Updated: Mar 5
Hey, it’s me again, talking about the intersection of art, religion, gender, and race. Why is this a drum I beat so often? Because I believe we become what we consume, visually that is. So it is essential we consider what we are consuming and where that leads. The object of consideration today is this year’s Come Follow Me manual.
I have been looking forward to this year’s topic of study, the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, for a multitude of reasons but one of the main ones being it provides some of the best opportunities to represent women and diverse cultures/ethnicities in related art. The short version of the story: While the manual overall contains a rich array of generally good to high quality art pieces, it does little to capitalize on these opportunities.
Now, I want to clearly state before I dive into a more detailed dissection of the manual, this post is NOT intended to do any of the following:
Condemn the specific artists whose work is featured in the manual. I know and respect many of them.
Condemn the design team behind the manual. I don’t know what constraints they were forced to work within.
Condemn religious artwork that features white and/or male characters. I believe that everyone should be represented in religious art.
My intent is rather to:
Ask the decision making parties involved in this manual to consider their decision making process. Who they include, what factors they consider. I know there are good BIPOC and women artists out there. I know there are good inclusive artworks out there. Why weren't they utilized?
Point out the problems with the ratios of representation in the artwork for this manual.
Ask my fellow artists to consider the power we have to influence religious thought and culture. How will we use that power?
Provide the average church member with the knowledge and tools to make informed decisions about the art that accompanies their religious study.
I know for a fact that there are gears turning behind the scenes to improve the diversity in Church visual materials but the results of those efforts may take a few years to manifest BUT, we as a community don’t need to wait for the organization to create a visual culture of diversity and inclusion in the most important branch of the church, our homes.
Ok, let’s dive into my favorite part, the data. As you review these numbers, keep in mind at this point in history, at least half of the church members are BIPOC and over half are women.
Overall there are 125 pieces of artwork in the manual, NOT including church stock photos. Of these artworks about a quarter are by women and less than 4% are by BIPOC artists. There are only two BIPOC artists represented with two pieces each.
Of the scenes depicted, about 1in 3 included women.
And only 1 in 10 included BIPOC figures.
Across all the artworks, there are 403 faces.
Faces are defined as: Faces visible in the painting that are 1) at least half visible and 2) are large enough to take up a significant portion of the painting or are composed of enough brushstrokes to indicate individual clear features (i.e. eyes, nose, mouth).
About 1 in 5 of those could reasonably be considered BIPOC faces.
The ratio was approximate the same for female to male faces.
While the over all representation ratios for the figures depicted were not the worst I have seen, a closer look at the narrative roles of these figures was telling. Of the 125 artworks, only five featured a BIPOC figure as the key character.
A centered character is defined as: A figure that is clearly equal to a partner or more important than other figures in the painting. This is determined by composition, emphasis, implied lines, and contrast.
Finally in comparing the authorship and the inclusivity of the works it became very clear that the women and BIPOC artists were more than pulling their fair share of bringing diversity and inclusion to the table in their work. Despite creating only one quarter of the artwork in the manual they were responsible for almost half of of the diversity.
In other words for every 10 paintings by a woman and/or BIPOC artist 6 of those depicted diversity. For every 10 paintings by a white male artist 2-3 of them depicted diversity.
Note: I fully recognize some of this data is subjective and I may be misinformed on the gender or ethnicity of some of these artists, but the overall conclusions would be the same even with minor adjustment for flaws in my data.
Why does all of this information matter? Because humans are flawed and throughout history those flaws have often manifested as the exclusion, disempowerment, and violence against women and BIPOC peoples. In Latter Day Saint history that has manifested as white supremacy taught as doctrine, the minimization of female power and voice within our communities, and the limitation of the female role to domestic duties. Thankfully much (but not all) of this negative narrative has been corrected within official publications as the restoration has continued to unfold. It is important though that ALL aspects of our church culture reflect the gender and racial equality that our doctrine preaches. Otherwise, the words feel empty and problematic narratives continue to be fostered.
If a young impressionable child opens a church manual and only sees white faces, it becomes easy for that child to associate skin color with righteousness and religious power. If a young girl opens a church manual and sees few images of women, and the few that do exists show them in submissive and domestic roles, it will be easy for her to internalize the message that her story and voice are secondary and the only good she has to offer the world is in the home. While there are images in this manual that break down these narratives, they are few and far between.
So if you are reading this and aren’t at the decision making tables that affect the CFM manuals what can you do?
Express your concerns via email to those who are. Ask them who is at the table where the decisions are being made. (I am working to figure out the best email address for this and will update it later. If anyone knows, please reach out)
Email Deseret Book to express your gratitude for the efforts they have been making to provide more Female and BIPOC inclusive content and encourage them, to create and publish more. You can email the president of DB at email@example.com
Seek out women and BIPOC religious artists to follow and support on social media. I encourage you to look beyond the confines of our denomination. Much of the diversity I have found in religious art happens outside of Latter Day Saint culture.
Purchase diverse religious art for your homes and share it on your own social media.
Utilize diverse art in your Sunday school, RS/EQ, YW/YM, Primary, and Seminary lessons. There is no policy that limits you to using only church “approved” art in your lessons.
I will be posting my favorite diverse artworks in my Instagram stories each week.
In closing I want to recognize that this manual does represent some improvement in the diversity, inclusion, and quality of art in Church curriculum materials. I especially appreciated some of the lesser known works from various museum collections. But we still have a long way to go. If the goal of Zion is to create a community where all voices are heard, where all individuals are equal and valued, let’s make sure we are doing better at “picturing” that celestial goal.