Sunday, July 19, 2009

Boundless Love: Janet McKenzie

From the website Tikkun Daily Blog comes this article by Sarah Paulsen:

Painter Janet McKenzie saw Christ, and all humankind, made in the image of God. She saw a black woman standing strong and proud as the child of God. Following this vision, she fashioned her Jesus of the People, and all of her paintings, as visual prayers for equality and gender equity. Visit our art gallery to see her works.

For hundreds of years, most western artists have depicted the figure of Jesus Christ as a white man. Janet McKenzie dared to see something different from the norm.

Tapping into a tradition established by artists in Ethiopia and South America, who have been painting Jesus as a dark-skinned man for centuries, McKenzie caused a splash in the United States with her depiction of Christ as a black woman. In 1999 the painting won the National Catholic Reporter’s global competition and further reshaped the western image of Jesus.

“My paintings come into existence from my heart and soul, and they are not calculated, nor do I think about other peoples’ potential responses,” McKenzie said. “All that matters to me is that I am creating the most honest work I can at the highest level of my ability. I do not regret creating any of my paintings regardless of the controversies surrounding them.”

Though her paintings have received much praise and respect, they have also been surrounded by controversy. When revealed on The Today Show with Matt Lauer, Jesus of the People sparked uproar from people who said McKenzie should be ashamed of herself. This initial response, though, also created a positive counter effect, reminding people to stand up for fundamental fairness. In time, McKenzie started receiving feedback that the woman in the painting looked like someone’s mother, aunt, friend, neighbor. This female Jesus actually became an image of the people. “We are all created equally and beautifully in God’s likeness, and if this is not the very essence of Jesus Christ I don’t know what is,” McKenzie said.

At age twenty-three, McKenzie lost the two most important women in her life, her mother and her grandmother, and her father suffered a fatal heart attack just a few months later. After experiencing these tragedies, McKenzie said she felt unable to express herself through words. She commented that her paintings, now, provide a voice for herself and women like her who are unable to speak for themselves, whatever the reason may be. And, indeed, her many paintings have spoken for respect and equality for women.

All of McKenzie’s paintings come from a place of hope and celebrate racial and gender differences. Ultimately she said she strives to remind people of deeper human connections that go beyond the physical. For that reason, she often closes the eyes of the figures in her paintings to symbolize the ongoing, private journeys every person undertakes alongside his or her public life. View more of McKenzie’s paintings on her own website.

Additionally, commentaries on many of her paintings can be found in her first book, Holiness and the Feminine Spirit: The Art of Janet McKenzie due out in the fall of 2009. The collection includes comments by prominent women theologians and writers.