Reprinted with permission of africana.com.
The Kansas City-based National Catholic Reporter, one of the most widely read Catholic publications in the country, recently announced their selection of what several press reports have since referred to as a "dark-skinned Jesus" that will don the cover of its upcoming millennium issue. While black images have been commonly used by the Catholic Church in Latin America and the Caribbean, they have been rare in North America. The painting, "Jesus of the People" (pictured) by Vermont artist Janet McKenzie, was chosen from over 1500 entries submitted by 1,000 artists from 19 countries and 6 continents. World-renowned British nun turned art critic Sister Wendy Beckett, host of a BBC television series on art, selected the winner and three runners-up after the entries had been narrowed down to 10 finalists by a three-member jury.
In a statement issued through the Reporter, Beckett said she chose "Jesus of the People" for its profound emotional complexity. "This is a haunting image of a peasant Jesus -- dark, thick-lipped, looking out on us with dignity, with sadness but with confidence," said Beckett.
Editor Michael Farrell conceived the contest to elicit a range of provocative images to choose from. He wanted to spur discussion on new ideas about religion, while welcoming any controversy the project might invite. "If everybody looks at it and says, 'very nice,' that means it will have failed," said Farrell. "Every new work of art that has been worth anything has been controversial when it first appeared."
McKenzie, 51, who describes herself as a "devout agnostic," told the publication that she modeled her Jesus on an African American woman who lives nearby her. "I decided I would use a female model to incorporate, once and for all, women, who had been so neglected and left out, into this image of Jesus." As for painting a picture of what is ostensibly a black or mixed race Jesus, after years of producing images of mostly white woman, McKenzie says she was inspired by her young biracial nephew to become more racially diverse in her work. "I realized that my nephew, a mixed race African-American of nine or ten living in Los Angeles, would never be able to recognize himself in my work," McKenzie said. "I was determined to be more varied, to make a racially inclusive statement."
Despite the media focus on the dark skin of McKenzie's Jesus, the Brooklyn-born artist maintains that the painting deserves a closer, more in-depth interpretation. "At first glance, he is a black or African-American Jesus, but looking more deeply you see many people in it," says McKenzie.
She noted that the pink in the painting's background is both a reference to femininity as well as to the color of blood, also noting the careful placement of Jesus's hand near his heart. "It's a very subtle point, but one I knew I was making," she said. The feather, McKenzie explained, symbolizes transcendant knowledge while paying homage to Native American culture and spirituality.
Overall, McKenzie says she doesn't mind whether people see a man, a woman, a black-skinned figure or any other possible interpretive image. "This painting is about love," she said. "It's about reminding all of us about the importance of celebrating our differences."