By Diane B. Stinton
(from SEEN Journal XIV.1, Unsettled Ground)
A master artist with words, Jesus spoke his first parable portraying the gospel as new wine that required new wineskins. Otherwise, the dynamic effervescence of the new wine would burst the crusty, old wineskins (Luke 5:37-38). This graphic image not only depicts the gospel that Jesus proclaimed in his own life and ministry, but also the expansion of gospel faith in twentieth- and twenty-first century Africa. Kwame Bediako captures the making of Christian Africa south of the Sahara in a single word: surprise!1 The surprise is twofold: the massive growth of Christianity in Africa, entirely unforeseen a century ago, and the dual process of historical transmission and indigenous assimilation, in which African agency far outstrips missionary initiative. Indeed, the phenomenal rise of Christianity in Africa, from approximately ten million Christians in 1900 to over 500 million today, accelerated after decolonization.2 Against all expectation that the “baby” would be thrown out with the “bathwater” of European colonization, Christianity has grown exponentially in Africa since the 1970s, marking an unprecedented expansion in all of Christian history.
Intertwined with this flourishing of African Christianity is a likewise remarkable flowering of African Christian art. In 1989, Cameroonian Jesuit Father Engelbert Mveng, a key figure in both African Christian art and theology, declared “the verge of a golden age in African Christian art.”3 Richard Ostling concurs, observing that the scale and variety of artistic creation in Africa has not been witnessed since Europe’s Renaissance.4 In view of the mutual inspiration between Christian faith and art in Africa, the purpose of this article is to briefly explore the interface between the two, outlining key aspects of common history and distinctive characteristics.
Glimpsed historically, African Christians have certainly expressed their faith through indigenous art for as long as Christianity has been on the continent. For example, the distinctive iconography of the Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches extends as far back as the fourth century A.D. While successive waves of Western missionaries from the fifteenth century utilized European art in evangelism, church-planting, and teaching, African Christians subsequently produced their own artistic renditions of faith, such as carved crucifixes and sculptures in the Kongo Kingdom of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Not until the twentieth century, however, did these art forms expand both numerically and in variety of expression, from African religious vestments and assorted church art and architecture to popular music and cinema. Emergent art forms generally reflected increasingly indigenous expressions of the Christian faith epitomized in the proliferation of African Instituted Churches (AICs) throughout the twentieth century. Roman Catholics fostered local manifestations of faith, fuelled particularly by Vatican II and Pope Paul VI’s subsequent declaration to the African bishops gathered in Kampala in 1969: “You may, and you must, have an African Christianity.”5 Protestants largely followed suit, with varying degrees of agreement with Africanizing Christianity, including artistic expressions. Even those streams of Christianity, such as the Pentecostal, Charismatic, and Neo-Pentecostal movements, that are more resistant to indigenizing the faith have nonetheless contributed significantly to the renaissance in twentieth-century African Christian art. As Laurel Gasque observes, “African Christian art today is a living demonstration that art is not a luxury but a necessity of life. Despite shortages of tools and materials, little elaborate formal training, and a lack of lucrative markets and established patronage, artists produce an extraordinary amount of creative work in a wide range of media.”6
Within this concurrent fermenting of African Christian faith and art, what are some key common characteristics? Most obvious, and reflective of Jesus’ parable of the new wine and wineskins, is the sheer vitality of these combined movements. Among manifold examples, perhaps the clearest is the vibrant worship that African Christians exemplify and express through their arts. From the vernacular hymns and prayers of non-literate Christians like AIC founder Isaiah Shembe of South Africa and Pentecostal laywoman Afua Kuma of Ghana, to the famous Missa Luba, in which Congolese Catholics integrate the ancient Latin text of the Mass with indigenous styles of Congolese worship and dance, to contemporary vernacular worship DVDs and internationally acclaimed Christian rap artists like Kenyan Dj Josh (Joshua Makale), the gospel expressed through African arts bursts through the inherited forms of mission church worship.7
A second shared characteristic is that both African Christianity and African Christian art are generally communal in orientation. While individual artists are certainly identifiable, many works are signed collectively or remain anonymous. Ostling notes, “African art is created not for museums or living rooms but for the community.”8 He further elaborates its fourfold function, citing Elimo Njau, a prominent Tanzanian-born Lutheran painter, as follows: “Art ‘makes Christianity African;’ provides a new context for worship; stimulates devotion; and teaches the meaning of the Bible through imagery.”9 One striking example in this regard is the “La Vie de Jesus Mafa” series from the Mafa people of Cameroon. The 62 paintings depict the life and teachings of Jesus in local African figures, settings and landscapes, and virtually every scene accentuates Jesus within communal life. Interestingly, a community of Christians enacted each scene, which was photographed, sketched and then painted for liturgical and catechetical purposes. According to the Association Vie de Jesus Mafa, over six million copies of the posters or notecards have been distributed within 83 countries since 1977.10
Another crucial characteristic of both African Christianity and African Christian art is its increasingly indigenous expression. If Christianity was once considered a foreign, European faith, and therefore alien to African soil, African Christians have unequivocally understood and appropriated the universal gospel of Christ in ways that are meaningful and relevant within their own particular contexts. This process of enculturation is remarkably demonstrated in five stunning, twelve by fifteen feet murals depicting key moments in the life of Christ, painted in oils at the Cathedral of the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) in Murang’a, Kenya. During the “Emergency” from 1952 to 1960 (a violent conflict between European settlers, British regimens and police, African civilians, and largely Kikuyu Mau Mau freedom fighters), a young African Christian artist was called and commissioned to paint these murals. After living in the community and engaging with various players in this conflict, Elimo Njau— who has since become one of Kenya’s foremost artists—painted the five murals within a single month in 1959. The outstanding panel of scenes portrays the story of Christ’s coming, not only as recorded in the Gospels but also quite clearly, Christ’s coming to Murang’a, the very heartland of Mau Mau.
The first mural depicts the nativity scene, set within lush, local-looking hills dotted with traditional Kikuyu villages, while settler homes and a British detention camp dominate a distant hillside. Strikingly, especially for this time period, Jesus is painted as an African babe wrapped in swaddling cloths of vibrant orange, and worshiped by ebony-skinned parents alongside goats and sheep within a typical thatched Kikuyu home.11 The second scene is that of Jesus’ baptism, set within a pool below Chania Falls, a traditional site for Kikuyu initiation into adulthood. Jesus appears subtly head-shaven and waist-deep in the river, as customary for initiation candidates. In the third mural, the Last Supper is portrayed in a thingera, a Kikuyu hut in which matters of consequence are considered. Jesus and his disciples, one of whom conspicuously wears a dark robe, eat from local calabashes and drink wine from a ruhia, the ceremonial horn.12 The fourth scene unmistakably depicts Gethsemane against the local context of Murang’a, with the dark, distinctive crags of Mount Kenya dominating the background, while Kikuyu villages blaze with fire below. In the foreground, Jesus prays alone on a ridge—a solitary, vulnerable figure surrounded by tomb-like rocks—while spear-and-skin-clad Mau Mau emerge furtively from a cave in the rocks. The final mural shows the lone figure of Christ on the cross, with the gnarled limbs of two thieves sprawled on the ground exposed to die, in keeping with Kikuyu custom, rather than on crosses beside Jesus. Death clearly dominates the scene. Yet hope is nonetheless present in the surrounding dark shades being suffused with an intense yellow light that is not from the sky, and in Jesus appearing in the highest position, sharing in but triumphant over the suffering below.
In this striking portrayal of Jesus entering Murang’a during the plight of Mau Mau, Elimo Njau clearly demonstrates how “the Christ becomes ‘one-of-us,’ embracing the religio-cultural, political and ecological realities of the day.”13 In the artist’s own words, “I learned to see Christ as one among us.”14
As Christ becomes incarnate anew in the contemporary realities of African experience, one final, related characteristic is worth highlighting: African Christians tend to take a holistic approach to the gospel that encompasses the whole spectrum of life. Informed by biblical and indigenous worldviews, and against any faulty dichotomies inherited from Western missionary Christianity, they understand salvation comprehensively—in relation to physical, spiritual, social, economic, political, and any other dimension of human well-being.
A most graphic illustration in this regard is the South African film, Son of Man, produced by Mark Dornford-May in 2005. Despite its rather limited distribution, the film has gained international acclaim in film festivals and in academic circles. Described as “arguably the most important, complex Jesus film since Denys Arcand’s 1989 Jesus of Montreal,”15 Son of Man recasts the Jesus story in a fictionalized country of “Judea, Afrika.” Certainly aspects of local indigenous spirituality and culture shape this rendition of the Jesus film tradition. For example, the world of spiritual beings is ever-present, whether in Satan ominously bearing the local goat-hoofed cane, or in the delightful, white-feather-adorned child-angels. Jesus, depicted as a clay-smeared initiate, undergoes baptism in rites reflective of Xhosa circumcision ceremonies. Saheed Adejumobi notes the significance of this artistic fusion as follows: “The combination of Judeo-Christian and African indigenous religions highlights the universal significance of the Gospel and its relevance to contemporary and modern lives.”16
Like its biblical parallel, the artistry of Son of Man does not separate the life and teaching of Jesus from the particular socio-economic and political realities of the local context. A most striking scene in the film is the Annunciation, when a young woman receives the news that she will bear a child named Jesus while she is hiding in a schoolroom among piles of children slaughtered in the ongoing civil violence. Mary then plays a prime role in the story, particularly in the climax: she exhumes the body of Jesus, murdered by Annas and Caiaphas for refusing to share power with the Democratic Coalition, displays it publicly in a powerful crucifixion scene, and, facing riot police, leads a nonviolent song-and-dance (a toyi-toyi) that protests his “disappearance.” However one assesses the Son of Man in relation to the biblical account of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, Dornford-May’s film definitely offers a profound rendition of the gospel of Jesus Christ in Africa today.
Whether in ancient icons, medieval sculptures, or contemporary paintings, rap music, cinema, and other art forms, African Christians clearly burst open received categories of Christian faith and art in dynamically creative appropriations of gospel faith. In so doing, they gift not only Africa but also the wider world with their beautifully artistic expressions of Jesus’ wine in new wineskins.
Diane Stinton, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Missions and Dean of Students at Regent Colloge, Vancouver, British Columbia. She also serves as adjunct Professor of Theology at the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology/Africa International University in Kenya.
- Kwame Bediako, Christianity in Africa: The Renewal of a Non-Western Religion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995; Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995), 192; emphasis original.
- Timothy Samuel Shah, preface to Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in Africa, ed. Terence O. Ranger (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), x. The current estimate of the Christian population in Sub-Saharan Africa is from the Pew Forum.
- Quoted in Richard Ostling, with James Wilde, “Africa’s Artistic Resurrection,” Time (March 27, 1989), 76.
- See, for example, Jean-Marc Ela, My Faith as an African, trans. John Pairman Brown and Susan Perry (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), xiii.
- Laurel Gasque, “Voices from the New Heartland: Christian Art in Africa, Asia, and Latin America,” http://www.artway.eu/content.php?id=266&lang=en&action=show (accessed January 19, 2014).
- See J. Galilee Shembe, Izihlabelelo zaManazaretha (Durban: Elite Printers, 1940), and Gerhardus Cornelis Oosthuizen, The Theology of a South African Messiah: An Analysis of the Hymnal of “The Church of the Nazarites” (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967); Afua Kuma, Kwaebirentuw Ase Yesu: Afura Kuma Ayeyi ne Mpaebo (Accra: Asempa Publishers, 1980), translated as Afua Kuma, Jesus of the Deep Forest: Prayers and Praises of Afua Kuma, trans. Jon Kirby (Accra: Asempa Publishers, 1981); and Fabian Watkinson, ed. Missa (Booklet for combined CD & DVD of the Missa Luba, produced by Philips Classics Productions, 1990).
- Ostling and Wilde, 76.
- http://www.jesusmafa.com/?page_id=317&lang=en (accessed Jan. 17, 2014). While the series was painted by a French artist, Bénédite de la Roncière, the project was initiated by the Mafa Christian community’s request for an African representation of the gospel.
- Personal observation by author, September 7, 2006, Murang’a, Kenya. For further description and analysis, see Diane B. Stinton, “Jesus—Immanuel, Image of the Invisible God: Aspects of Popular Christology in Sub-Saharan Africa,” Journal of Reformed Theology 1 (2007): 6-40.
- Harold Miller, “Murang’a Murals–50th Anniversary,” (a text prepared, in conjunction with Elimo Njau, for anniversary celebrations and made available to the author by email, Nairobi, Oct. 19, 2006).
- Elimo Njau, personal comment during the discussion period following a public lecture by William Jones, “Personality, Religion and Politics in the Art of Elimo Njau: The Murals at Murang’a,” (public lecture presented at the All Africa Conference of Churches, Nairobi, Sept. 13, 2006).
- Richard Walsh, Jeffrey L. Staley, and Adele Reinhartz, introduction to Son of Man: An African Jesus Film, eds. Richard Walsh, Jeffrey L. Staley, and Adele Reinhartz (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013), xiii.
- Saheed Yinka Adejumobi, “Empire and Utopia: ‘Resurrecting’ Postcolonial Visions and Beyond in Son of Man,” in Son of Man, 78.