The Black Madonna

The use of Christian imagery and religious references in art as a tool to reclaim Black identity

By: Dahlia Labatte

Jun 27, 2022

Religion is a large part of most cultures, and for Black communities in North America the church became a place of safety, social gathering, as well as a centre for activism and community support; because of racism and segregation black churches were mostly developed separately from their white counterparts. Despite the church being an important center of many Black communities, the institution of the ‘Church’ remains racist, misogynist and Eurocentered. These artists are reinterpreting the stories and imagery in Christianity to their experiences. Biblical icons are one of the most important parts of worship as well as churches, and this becomes even more important to note as in North America the bible was and is frequently used as justification for oppression. It then becomes an act of resistance to picture holy figures as being the same race, and therefore sharing the experience, of Black people. The activism in the 1960s put stress on redefining the world and the Black experience, and this was furthered by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, who brought the church and the religious experience to the forefront and used it as a tool for activism. This article follows this idea, featuring 6 contemporary Black artists that use Christian and religious imagery as a tool to reclaim Black identity.

All Black art therefore is inherently transgressive, but most profoundly so, when such art dares to imagine and to depict the Saviour of humanity as Black. The image of the Black Christ is emblematic of Black refusal to make peace with the status quo, and further still to allow White Supremacy to have the last word on God. A Black Christ is one who knows the suffering of Black people, a Black Christ is one who has survived the worst of the principalities and powers of an unjust world, A Black Christ can relate to and be in solidarity with all those whose blackness has cost them their lives” 

(Jarel Robinson-Brown)

The first artist is Martin Mbuguah, also known as Toskago on Instagram and Tiktok, his work mixes classical, historical and religious elements and references with contemporary Black culture. The piece I chose is called Self Sacrifice, and it references the last supper by Leonardo da Vinci in its composition and setting, as well as the wine and bread on the table which is most often represented to interpret Jesus’ sacrifice. This piece as explained by Mbuguah is about “the nature of self sacrifice and self hatred as young black men living in America” (Toskago). This is reinforced by wine and bread on the table and the figure in the centre of the table painted to seem an apparition, almost looking consumed itself with its arm missing.

Martin Mbuguah, Self Sacrifice, 2021

The second artist is Chidinma Nnoli, her work challenges the patriarchal structures of the state, family, and religious institutions; and explores the idea of safe spaces, and pushes back against traditional notions of femininity and gender roles. The first piece is Sacred Heart of Mary which is a portrait of Mary, and is worth mentioning because the subject of Nnoli’s paintings are always and only Black women. She is reinterpreting and illustrating our world through this perspective. One of the main reasons for Black artists to paint a Black Jesus or any other figure is to see that these religious figures look like us and share our pain and experience, we can relate to them on a different level; this stands true with Nnoli’s work. The second piece is Daughter (Nwa Nwanyi). Because of the title we can infer that the painting is of an average woman, a ‘daughter’; women are often reduced to their familial status “she is someone’s wife, someone’s sister, someone’s daughter.” This piece takes that concept and gives her a halo, so suddenly she ascends to godhood, she becomes more than a daughter, or mother, or sister.  

Left: Chidinma Nnoli, Sacred Heart of Mary, 2021

Right: Chidinma Nnoli, Daughter (Nwa Nwanyi), 2020

Kehinde Wiley is the third artist featured. His portraits are based on photographs he takes in the streets of Harlem. His portraits mix historical and religious elements, and challenges traditional representations of masculinity to put young Black men in positions of power and challenge existing standards and stereotypes. The piece I chose is Saint Amelie, this piece elevates those who have been traditionally marginalized and excluded from positions of power to a hero or holy status. Using stained glass and the symbol of the halo to elevate and contrast historical and religious with contemporary culture. 

Kehinde Wiley, Saint Amelie, 2014

Tyler Ballon, the fourth artist. His work uses religious imagery to create narratives based on his experience as a Black man, drawing from his experience at Catholic school. The first and second piece, Return of the Prodigal Son and Sacrificial Lamb pair well, almost like a diptych because of the similarity in colours and subjects as well as concepts. The prodigal son refers to a parable told by Jesus in the bible, the overall meaning is someone who leaves home, behaves recklessly, but later returns for forgiveness. It is often interpreted as us, humanity, being the prodigal son, sinning and later returning to faith for forgiveness. A sacrificial lamb is someone that is sacrificed for the common good, and Jesus is often referred to as the sacrificial lamb of God. Sacrificing himself to absolve the sins of humanity. I think these pieces pair together well because of how they continue a narrative of sin and forgiveness & absolution.

Left: Tyler Ballon, Return of the Prodigal Son, 2020

Right: Tyler Ballon, Sacrificial Lamb, 2020

The fourth artist is Titus Kaphar. Titus Kaphar takes historical references and imagery, and edits and tears and covers them to move them from the past into the contemporary. Taking the imagery from the past into the present changes the context and makes it relevant to contemporary issues. The piece Black Jesus is titled appropriately and embodies the theme of this article almost entirely. Black Jesus is a repainting of Jesus Returning the Keys to St. Peter by Ingres, however Kaphar paints the portrait of a Black man over what was Jesus’ face. The Saint is now kneeling to a Black man. Kaphar takes this religious imagery and claims it as his own to reclaim his identity and create a Jesus that reflects him.

Left: Jean Dominique Ingres – Jesus Returning the Keys to St. Peter, 1820

Right: Titus Kaphar – Black Jesus, 2020

Harmonia Rosales, the last artist featured. Her work is focused on the empowerment of Black women in Western culture, as she could never relate to the work by old masters as they typically depict white men and an idealized white woman. Her work is not meant to be a simple copy of older styles and stories but rather “a yin to the yang.” She draws on the experiences of women of colour and all of its objectifications and uses that in her work. The imagery of halos and references to biblical stories are used as conduits to convey the struggle of women of colour in our society. This is seen in her piece Eve & Lilith, Adam’s first and second wifes. Rosales’ Eves are a nod to the discovery of the mitochondrial Eve and the idea that humanity actually sprung from the African continent. The struggle between Eve and Lilith tells the story of Lilith’s refusal to obey Adam as she believed they were equals, and she ends up choosing freedom and the consequences of such as opposed to lying below Adam. This is a reference to the experience of Black women in our society. The second piece, Creation of God, is a recreation of Michaelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. However, it is not simply a recreation, this piece is meant to make the viewer question how we see God represented in art; if God is painted differently, and painted like a member of a marginalized and often erased group, how does that change our understanding and perception of humanity, religion and divinity. 

Left: Harmonia Rosales, Creation of God, 2017

Right: Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam, 1512