    African art is created not for museums or living rooms but for the community. Its function is fourfold, says Elimo Njau, a Tanzanian Lutheran painter. Art "makes Christianity African," provides a new context for worship, stimulates devotion and teaches the meaning of the Bible through imagery. Many works are signed collectively; others are anonymous. At Sims Chapel, Zaire's oldest Baptist church, even Sunday school children played their part: their rude drawings provided the basis for the chapel's stained- glass windows.

    Before the missionary era, the only Christianized black nation was Ethiopia, whose austere art style remained largely unchanged since the Middle Ages. When the first missionaries arrived in other parts of Africa in the 15th century, they sought to stamp out tribal religions and with them idols, ceremonial masks and ancestral images. The artistic tug-of-war intensified during the 19th century as the number of Christian missions mushroomed.

    The latter-day art boom was fostered by Roman Catholic missionaries. Among them were Brother Marc-Stanislas Wallenda from Belgium, who founded Kinshasa's Academy of Fine Arts in 1943, and Father Kevin Carroll of Ireland, who in the same era came to work among Nigerian craftsmen. Most white missionary bishops back then, Carroll recalls, "thought we were wasting time." Political independence and the increase of black clergy accelerated the process that European Christians call adaptation or inculturation, meaning the incorporation of local culture into Christianity. Today Nigeria has Africa's largest corps of artists and artisans, and Zaire probably boasts the most important assemblage of sheer talent.

    Inculturation often means nothing more controversial than transplanting the classic Bible stories into black-African settings. A white policeman accompanies Jesus to Calvary. The crucified Christ wears a crown of cactus thorns. The three Wise Men bear gifts of kola nuts and chickens. More saucily, South African linocut artist John Muafangejo shows Satan urinating in fear before an angel. Sometimes even modest experiments produce scandal. Cheap reproductions hang beneath the Stations of the Cross carved by Kanutu Chenge for a Catholic church near Lubumbashi, Zaire. They are there to appease a congregation shocked to see Pilate dressed as an African chieftain and women with tribal headbands witnessing the Crucifixion.

    Serious theological problems can arise when Africanization uses symbols and myths from the pre-Christian faiths. Fearing syncretism in a continent where communion with the spirits and ancestors remains a powerful belief, most Protestants are exceedingly cautious about all the visual arts. Zaire's indigenous Kimbanguist Church strictly forbids decoration except on preachers' and singers' robes. But many Anglicans, once hesitant, are enthusiasts for the new church art. Methodist theologian Dkalimbo Kajoba encourages art so long as it is for "decoration," not "adoration."

    Since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), Roman Catholicism has shown the most readiness to embrace Africanization. One of the boldest steps came in 1967, when the newly built St. Paul's Church in Lagos opened its doors to reveal frankly pagan symbols and statues. A black Nigerian priest protested at the time, "You are taking us back from whence we came -- paganism." But prominent Nigerian artist Bruce Onobrakpeya notes that the Yorubas "worship God through the spirit Orisha, who will pray to God for them and obtain the blessings they desire -- not so very different from parishioners kneeling before a statue of the Virgin." The decorations remained.

    Abayomi Barber, a Nigerian who makes the sign of the cross over each painting he creates, sees profound value in tribal cultures. "The birth of a child, coming of age, marriage, death and the spirits of our ancestors -- all these needed to be illustrated and represented as supernatural manifestations. This is the basis of our art. We are still interlinked with nature." More radically, Cameroon's Father Mveng wants to fling the church doors wide open to fetishes and magic charms. In Africa's interreligious melange, Muslims are creating images for Christian churches that are not allowed in mosques. Animists are decorating Christian churches. Father Carroll's school produced, as well as Christian art, pillars for temples serving ancestral faiths.

    The most sensitive question is how to portray Jesus Christ. Some tribes show him with a huge head to symbolize great wisdom or a massive chest to convey strength. But should he be depicted as an African? Urban Christians are more open to this than believers in the bush. Commissioned by the Catholic Cathedral in Kananga, Zaire, Enkobo Mpane created his first Bantu Christ from ebony in 1969. Parishioners rejected the work, so it hangs in a nearby convent. "Our parishioners still think of Christ as a Jew and not an African," reports Arley Brown, a U.S. Baptist teaching in Kinshasa. But Nigerian Anglican architect Fola Alade insists, "If Jesus is the Son of God, how can he be just a Jew?"

    For many African artists, the act of creation itself is a religious experience. Zaire's Mwabila Pemba, a specialist in beaten copper, rises daily at 5 a.m. to pray and believes that as he works "I'm in the hands of a divine force." He is among multitudes who speak of creating through prayers, dreams and inspiration from the Bible. Africans know that this makes them oddities among the world's modern-day artists. Ben Nhlanhla Nsusha, who recently returned to Johannesburg after five years of study in London, says the young artists in England "can't understand the way I think. They never do religious subjects."

    Africans are anything but embarrassed about this cultural distinctiveness. Cecil Skotnes, one of the handful of creative white religious artists in South Africa, insists, "Urgency is the basis of all great art. This urgency is no longer apparent in European or U.S. art." That judgment may be too sweeping. Yet there is no question that African Christian art, serene and savage, florid and austere, stands virtually alone in the vigor and authenticity with which its practitioners seek to express the inexpressible.