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Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Finding God in the Arts

By Andrew Mulenga

The ambience of delicately harmonized traditional Christian hymns, in soft angelic voices and played back in an enchantingly eerie 175-year-old church building, St. Patrick’s Catholic Church that resembles a gothic castle provided moments of sanctuary for party animals during South Africa’s Just ended National Arts Festival (NAF), annually held in Grahamstown.

Official figures released by Festival CEO Tony Lankester last week show that: “Street parades, a birthday celebration, a dazzling array of international performers from over 40 countries, and over 2800 performances in eleven days all contributed to a record 225 538 attendees”. 

It must be noted that the announced figures for attendees is about four times that of the normally sleepy little backwoods town’s population whose 2011 census counted 67,000 inhabitants, hard to comprehend of course, but you can imagine the hustle and bustle of thrill seeking revellers between dance, drama and music shows.

Joseph Capelle's Stations of The Cross on display
in St. Patrick's Catholic Church, Grahamstown,
South Africa during the National Arts Festival
Nevertheless, providing sanctuary to these pilgrims the St. Patrick’s venue was part of SpiritFest a spiritual component of NAF dubbed “A celebration of the arts in the context of Christian Faith”. The space offered guided, daily meditations entitled Finding God in the Arts with a trained director organised by the Jesuit Institute of South Africa but open to all faiths and walks of life, reminiscent of the Church’s claim that its congregation had always been all inclusive even during the apartheid era.

But what was probably most fascinating in this space was the backdrop, spellbinding paintings by South African artist Joseph Capelle placed right in front of the news on the area that serves as the alter during mass. Usually the preserve of the priest, altar boys and select members of the laity according to catholic hierarchy, visitors had free access to the area and could walk around and enjoy up close contact with the paintings.
Christened a Modern Expression of An Ancient Devotion the display was brought in from the Church of the Holy Trinity, Braamfontein in Johannesburg where they were commissioned by the Jesuit parish priest Fr Russell Pollitt who is now the Director of the Jesuit Institute South Africa.

The 2012 paintings are a contemporary rendition of the 14 events in the last hours of Jesus Christ, commonly known as “the Passion”, depicting his suffering, death and resurrection according to the gospels; they celebrate the core belief of the Christian faith which one might observe is easy to overlook in the hyperactive times we live in today where from the look of things contemporary faith – if there was ever such a term -- seems to focus on physical prosperity rather than spiritual salvation, ignoring Christ’s sacrifice for believers’ sins.

Capelle cleverly references icons, the paintings of the early Christian church that had been used not only to decorate buildings but also to spread the gospel over the centuries. He complements the work with his own short reflections, narrated by Nosiphiwo Mpungose available on an accompanying CD-ROM that further attempts to make the theme relevant to present times. The reflection for the 12th station of the cross that meditates on the death of Jesus for instance would be a typical example here.

Jesus dies on the cross,
2012 by Joseph Capelle
“Jesus dies on the cross, Jesus dies on the cross, and dying in love for all those who are persecuted or victimised in any way, Jesus dies for all. Nobody is excluded he hangs from the cross, looking down on a family escaping from a burning shack, a violent scene that is so common in South Africa because of the lack of electricity and the dangers that some people live with daily or because of a xenophobic attack,” narrates Mpungose in a soft gentle voice “The father leads his family out of danger the mother's hair falls into a cloak enfolding the child in her protection and love. It is the child who cries out in fear and whose prayer takes the form of a leaping flame flying up towards the dying Jesus. Jesus willingly looks towards the pain and destruction, the family looks away. So often we find it hard to accept the violence and destruction for which we are responsible.”

In the paintings the artist also attempts to blur the margins between race and culture which in turn results in an artistic enculturation of the gospel, making it a witness of the incarnation of God’s word into a metropolitan culture, this is partially explained in the artist’s statement.

“The paintings are universal in their depiction of humanity, but are influenced by the African context which is subtly suggested in a number of ways, most especially in the patterns on the cloth of the garments. However, the paintings also aim at inclusivity -- implicit in Jesus’ teachings – and the whole world’s face can be detected, including that of the Jewish women of Jesus own culture. The message of the stations is not constrained by colour, race or culture,” it reads in part.

In contrast to the predominantly grave theme the artist’s palette is a kaleidoscopic outburst, full of life and energy that seemingly compliments the notion of Christ’s resurrection.

In any case, if the work did not succeed in helping one find or at least remember the core principal of Christianity it certainly did serve as a reminder of the origins of art as we know it today. It can be argued that modern art – not in a theoretical sense -- is a spinoff from the practice of the old masters of the European renaissance, from as early as Giotto and Botticelli through to Da Vinci and Michelangelo, artists who regardless of their personal beliefs dedicated a greater part of their careers decorating churches with sculptures and paintings of biblical scenes.

Capelle’s work is also a refreshing reminder of by-gone eras when artists played the sacred role of mediator between God and man, providing believers with images that were revered, only to be found in churches and in the palaces of nobility, during times when it was obviously unimaginable that in the future people will be able to carry them around in their pockets on mobile devices. 

The CD-ROM that was on sale during the exhibition came complete with apps for smartphones, tablets and computers so that viewers can carry the paintings, meditations and music by the University of Johanesburg Choir home with them after the festival.

Besides Capelle’s work Spiritfest also featured 40 Stones in the Wall a faith based initiative by various artists and Ageless Madonna: the transfiguration of Mary of Nazareth by Julia Skeens as part of the visual arts component. The programme’s main activities also included drama and music at various venues with interdenominational choirs, bands and singers from across South Africa.

Several anniversaries met at the confluence of this year’s NAF, the festival itself turned 40, and the Standard bank Young artists Award turned 30 while the nation celebrated 20 years of independence.

It must be noted however that even as South Africa celebrates 20 years of democracy and the fall of apartheid, the reprehensible legacy of racial segregation is still evident. Arguably, Grahamstown may just be a microcosm of the bigger picture. Although there is apparent harmony of class, culture and race during festival times, the small town is rank with unemployment and a few strolls around the central business district reveals a good number of beggars, some who also serve as unofficial car-minders.

When festival is off, the majority of township dwellers from Grahamstown East, the black area of the city only come into town on pay day, as for their white neighbours uptown, they have no business going into the township. They have no markings, but the margins are clear even in all their inconspicuousness. For instance white folks do their shopping from the Pepper Grove Mall where as the blacks do theirs from Market Square Mall.

Unfortunately this underlying feeling of segregation could also be sensed in certain pubs and eateries, many of which are only set up during festival period.

In the author’s experience, identity remains a serious issue in South Africa, when you walk into an establishment expect to be served according to how you are dressed, what language you speak and above all, the colour of your skin, regardless of how much is in your pocket or how big a tipper you are. A demoralizing fact that defeats the whole purpose of the arts.

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