By: Esther Hi’ilani Candari
Esther is a lifelong member of the LDS church, an Asian-American, a fine artist, and an adjunct professor at Southern Virginia University.
In recent weeks, as topics of race, diversity, and inclusion have swept across the nation like wildfire, church friends from across the political spectrum have reached out to me asking questions about the crossroads of art, race, and the church. As I attempted to provide them with adequate answers and resources I realized there is a lack of convenient resources to point people to. So as a Boy Scout by association with four brothers, I am going to try and leave this space better than I found it.
First off, let's talk about why it is important to be thoughtful about and critical of the religious art that we choose to surround ourselves and our families with.
To begin this conversation we need to establish a baseline understanding that, within the doctrine and practice of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, art plays a liturgical role. This means that art is built into almost every aspect of how we learn and teach about our theology, including the spaces in which we perform ordinances and the symbolic representation of Christ’s presence in our away-from-home and at-home churches. It is an inextricable part of how we come to understand deity, ourselves, and others.
Elder Ballard teaches, “The word artist is not included in holy scripture, but the presence and importance of artists are unmistakable. The scriptures include a myriad of references to “all manner of workmanship” described as “exceedingly fine” and “curious.” That the creative process is rooted and revered in heaven is evident in the Lord’s use of the word workmanship to define not only the artistic accomplishments of his children but the results of his own creation.” 1
Teaching the Saviors Way, the current official teacher’s manual for church curriculum, urges instructors to, “Consider how using music, stories, pictures, and other forms of art can invite the Spirit, clarify gospel principles in memorable ways, and help learners relate the gospel to their everyday lives.” 2
Central to its liturgical role, is art’s function as a vehicle of symbolism. In 1980 Elder Packer taught, “Spiritual truths are sometimes very difficult to teach. The most conclusive certification of man’s intelligence is his ability to recreate in symbolic form the world in which he lives.” 3 The Teacher after whom we pattern our lives, taught through the richness of symbols. The question now becomes, "Are we stopping to ask ourselves what we are consciously or subconsciously teaching people with the symbols we create of Him and His gospel?"
By reflecting on the symbols that He used, we can garner ideas of what to consider as we decide what symbols to incorporate in our teaching and learning of the gospel.
Let’s look at some of the most famous characters and objects used to "illustrate" the teachings of Christ.
A farmer (Matthew 13)
The destitute and homeless (Matthew 22)
Shepherds and sheep (Luke 15)
Lepers (Luke 17)
Mustard seed (Matthew 13)
A righteous and a sinful son (Luke 15)
Servants (Luke 17)
Female wedding attendees (Matthew 25)
Widow (Mark 12)
Another widow (Luke 15)
Yeast (Luke 13)
Laborers in the field (Matthew 20)
A woman caught in adultery (John 8)
A Samaritan , a race that was seen as “less holy” by Jews. (Luke 10)
A Samaritan woman with a long history of divorce and sexual sin (John 4)
Pharisees (Luke 18)
Tax collector (Luke 19)
Fisherman (John 21)
A few common themes that run throughout these teaching moments and parables are 1) He used images, issues, and individuals that were familiar to his audience and 2) He often highlighted demographics that were judged, feared, hated, minimized, and/or discriminated against within His culture, 3) He used these individuals to highlight the equalizing and redeeming power of His gospel, lastly 4) He often used these illustrations whether literal or figurative to challenge his disciples to question the bigotry and bias within their own culture.
How can we use this model to inform our use of art within our religious practice?
While discussing the triennial international art competition hosted by the church, Richard Oman the then senior curator for the Church History Museum pointed out, “Visual arts are crucial in the charge for effective cross-cultural communication. Linguistics, though necessary, is a long and complicated process of sharing ideas. A visual approach is much quicker and provides rapid internalization.” 4 This rapid internalization of complex subjects can easily result in over simplification or misinterpretation of doctrine if not carefully considered. Hence we first need to slow down and ask ourselves what the trends within our current theological illustration are.
Turning to the elephant in the room, how does this apply to race and gender representation in our religious art? It should only take a simple glance at the images, especially of Christ, that are featured in your home and church buildings to see the prevailing trends across “church art”. One of the most obvious trends is the overwhelming use of white models for Christ, His disciples, and other key scriptural characters. The problem with this is not that they are depicted as white, but the fact that they are rarely, if ever, depicted as anything else. To draw a parallel within the verbal teaching of the gospel, it would be the same as if one aspect of a woman’s life, say service in the church or motherhood, was the only lens through which we taught about womanhood. The lens of western/Eurocentric art is a rich and beautiful window to view the gospel through, BUT it dims and limits the light of the gospel when it is the ONLY available window to look through.
The importance of not limiting church members' view, especially of deity, was emphasized at a forum in 2019 held especially for artists who produce work for church publications and temples. Artists were encouraged to represent Christ in a wide variety of forms and to avoid using well known individuals, such as the actors who played Christ for the church Bible videos, as their reference. This guidance was given to emphasize the importance of creating symbols that teach us about Christ and His ministry rather than creating a specific idealized and idolized version of Him.
While doctrines taught in the past that equated whiteness of skin to proximity with God have been emphatically refuted by our modern prophets (see “Race and the Priesthood” essay), our commonly utilized art would tell you little to the contrary. My goal with this article is to provide you with some tools to begin to change that. I am not here to censure past or current artists who work with primarily Eurocentric/white imagery. I am here to ask that all of us, as the body of Christ, consider the doctrine we are preaching with our depictions of His body and the bodies of His disciples.
The following is a guide to artworks or artists (some LDS, some not) that bring a more nuanced and diverse perspective to our visual liturgy. For the sake of emphasizing the narrative and educational qualities of art, I have curated this list to focus on artists who produce work that is explicitly religious and to some degree illustrative. I will continuously update this list as I find more so feel free to message me with suggestions.
A Guide for Diversifying Your Religious Art
Kwani Povi Winder
Instagram: @kwani_winder https://www.instagram.com/kwani_winder/?hl=en
Melissa Kamba Boggs
Instagram: @tshikamba https://www.instagram.com/tshikamba/?hl=en
Michelle Franzoni Thorley
(Coming Soon) https://www.florafamiliar.com
Instagram: @florafamiliar https://www.instagram.com/florafamiliar
Instagram: @leroy.transfield https://www.instagram.com/leroy.transfield/?hl=en
Instagram: @bencrowder https://www.instagram.com/bencrowder/?hl=en
Instagram: @michaelparker12 https://www.instagram.com/michaelparker12/?hl=en
Rose Datoc Dall
Instagram: @rosedatocdall https://www.instagram.com/rosedatocdall/?hl=en
Esther Hi’ilani Candari
Instagram: @hiilanifinearts https://www.instagram.com/hiilanifinearts/?hl=en
Jorge Cocco Santangelo
Instagram: @sacrocubism https://www.instagram.com/sacrocubism/?hl=en
Instagram: @elizabeth_sanchez_art https://www.instagram.com/elizabeth_sanchez_art/
J. Kirk Richards
Instagram: @jkirkrichards https://www.instagram.com/jkirkrichards/?hl=en
Instagram: @honeiee https://www.instagram.com/honeiee/?hl=en
“They Did Not Doubt” by Joseph Brickey
Instagram: @gaylynn_ribeira_art https://www.instagram.com/gaylynn_ribeira_art/?hl=en
Annie Henrie Nader
Instagram: @ron.richmond https://www.instagram.com/ron.richmond/