We almost never stop to think how it must feel not to be able to relate to something as universal and omnipresent as religious characters, the supreme examples. Why do Black artists like Tyler Ballon, Titus Kaphar, and Harmonia Rosales feel the need to create a form of representation for their ethnicity and gender (in Rosales’ case) in Christian art? From giving God a feminine face to reimagining religious scenes in contemporary African-American culture and literally placing a Black person’s face onto reproduced Renaissance paintings, each one of the showcased artists found a very personal way to take a stand.
1. Tyler Ballon
Tyler Ballon was born in Jersey City in 1996 and grew up surrounded by religion in the family while simultaneously being exposed to day-by-day violence in the neighborhood. After graduating from Maryland Institute College of Art, he now lives and works in the city that he grew up in, having his studio inside Mana Contemporary. There, he is mentored by Amy Sherald, another painter inciting change for Black artists as she created the famous First Lady Michelle Obama (2018) portrait commissioned by The National Portrait Gallery.
Ballon chose to tell the residents’ stories through large-scale figurative paintings and powerful reinterpreted pictural compositions borrowed from artists such as El Greco, Leonardo da Vinci, and Rembrandt Van Rijn. What makes his paintings so powerful is the fact that he is not copying the originals, but extracting their essence and placing them into a whole new context, bringing them into the present by pressing relevant issues such as poverty, shootings, thefts, depression, anxiety. The Black artist also celebrates values such as family, friendship, respect, altruism in his works.
Ballon’s works have a strong chromatic which aids his purpose: getting the message through. Vibrant tones set the atmosphere and are doubled by chiaroscuro as a light-motive. But the viewer shouldn’t take for granted the symbolism of the color palette, which is going back to the Renaissance and its traditional depictions of biblical characters’ clothing. The viewer is ought to connect the blue blanket in Ballon’s Madonna and Child (2020) with the Virgin Mary’s cape all over the Italian Quattrocento or the red and blue garments in Sacrificial Lamb (2020) to early depictions of Abraham from the Old Testament.
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The artist explains that even though the cross, the halos, the feathery wings are not present anymore on the canvas, the pain and the strength are, as much as they were in the past. Deposition (2018) is one of Tyler Ballon’s most appreciated paintings and is part of the permanent collection of Maryland Institute College of Art. Inspired by El Greco, the painting hurtfully shows the moment right after a young man is shot and killed. Interestingly enough, there is no sign of blood, because the grotesque of it all is not Ballon’s purpose, but the emptiness of the moment, the feelings, the silence.
2. Titus Kaphar
Titus Kaphar was born in 1976 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and has since received an MA from The Yale School of Arts, plus numerous recognitions from established institutions, such as the MacArthur Fellowship in 2018. He now lives and works in New Haven, Connecticut, combining a multitude of mediums in his works. Kaphar’s art doesn’t speak to the viewer but rather yells. It yells rupture in classical forms of representation in Western art because it is meant to disrupt the comfortable stance we usually take as viewers, making us fairly uncomfortable with the way we took art at its word. In contrast with Ballon, Kaphar doesn’t mainly attack Christian representations in art, but universal history itself, with a focus on colonialism.
Another matter which stands out in his works is the three-dimensionality of the canvas. He uses techniques such as shredding, cutting, collage, overlapping, wrapping, and crumpling to highlight this dimension of his art. Behind the Myth of Benevolence (2014) shows this overtired, sad African-American woman, in what we can guess is the intimacy of her bathroom, who looks the viewer straight into the eyes with the humiliation of being watched. Collaged on top of half of the painting, covering the woman’s body is another painting, drape-like, showing the well-known portrait of Thomas Jefferson, made by Rembrandt Peale in 1800. An incursion behind the scenes of American history, he held Jefferson accountable for his hypocritical acts.
An even more obvious response is given by the Black artist in Black Jesus (Jesus Noir) (2020), where the artist literally duct-taped a bust of a young Black man onto a 19th Century French painting of Jesus. Its presentation also impacted the viewers as the enclosing exhibition firstly opened in a desacralized church in Brussels, Belgium. Manifestos like this have led the way for Black artists who do not identify with the way their ethnicity has been portrayed so far.
Maybe the most provoking project Titus Kaphar has made until now is The Jerome Project, which started in 2014 and is still ongoing. It all started from Kaphar’s online finding of ninety-seven mug shots of African-American men who have the exact same first and last name as his father. As another example of Black artists who constantly bring Christian art into the discussion in their works, but at the same time manage to make a point every single one of the times, he chose to paint these men’s portraits in a Byzantine manner as if they were icons of saints. He then took each portrait and dipped it in tar, depending on how much time each ‘Jerome’ spent behind bars.
Kaphar’s choice of style shocks enough, making a martyr-wise statement in regards to chances and “fate” inside Black communities. However, his decision to dip the works in tar, such an opaque substance, is even more interesting. One can only wonder if tar’s preserving properties had anything to do with it.
3. Harmonia Rosales
It might come as a surprise, but Harmonia Rosales’ aim through her equally criticized and appraised art isn’t to shock nor upset the viewer, but to create a balance to the already existing Christian representations. Harmonia Rosales was born in 1984 of Afro-Cuban American heritage, in Chicago. She doesn’t come to change or reinvent history but brings its completion, “a yin to the yang”.
Growing up, the artist has been fascinated by the Old Masters, with special appreciation for Renaissance. As well as the above-mentioned Black artists, Rosales didn’t identify with any religious depictions, be that due to skin color or gender. Defining herself as a womanist, finding shelter in her Afro-Cuban legacy, and using color and metals to embed her works with hidden meanings, she has become a fierce force in the art world.
Harmonia Rosales painted God as a Black woman. To be more exact, she chose one of the Western world’s biggest masterpieces, Michelangelo Buonarotti’s Creation of Adam (dated c. 1508-1512), and turned it into The Creation of God (2017). Though the gestures are identical, the differences are more than obvious. As the title states, the painting doesn’t show the actual creation of God but it does show the creation of God as a Black woman for the first time in art history. On the left we see a Black woman standing on the golden ground while God is surrounded by Black women and putti. The original chromatic is kept, except for the gold and a slight tone enhancement of the pink used by Michelangelo to dress and surround God. Of course, Harmonia Rosales’ work wasn’t meant to challenge Michelangelo’s piece in a technical, masterful way. It, however, wants to say “We are also here, we are no less important.”
In 2018, Harmonia Rosales started a new series turning towards her Afro-Cuban heritage while still referencing Christian iconography. In the Birth of Eve (2018), one can see a traditional Madonna and Child scene where both Virgin Mary and Eve are represented by the same character, a Black woman. The tone of her skin is darkened by blue and silver brush strokes, creating an intended three-dimensional effect, meant to disrupt the viewer in his or her present and contrast the characters and the background. This effect is used often through Harmonia Rosales’ work.
In this case, Madonna/Eve and Baby Jesus are placed in a painted architectural niche, conferring them with a devotional role. The niche is then decorated with a Baroque flower wreath held by putti of all skin tones. All throughout her series, the artist gives her characters, regardless of their role, a vigorous attitude, and a very dignified position. By doing this, it seems that Harmonia Rosales is showing her respect for Black women, Black artists, and Afro-Cuban culture.