This is not simply to say that all religious expressions are artistic. But what religious symbols can do, more powerfully than any other, is reveal a horizon of meaning towards which art aspires: the ability to make ontological claims about “the way things really are”. To come back to some philosophical language from Gadamer, religious symbols perfect the “intricate interplay of showing and concealing”. And among other things, it seems to be this tantalising capacity that has kept modern artists, even those with no doctrinal connection to Christianity, returning to fundamental religious images like the crucifixion.
For the non-believer, perhaps focusing on this “poetical teaching” can offer a way of engaging with religious art in a manner beyond merely cultural or aesthetic appreciation; one which begins to dance, albeit gingerly, along the perimeters of the theological. What we experience in religious art, ultimately, doesn’t have to lead us into heaven. In Botticini’s “Assumption”, the disciples gather around Mary’s tomb, only to discover an assortment of lilies has taken the place where her body should rest. Uncomprehending, they look around in bewilderment. If looking at religious art can leave us similarly stunned, perhaps for some that’s more than miracle enough.
Bauleni Banda, sustenance maize farmer, Chikandwe, Malawi
The truth is that the development sector, just like any other business, needs revenue to survive. Too frequently, this quest for funding uses these kind of dehumanizing images to draw pity, charity, and eventually donations from a largely unsuspecting public. I found it outrageous that such an incomplete and often inaccurate story was being so widely perpetuated by the organizations on the ground – the very ones with the ability and the responsibility to communicate the realities of rural Africa accurately.
This is not to say that people do not struggle, far from it, but the photos I was seeing only told part of the story. I thought that these images were robbing people of their dignity, and I felt that the rest of the story should be told as well. Out of this came the idea for a photography project, which I am tentatively calling “Perspectives of Poverty”. I am taking two photos of the same person; one photo with the typical symbols of poverty (dejected look, ripped clothes, etc.), and another of this person looking their very finest, to show how an image can be carefully constructed to present the same person in very different ways. I want to bring to light some of the different assumptions we make about a person, especially when we see an image of “poverty” from rural Africa.