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Embroidery, India

Rhoda Woets

In the CIM research project I will look at the changing meaning of Jesus pictures that were introduced in the Gold Coast by the mission. The historical meaning of Jesus pictures has always been subject to changing perspectives and contestations in the process of transit, transition and transformation, also within European history. Missionaries brought their own interpretation of religious pictures and of theological conceptions of Christ that were embedded in European 19th century practices and beliefs. Africans that were converted into Christianity by the mission appropriated and incorporated these new pictures (and beliefs) according to their own world views.Painting, Accra 2009

In the 1990s, the Ghanaian public arena commercialised and liberalized, giving way to a lively public culture of Christian sign boards, bill boards, wall painting and shops. With the emergence of new technologies for mass production and the immense appeal of Christian imagery, Jesus posters and calendars flooded the market. Interestingly, these pictures are not used to mark off a Catholic identity; in fact, they are bought and used by Christians of all nominations. This inevitably raises the question how believers from several Christian strands relate to these mass-produced posters and how they, in the process of transit and transformation, personalise these posters in the private sphere of the home or office.  I contest the idea that popular mass-produced pictures would be “inauthentic;” personalising mass-printed pictures involves creativity and improvisation. The posters and stickers thus become personal items that function as spiritual vessels, not only in evoking access to the transcendental in prayer, but also with the capacity to ward off evil powers.

I am furthermore interested to disentangle notions of creativity as articulated by producers of hand-painted Jesus pictures. Popular painters work from roadside venues, often no more than a wooden shed, from where they paint conventional Jesus pictures (such as Jesus with the Holy Heart) that mirror images on the omnipresent posters. These painters show their technical ability by copying calendar pictures in such exact manner that their audiences immediately recognise the painted Jesus as true and righteous. In a modernist construction of creativity, copying is rather seen as an opposite notion of ‘innovation.’ I will look at the ways in which wayside painters interpret the copying of existing Jesus pictures in relation to their ideas on creativity and innovation. The ability to copy well (from the ‘master’ or existing pictures) is seen as a virtue, and I suspect that creativity is not separate from, but an intrinsic part of technical proficiency. (As opposed to values propagated by officially trained artists for whom copying existing images is taboo). Both unofficially (‘wayside’ or ‘street’ painters) and academically trained painters also create their own personal Jesus pictures or narrative scenes that reveal a re-contextualization and blending of global religious imagery. In this project, I will explore how painters and their various audiences relate to different (both ‘white’ and ‘black’) depictions of Jesus in relation to discourses on authenticity and creativity. And how do the different images of Jesus speak to one another?  The omnipresent pictures of a white Jesus furthermore show that appropriation and creativity do not automatically entail the production of an “African” Jesus: on the contrary. This research contests the general idea that believers appropriate images of Jesus according to their own nationality, skin colour or local “customs.” This issue will therefore receive ample attention.

Rhoda Woets will defend her PhD thesis on Contemporary Ghanaian artists in September 2011. In December 2010 she started workings as a post doc researcher at the Department for Social and Cultural Anthropology at the VU University in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

2010. 'Comprehending the Incomprehensible. Kofi Setordji’s Travelling Memorial of the Rwanda Genocide', African Arts (43:3) pp. 52-63

2010. 'Formally or informally trained: the clash over defining contemporary African art,' ArtFocus 3:6-7 Accra: NUBUKE Foundation.

Beauty salon, Ghana

Frank Asomani, Ghana