Art, Culture and Representation - A Celebration of Black History Month

  • Preacher

    Revd Canon Charles Pickstone

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Lewisham, when some 4,000 people took a stand against 500 National Front members seeking to march from New Cross to Lewisham in August 1967.

But I want to honour today a more solitary pioneer in Southwark’s Black History, whose struggle for justice was a much more lonely affair than the noisy events of 1967. I refer, naturally, to Doreen Lawrence, (now, of course, Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon), whose son Stephen was so senselessly murdered in 1993, nearly 25 years ago. Doreen’s struggle for justice is well known to many and probably to most of those here this morning.

But what’s perhaps not so well known about her is that a picture of her is in the permanent collection of the Tate Gallery, and is at this very moment on prominent display in Tate Britain.

Although you might not recognise that it’s her, unless you happen to have a magnifying glass on you.

The picture, named after the Bob Marley song ‘No woman, no cry’, is of a young black woman – who seems to be of East African origin, though it’s hard to be sure – with prominent red lips, her hair tightly braided, with a long, slender neck, who is weeping copious tears that fall in a rhythmic pattern down her shoulders from her closed, blue-shaded eyelids. Round her neck she wears a small pendant of the artist’s trade mark varnished elephant dung.

The remarkable thing about the woman is that, although very clearly weeping, she is unbowed by her grief: she retains her dignity, her neck does not bend, her posture is firm – heart- broken maybe, but, still, not broken as a woman. And, if you look hard, you can see that in each tear there is a tiny cameo of the head of Stephen Lawrence. It’s a simple and hugely affecting work, painted by the artist as a direct tribute to Doreen Lawrence in 1998, some 5 years after Stephen’s murder.

The artist, Chris Ofili, comes from Manchester; his parents came to England from Nigeria in 1965 at the time of the Nigerian civil war. Born in Manchester in 1968, he attended his parents’ local Roman Catholic church and became an altar server.

His rise to fame came about through a picture with a more ostensibly religious theme, ‘The Holy Virgin Mary’, where an affectionate caricature of black Madonna, well endowed with elephant dung, is surrounded by what at first glance seem to be winged angels, but which on closer inspection turn out to be human buttocks – probably a finely judged reaction by an angry young man to the tacky religious art that he would have encountered through his childhood. In 1999, the picture was heavily criticised by Rudy Giuliani - the Mayor of New York - who, as it happened, needed the Catholic vote at the next election, when it was on display at the Brooklyn Museum, and Giuliani threatened to cut off the museum’s funding; it also had a pot of white paint thrown over it by one Dennis Heiner, a pious 72 year old Roman Catholic. The attack brought this highly original and actually rather moving work to prominence. Today, Ofili is recognised as one of our best English painters.

Unlike the ‘Holy Virgin Mary’ which caused all the fuss, ‘No Woman No Cry’ is a hugely touching, beautiful picture of a weeping woman who mourns her son but remains dignified, unbroken. But no artist works in a vacuum, and this powerful image can be traced back through a number of antecedents. The most obvious is Picasso’s 1937 Weeping Woman at the Tate, Tate Modern this time, which was acquired for the nation a few years before Ofili’s picture in a blaze of publicity, and doubtless Ofili would have been well-acquainted with it. It’s a just-recognisable portrait of Picasso’s then lover, Dora Maar.
But unlike Ofili’s painting, Picasso has produced an almost sadistic picture of a weeping woman: the woman’s eyes are crazed with grief, the eyelids have turned into little boats from which the eyes seem about to fall out; she holds a handkerchief to her mouth and, despite her rather smart hat and long black hair, seems broken by her grief. You can see it almost next door at the Tate.

Picasso was fascinated at this period of his life by Weeping Women; and this picture at the Tate occurs at the end of a series of them which began with a figure from probably his greatest work, the huge painting named Guernica after the Spanish village whose brutal carpet bombing by the Germans in 1937, 80 years ago, it commemorates.

Guernica is probably the greatest anti-war picture ever painted and, on the left, there is a mother cradling her dead child in her arms, her long neck stretching up to support her head; she’s staring upwards with open mouth, howling with grief. It’s a crudely simple image, and hugely powerful. It personifies the pain not only of women who have lost a child, but also the despair of the whole Spanish nation at the outbreak of the Spanish civil war, an icon of the suffering of Spain and its loss of freedom under General Franco.

But this image too has a long pedigree. Despite being largely atheist, in the corner of his studio Picasso kept an old Catalan statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary; and in his childhood, Picasso would have been very familiar with the life-size statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary studded with jewel-like tears, that to this day are carried round the streets of Spanish towns during Holy Week.

And not only in Spain – all over the world, the Pietà, the image of Mary weeping for her crucified son, is a well-known and highly valued religious figure, the best known example being Michelangelo’s wonderful sculpture in the Sistine chapel in Rome, perhaps the best-known sculpture in the world, where Mary, battered but unbowed, sits with the dead body of Jesus on her lap, her eyes closed and her grief somehow, miraculously, contained in her interior depths.

So, let’s take stock. We started with an English painter of Ibo heritage currently living in Trinidad – inspired by the heroic fight for justice of a Jamaican-born woman living in south-east London – to create an extraordinarily beautiful image of a young black woman – which has its roots in a powerful anti-war painting by a Spaniard who grew up in Catalonia and lived his adult life in France – which in turn derives from the ancient Christian image of Mary at the foot of the cross, weeping for her murdered son.
And this is where things get really interesting. For what we have here is not – or at least, not only – a lesson in art history; what we have here are a family of artists wrestling with the greatest problems of humanity – especially with suffering, and human evil; for all of these: the destruction of Guernica, the Spanish village; the death of Stephen Lawrence and its bungled investigation; the crucifixion itself: have come about through human sinfulness. And as we lose ourselves in looking at these powerful images, we too are grappling with the terrible latent possibilities of our unredeemed human nature.

But more than this, and this is where the visual arts really come into their own: these images enable us to deepen our love for embodied humanity as we find there not only the record of human sinfulness, but also the forgiving love of Christ; they point us towards redemption at the most basic level of our being.

Let me explain. At the very heart of the Christian Gospel lies the crucial text we heard at the Gospel reading today: ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was made flesh’. God became flesh. Perhaps the most extraordinary and daring theological statement ever made. Life would be so much easier if the Word hadn’t made flesh, if we could just allow God to be God, and not be bothered with all this flesh with its aches and pains, its smells and wrinkles and tendency to fat. If only we could abandon the flesh, and have nice plastic bodies – like these beautiful AI creatures that sci-fi films create for us – so that we didn’t have to suffer, didn’t have to endure the pain of loss and bereavement.

But here is the crux of the issue: St John is telling us what artists also know well – that since he created Adam from the dust, God has willed this. Our vulnerability and transient beauty, our openness to suffering and love, are not accidental features of the universe, but have eternal value.

God himself took flesh, and in doing so dignified our human flesh with his own. So much so that when Jesus rises from the dead, crucially, it’s his wounded body that rises, not some newly- minted one. And when we face the final judgement, we shall not be spirits, but we shall have resurrection bodies. Our flesh has eternal, God-given qualities. Perhaps this is one source of the evident (if partially hidden) sense of spirituality that many find in Ofili’s work: like many really good artists, his work is an exploration in paint of the eternal significance of the flesh.

Once you sees things like this, then other things become important too. The colour of one’s skin also has eternal significance – it’s part of who we are, it’s hugely important, not in a trivial sense, but who I am; the particular resonance of one’s voice; the particular light of one’s eyes; one’s gender, one’s sexuality, the particular history of one’s scars, physical and psychological: these all have something of eternity, of the holy, about them.

And at their best, the visual arts not only meditate upon these things, they not only portray our uniqueness and the God- given humanity of our embodied being, but they also make it tolerable – glorious, even. There is a sense in which the arts point to God’s redemption of our sinful embodied selves. Whether we look at a beautiful portrait of an old man by say the Dutch painter Rembrandt or a terrifying image of his lover by Francis Bacon, a great artist is reflecting back to us, is representing for us, the eternal significance – the holiness – of the human body; and in doing so, they help us to find the presence of God in ourselves and above all in each other.
When Chris Ofili’s weeping woman evokes our sympathy and sense of sorrow for the world’s injustice, it also evokes our compassion for all God’s creatures and our desire to serve them better – after the pattern of God’s son – who took our flesh upon him for the redemption of humankind.

‘In the beginning was the Word; and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; and we beheld his glory, the Glory that he has from the Father… full of grace and truth.’