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Other Articles from The Villager

Faith in Visual Arts


by Joe Madisia
Columns

Worshipping of any nature was all along in one or another patron of the arts, and artists which in turn enriched the faith. 

Religious art range from the altars, togas and robes, human figures, the decorated cross, patterns and calligraphy, to name a few. And if we are to discuss the relationship of art and religion or faith, especially in Namibia as a secular state it will be unjust to exclude the masks, fertility dolls, decorated tortoise shells, headrests, animal skins, tails used in African rituals and ceremonies and material culture. 

Even our heritage of rock art paintings which is thousands of years old are very strong prehistoric examples of San peoples’ spirituality and is well documented in many rock art scholars’ writings.

The not so far pre independence history of Namibia is a good memory on how church leaders and artists made a significant contribution as leaders of the community to the liberation struggle of our motherland. To mention a few examples, the artworks of late Muafangejo is a clear example of how the Anglican Church sent him to Rorks Drift in Natal during 1970s to study arts and from there many of his images and titles became a testimony of art and religion. 

Many of his artwork was also used to decorate religious book covers. The late Muafangejo’s artwork with religious themes helped people that were looking for security and hope during the difficult times of colonial oppression.  

At the time Zephania Kameeta was a reverend and a liberation poet. His poems are well documented and even translated in foreign languages together with that of Alan Boesak, Bishop Tutu under the title “Freedom struggle in Southern Africa”. Kameeta served as a Speaker of Parliament then. In short, art is an important element of spirituality and always had the power to touch people profoundly. This special bond between religion and art has defiantly been around for many years and I reckon art still has the potential to play an important role that can contribute to the history of religion. 

We should also acknowledge that religion, contemporary art each walk their own path after Namibian independence which can be ascribed to many global perceptions of what art means nowadays in a diverse nation like ours. 

One can even talk about a gradual three dimensional disappearance of the unity among religion, politics and art now 21 years after independence as each one has to find ways to have the attention of the people. The politicians still do have opening prayers that include religious rituals during funeral ceremonies when paying last respects to colleagues as part of the official protocol. 

The churches still do remain concern about the welfare of their followers and do appeal occasionally at religious conferences whereby they issue public statements whereby archbishops denounce prevailing social degradation in the country that we experience currently. 

Some clergyman who had been in the forefront of liberation and served in Government in post independent Namibia have passed away and some went on to rejoin their spiritual vocations. The art also contributes greatly to national events from time to time, especially, independence celebrations and other great celebrations of Namibian importance. 

However, the Namibian contemporary arts in turn although depending heavily on Government and private sector for survival, has become more and more profane and leans more towards individualistic trends of “me being the artist” notion that is creative and original. 

We are experiencing a new kind of rule breaking and “on the edge/avant-garde” adventurism in cosmopolitan urban areas, whereas traditional rural communities may feel otherwise, almost as if invaded by an alien city cultural force. 

Hence contemporary arts in Namibia seem to be substituting religious feelings for which Muafangejo depicted so diligently in his artworks. 

The current technological trend also pushes artists to join the coercive advertising world as graphic designers to expand markets for consumerism.  

Perhaps it is possible to think of both religion and art as surprising, but are we actually in the position to define religion and art as essentially birds of the same feathers when they have the ability express a movement from an old to a new understandings? 

Let us also look at the spiritual part of art instead of “art for arts’ sake”. Art is much more important than the average person realises. I would rather prefer to say that, “art is what God makes as man” and “nature is what God makes as God”. It is this apparent separation of that divine influence in our works which causes the perplexity that separates man from his Lord. The artist who has arrived at some perfection in his art, whatever his art may be, will come to realise and question himself: “Wow this is awesome. I cannot believe that this piece of artworks is so capturing is created by me!” 

Whenever beauty is produced in art - music, poetry, painting, writing, or anything else - one must never think that man produced it. It is through man that God completes His creation. It becomes lyrical/like music when the colour, line, shape, contrast and texture flows in a harmonious composition in any artwork, even if it is social statements made through images and other content that reflects cultural roots, poverty and cutting edge art that stirs emotions. Thus all good art in this world or in heaven is possessed by divine creation. 

From this, we learn that intuition is necessary both for the making of art and for understanding it. This is the very thing which the human race today seems to be losing more than at any other time in the world's history. This does not mean that it is entirely gone from us, only that it has become buried in our own individual hearts and requires from us only to search deeper inside ourselves to re-excavate it for new guidance.

For the finer arts to revive, we must recover our spiritual centre through arts. Guide our younger generation with its mastery of video games and its facility for ever-evolving gadgetry like video, cell phones and iPods, they have massively shifted to the Web for information and entertainment. 

To fully appreciate world art, one must learn how to respond to religious expression in all its forms. Art began as religion in prehistory. It does not require belief to be moved by a sacred shrine, altar, icon, or scripture. Hence art lovers, even though when we as citizens, bohemians, non-religious ones stoutly do defend democratic institutions and remain weary of overtly religious intrusion, should we always know to speak with respect of religion. Conservative church leaders, politicians and elders, on the other hand, need to expand their parched and narrow view of culture and protocol, get over their phobia about the un-holy, the profane, the gays movement, which has been a symbol of Western art and Western individualism and freedom. Remember, it was the Greeks that invented democracy not us as Africans. We had our own harmonious social systems. 

St Francis of Assisi once said: “He who works with his hands is a labourer. He who works with his hands and mind is a craftsman. But, he who uses his hands, mind and heart together is an artist”.